Make time for Laos, people! It’s definitely easy to fall in love with this much sleepier town after being in a bustling city like Hanoi. The main street is just a mile long between the post-office to the peninsula. Chic weaving shops display intricately woven goods, cafes flaunt French pastries, and day spas offer massages all along the the boulevard. Oh, and some of the blocks are interrupted by magnificent temples with sweeping eaves. The residential side streets are dotted with guest houses, and blooming bougainvillea that climb up many of the wooden walls. Modern Lao restaurants cater to touristic tastes, yet the small residential spots still boast homecooked sticky rice and noodles.
We arrived on New Year’s Eve and the street vendors were out in abundance for the night’s festivities. However, we heard to stay away from the night market buffets which look appetizing but are actually piles of left overs from the previous days.
Our hilltop hotel scheduled for us to have a NYE banquet with ‘traditional dancing from the highlands’. The View Hotel terrace was decked out with a huge international buffet, a thoughtful attempt to make westerners feel at home. The emcee had wonderful energy, but it felt like a gala event with too few guests. A highlight of the evening was the ‘lucky draw’ raffle where the emcee would pull ticket after ticket until someone in the audience was actually in attendance. We definitely won a bottle of wine that night. At another point, the host wanted the ‘crowd’ to join in to play games, so Corey and I felt it only right to help them out and participate in a balloon blowing contest. Corey won another bottle of wine on this one! As the final dance number and the Jason Mraz sing along concluded, we reflected that in our ten years that we’ve rung in together, this was by far the earliest New Year’s that we’ve had, but hey, it was memorable as our first NYE as a married couple!
Sabadee Bi Mai (Happy New Year!)
Our guide picked us up for our city tour of Luang Prabang’s various sights. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage city with a fusion of urban structures and traditional architecture. We started at the Royal Palace now turned into a museum. The possessions of the former royal family live here and each room is covered with elaborate designs.
Directly outside of the museum, we climbed the 329 steps to 100m-tall Phu Si, where the gold stupa sits, and where women sell ‘good luck’ birds in small baskets that you can release into the sky at the top of the mountain. We joked about how many of the same birds have been caught, released and caught again to sell to tourists.
Wat Xiengthong, the ‘Temple of the Golden City’, was built in 1560 by King Setthathirath and it is considered the most sacred pagoda in Luang Prabang because this temple is why Luang Prabang is a UNESCO heritage site. This is also the previous location for the coronation of Lao kings.
At Vatmay Souvannapoumaram there is a big golden Buddha statue in the main shrine with many other small Buddha statues surrounding the space. Buddism classes are also held in this pagoda.
Wat Mai is Luang Prabang’s oldest pagoda. At this temple, there is a massive gong that reverberates the walls of the small space. Visitors can rub the center of the gong to make it sing, however after various frenzied attempts, no tourist had the magic. An elderly gentleman came out from the shadows, used his ‘zen powers’ as Corey said, and shamed us all! There were smaller gongs as well for us to try but to no avail. Every gong we saw from then on was looked upon a challenge, but we just couldn’t get it.
Lunch was an amazing soup and ‘show’ as we watched our tour guide, Phet, down five chili peppers with this meal. He looked as if he’d just run a race in record time as so much sweat was dripping down his face. We learned Phet is actually his nick name. It means ‘spicy’.
The Kuang Si waterfalls are very serene even with tourists and local families picnicking together on the banks of the pools. The ‘hike’ is really more like a leisurely walk though the national park. The falls splash into beautiful pools that cascade down the mountain. We opted out of a swim as we had a Mekong River boat ride waiting for us. You walk by the Asian Bear Rescue Center, purposefully located along this trail to educate people about these tiny brown bears.
Being on the Mekong made us feel more ‘away from it all’ than we’d been on our entire trip. The jungle looked wild and uninhabited, and the misty mountain peaks were just gorgeous. There were two signs of Lao life along the Mekong: small farmed plots and plastic bottles floating on the river. Quickly, we noted the bottles seemed to be stuck in specific parts of the river, never straying far off the shores. Phet explained how these bottles were actually markers attached to fishing nets that helped fisherfolk identify the areas where they’d need to pull in their catch of the day.
It was too cloudy for a sunset view, but it was closer to dinner time than we realized so we were really focused on finding another bowl of noodle soup for our last evening in Laos.
Today’s activity was voted #1 on Corey’s list: Elephant Village! The elephants were having their bamboo breakfast when we arrived. The village is a green space sprinkled with three small thatched huts – the museum, the gift shop, and the café/bar.
There are fourteen elephants in the rescue camp, two of which are toddlers. Each day, the mahouts (elephant caretakers) bring the elephants in from the jungle to be medically examined. This is to ensure they are fit for the tour groups of the day. A full day tour ends at 2:30pm when the elephants are taken back out to the jungle to spend the rest of the daylight eating banana leaves and bamboo. The bummer is that each elephants’ ankle is cuffed with a long chain so the mahouts don’t have trouble finding them as they wander around their jungle pad.
