Luang Prabang – Unusual Things To Do
Flying across Australia is vast, and mostly brown, save for that initial stretch along the coast with endless sandy beaches and a sea stretching to the horizon. The contrast to the tiny mountain kingdom of Laos could not be greater.
This is a land where green mountains rise to the sky, their impossibly steep sides covered with verdant jungle, their valleys hidden by mist. Small patches of cultivation bravely defy the encroaching forest. Rivers and lakes twinkle in the distance. Little wonder then, that in 1353 Fa Ngum returned to Luang Prabang from exile at the Khmer capital of Angkor to establish his kingdom Lan Xang Hom Khao – The Kingdom of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol.
i) Enjoy A Tropical Storm
Without warning the rain tumbled from the sky. The few warning drops quickly became a downpour.
Squeals of laughter filled the air as people dashed for cover. Sheltering on my veranda, I watched the fat drops dance across the garden and onto the road. In only a few minutes the streets were deserted. Once the tropical rains begin, few venture outside.
Fairy lights hung in the trees lining the street, slowly coming to life as the afternoon light faded. I could not see them through the rain. The path leading down to the road bubbled with water, a small river running down the steps. I could hear nothing but the rain thundering about me. The mighty Mekong was but a stone-throw away, but she flowed invisible. Another month of these rains and the floods would come, sweeping away bridges and leaving roads impassable.
An hour later the rain stopped as quickly as it begun. Soon the world around me began to steam, the streets were once more crowded. The fairy lights sparkled in the trees as people sat at roadside stalls, dining in a world washed clean.
ii) Partake of Tak Bat
I woke to the faint sound of drums. Although a soft rain fell and dawn had yet to paint the sky, Tak Bat, or the giving of alms, had begun. It was already 32º C – and humid. Exceptionally humid. Every morning monks walk silently through the streets of Luang Prabang in an endless procession of saffron and orange robes. With so many temples in the town, even in the morning rain monks can be seen weaving along every street.
Despite time under Communist rule, Buddhism still forms
the basis of Lao society. Men and women sat quietly on the side of the road, offering each monk some sticky rice as they passed. All was done in silence. By giving rice (or ‘making merit’), Buddhists believe they will not go hungry in their next life.
I stood watching at the far end of town, with not another tourist in sight. The monks passed in slow procession, accepting the offerings in gracious silence. Tak Bat remains a sacred tradition, and should be treated as such. If watching, wear respectful attire with shoulders and knees covered, and all photos should be taken from a discreet distance.
As dawn filled the sky, I watched three monks make their way down a steep flight of stairs and into a waiting long-boat. The golden tops of a temple peeped through the forest on the other bank. The current was so strong their boat headed quite a distance up-stream before heading to the other side, timed to land perfectly at a small jetty.
iii) Visit The Cave of 1000 Buddhas
Later that morning I adventured down those stairs and into my own long tail boat. A cool breeze sprung up as we headed upriver. Soon all I could see was a wall of green, with every now the gold or red of a wat peeping through the trees. The occasional boat lay pulled up to the bank, secured by a stick of bamboo stuck into the mud. Water buffalo stood amongst the undergrowth, with half-naked kids sitting on their backs and splashing in the water around them.
Some distance upstream limestone cliffs emerged from the
waters, many dotted with caves. The Pak Ou Caves are close to where the Nam Ou and Mekong Rivers merge. The lower cave (Tham Ting) is an easy walk, but the upper Tham Theung requires a steep climb. Both overflow with thousands of Buddhas, many retired here from temple-duty when they are too damaged for display – wooden statues are easy prey to termites, incense burns and missing digits.
I stood in the darkness of Tham Theung, looking across a sea of Buddha silhouettes to the river below. The statues are of all sizes and poses, often covered with dust and cobwebs, but they are still revered, with many surrounded with offerings. In the Lao New Year, villagers come by boat to bathe the statues for merit.
iv) Simply walk the streets of Luang Prabang
I think I walked beside the Mekong. I never even learned the name of the street. Luang Prabang lies on a sliver of land running between the meeting of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Our hotel, The Xiengthong Palace, was the last residence of the Lao royal family. It rests opposite the revered Buddhist monastery, Wat Xiengthong, away from the bustle of the town. A walk along the street, around the bend, and one river became the other. Both large, both brown, both soon to be in flood.
Despite her turbulent history, Luang Prabang remains the religious and cultural capital of Laos. Students come from across Laos to study at her university, and in popular culture the intellectual always speaks with a Luang Prabang accent. Yet it is Buddhism which holds the society together. The town has an abundance of wats, and the monks in their robes of orange and saffron remain the enduring image of Luang Prabang.
Yet the ancient wats co-exist with cafés, while the classic French architecture mixed with traditional
wooden buildings and golden skyline only adds to the air of tranquillity. Trucks and lorries are banned from the old town, and small tuk-tuks careen blindly around corners and drive the wrong way along the streets, deftly avoiding the few cars. Pushbikes are everywhere, many under the precarious control of tourists.
Any guidebook or tourist information centre lists what temples to see, what walks to take, which are the sights not to miss. Wherever on this list you may be headed, take a step back and stroll, enjoying the streets as you go. Wander along that unmarked lane-way and down a flight of stairs; meander through one of the smaller wats, stop and watch the monks at their prayers and their studies, enjoy the colours of a vine in full flower as it embraces a stone archway. As is any village or town in Laos, Luang Prabang is full of quiet surprises, unexpected and best enjoyed in the moment.
v) Cruise The Mekong
The river washed away the humidity of the wet-season. A soft breeze drifted over the water, granting some relief from the heat. The little wooden boat putted further and further upstream as a wall of green closed around me.
Rising in China, the Mekong flows through six countries before emptying into Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, a web of waterways covering some 60,000 square kilometres. Anywhere along this course are a myriad of cruise options, from a few hours or a few weeks, in luxury vessels of tiny craft. Just about any could be recommended, taking in towns and floating markets, vast expanses of waterways filled with boats and forgotten water-courses.
To understand this area of the world, however, I needed to understand her rivers, and how daily life revolves around them. Where else to do this but on a small boat, cruising forgotten watercourses? Soon the main waterway had been behind. Local houses opened onto the water, and occasionally a lane could be seen running alongside the river. Kids splashed amongst the mangroves, and women did their washing on the banks. Long boats were drawn up amongst the mangroves or tied to a hidden jetty. Fishing nets were strung through the water, or hung on trees, drying.
The river gradually became narrower and narrower. A maze of tiny waterways opened off on either side of the river, leading further into the unknown. The heat of the day closed down around me. The river lapping against the boat, the buzz of a dragon-fly or the splash of a walking fish were all I could hear. Masses of hyacinths adorned the riverbanks, and kingfishers darted amongst the greenery. As the boat drifted along the heavens opened, and a tropical shower left me drenched within a few minutes. It just as quickly passed, and soon I sat steaming in the heat.
Civilisation seemed far away. This is what I came here to find.
vi) Return To When Travel Was A Slow and Leisurely Affair.
Despite the influx of tourists trying to rush Laos into the 21st century, life in Luang Prabang continues at a
walking pace. It is a place to pack away itineraries and travel books, and simply enjoy.
I learnt this at the airport, which was new and bright and shiny. Resplendent in traditional Lao style, the multi-tiered roofs reached to the ground, while the so faa, or roof finials, stretched to the sky. From the plane the gold decorations sparkled amongst the primaeval forest. The heat and humidity engulfed me as I stepped onto the tarmac, yet the air smelt sweet, and clean.
With Luang Prabang closed to the outside world until the 1990s, the short drive from the airport covers decades (if not centuries), back to an era of romantic, slow-paced travel. Five minutes from the airport the four-lane highway came to an abrupt end, blocked by a house standing where the road should be. A water buffalo looked on placidly as our minivan was forced to detour along a dirt track, before continuing along the original bumpy road into town. Farms and houses dotted the wayside, along with fields of rice and vegetables. Palm trees swayed in the breeze.
Such is Luang Prabang.