Mack taught us the key directives of the day: Pai = forward, Doon= backward, Sai= left, Koo-ah= right, and How= stop. However, it was clear Lem Thong, our elephant, took orders from Mr. Mut, our elephant whisperer. We didn’t really need to do much but sit back and take in the scenery of the teak forest. Admittedly, I wasn’t keen to ride Lem Thong, but it was pretty spectacular sitting so high up while trekking through the Huay Sae Valley. At the apex of the trail another Elephant Village employee carried up a plate lunch for each of us on the tour. We were traveling with another couple from New Caledonia. I learned things about this tiny island community in Micronesia from Dani and Melissa while we sipped Lao beer and ate sticky rice.
After lunch, we hiked to Tad Se falls as it was time for our elephants to return to the jungle. Mack explained about various flora and fauna along the trail, including the local hops that we sampled. We floated down the Nam Khan river back to the elephant village where we stayed with Melissa, Dani, and Mack for an afternoon happy hour and impromptu jam session!
Dani, an artist of all sorts, brought her guitar to the elephant village because they were staying over for a few days. Mack also happened to be learning guitar, and fetched his from his cabin. He crooned Thai love songs and Dani strummed songs of hope and progress in French. Melissa, Corey and I smiled as we drank beers by the pool. Bonus: We’ve got an open invitation to visit New Caledonia or to meet up with them wherever our travels take us next!
We finished the evening back in Luang Prabang with a massage. A sudden rain storm stopped our market shopping but it was easy to head back to our hotel for a bottle of our ‘lucky draw’ wine.
03 Jan 2017
Almsgiving in Luang Prabang is rooted in longstanding tradition that links the local monks with the local people. Once a day, before sunrise, the monks, young and old, exit their temple and walk single file on the road with opened aluminium vessels. A monk’s food intake consists only of donated items from this walk as they do not lead a consumeristic life. The challenge now is that various hotels and tour groups are offering ‘alms packages’ which means that tourists flock to the main street before sunrise. What started as a religious ritual has become touristic. Some foreigners still respect the tradition, but as you might imagine, others don’t. Some crowd the monks and flash photos of them, and some have made games of this practice disrespecting the meaningful custom. We didn’t do our research before participating in giving alms, but we hope to shed some light now. Definitely bring your own food if you want to participate, and keep your cameras away. If you opt out of donating food, just silently observe from across the road, and take pictures without flash.
Now that we’ve tried to set the record a bit, here was our experience:
We participated in the almsgiving on our last full day in Laos. I thought it was strange to hear the hotel say that we didn’t need to prepare food for the monks, and that they didn’t donate from the hotel. They suggested to get sticky rice from the vendors along with other snacks. When you arrive, Laos women urgently flock to you with round plastic baskets full of cookies, candies, and sticky rice. The packaged biscuits are completely nutrition-less, full of sugar, but at least the rice is warm. Tourists plop on small plastic stools to wait for the procession with these alms. Some are with groups and have a guide who narrates, and others look forlorn (like us) as the vendors pull your elbows to tell you where to sit. I’d brought the fruit that the hotel had been leaving for us each morning as we hadn’t found time to eat a dozen oranges.
You could hear the rustle of tourists sit up a bit taller when the monks began their walk. Half the street was lined with almsgivers and the other with photographers capturing the Kodak moment. We decided to roll our sticky rice into balls for ease of dropping these into the aluminium vessels. We felt pretty proud of our donations though we were depleted of resources pretty early in the procession.
As we handed our baskets back and waved away buying another round, this is when we noted the glitch in the matrix. The final almsgivers in the procession were actually three Laos women doling out larger portions of sticky rice to the monks. Before the monks received their scoop, we noted every one of them tossing their donated sugary sweets into a mounting pile on a woven blanket. This is when it dawned on us that this routine was exactly the same as the ‘good luck’ birds we’d seen being sold, caught, and sold again at the top of the mountain from yesterday’s temple tour. These women must redistribute these snacks over and over again to their colleagues with the plastic round baskets who create the ‘cookie baskets’ to sell to unsuspecting (or ignorant) tourists! This money is so much easier though because the cookies and candies don’t fly away after being sold!
We followed the line of monks on the opposite sidewalk once they left the main street. Here we saw that individual Laos citizens do sit along the road with rice or fruit to donate, but the current state on the main drag is a far cry from what it must have been like for the monks before Luang Prabang became a travel destination.
We found breakfast at a mom & pop noodle shop and smiled at the memories made in Luang Prabang. Our advice, when planning your trip to Vietnam, or Thailand is not to miss Laos, the only landlocked nation in this region! There is more touring along the Mekong in our future for sure!
- Climb the stairs to Phu Si to see the gold stupa and a view of the city
- Visit Elephant Village and take a half or full day tour
- Take a scooter, taxi, or car to Kuang Si waterfalls
- It’s easy to visit the various Wats along the main street, but have a book to help with the history along the way
- I recommend all noodle soups. Period.