Luang Prabang, Laos
March 21, 2015 – March 28, 2015
After experiencing the slower paced life of Laos’ small northern villages we headed back to Luang Prabang for a week of colonial civilization. One of Laos’ largest cities, at only 50,000 inhabitants Luang Prabang has a small colonial town feel with heavy French influence. Many of the buildings in the old town have a markedly European feel with high end shops, cafes and restaurants lining the streets between Buddhist temples. This classic modern city made for a great change from the simple life in the small villages, and a great place to hang out for a week.
Luang Prabang sits along the eastern shore of the Mekong River, and the old town was built on a peninsula created by the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers. Most of the tourist sights, guesthouses and restaurants can be found here. We looked around at nearly a dozen guesthouses and settled on the Thanaboun Guesthouse which had large well appointed rooms with private bathrooms in a great location along one of the most popular streets, all for around US$20 and offered the best value we could find.
The city quickly became our favorite city in Laos as there was simply so much to do either in town or a short taxi ride away. You could easily spend a week exploring its maze of colonial streets and buildings, peppered with cute shops and cafes. There are also beautiful temples everywhere, it seemed that every other block contained yet another massive and impressive temple and orange clad monks can be spotted everywhere walking the streets or going about their daily chores. We spent several days just wandering around discovering new sights around every corner.
The Temples of Luang Prabang
The old town of Luang Prabang, sitting on a pennisula between two rivers offers plenty of great water views.
Luang Prabang is simply awash with markets, day, morning and night, you can find them all here. Of particular note is the morning market, and the night market. The morning market takes up residence in a maze of back alleys only big enough for pedestrians and the occasional annoying motorcycle to pass through. Go early, before 8am, as there is less and less action as the morning progresses. Here in the morning market we found some of the most exotic, troubling and interesting things for sale at any market we have visited so far on our entire trip. They had everything from snake, eel, bugs, skewered live frogs and live baby owls for sale. Not sure who is buying live baby owls in tiny cages at 6 am in a back alley, but it’s probably not legal.
The night market takes over one of the most popular streets, blocking all the traffic and setting up tents over the road. The narrow pathways through the tents are a great place to look for all kinds of hand made arts and crafts and get your heart rate up dodging pedestrian hating motorcycles that don’t understand what closed road means. Krista made more trips to the night market than me, finding many great souvenirs. At the southern end of the night market in an alley off the main road you can find a cooked meat market where you can find nearly every kind of barbequed, roasted, grilled or fried meat you can think of. The Luang Prabang sausages are a must, its simply one of the best sausages I’ve ever tasted. It tasted like they took Chinese barbequed pork, the kind with the red edges, and blended it up into sausage, dipped it in syrup and grilled it.
Tak Bat Alms Giving Ceremony
Early every morning, monks in Luang Prabang and other locations in the region participate in a ritual called Tak Bat. Monks walk single file throughout the city, carrying an alms bowl for donations of food, often balls of sticky rice, or other items. The monks rely on the goodwill of locals to provide them with the food they will eat for the day, and Buddhists who offer alms earn merit and blessings. Tak bat is a religious tradition which is in danger in Luang Prabang due to the disrespectful behavior of many tourists, who block the monks way to take pictures, or dress inappropriately, just to name a few. Our plan was to solely observe from a respectful distance.
Lao Cooking Class
Continuing our interest in learning to cook all the amazing food in Southeast Asia, we took the Tamarind cooking class. The class starts with a fairly extensive tour of a market, going over all the various fruits, veggies, meats, legal and illegal substances that can be found in the Luang Prabang markets. Next we traveled twenty minutes outside of the city to a class set up in the jungle over looking a large pond and learned to make several dishes.
Nature hike along the Mekong
Around Luang Prabang the boundary of city and jungle can be very sudden. Right across the river from Luang Prabang is mostly jungle with a few buildings, not much more than a village really, scattered along the shore with only a simple footpath along the river to connect them to civilization. This makes great hiking through nature simple to find and even within sight of the old town across the river. We hopped on a river ferry and crossed to the village of Chompet on the other side with a bunch of locals and their motorbikes and couple trucks. Once on the other side, the road quickly gets primative with a steep muddy road leading straight up a hill from the boat ramp. We walked up as trucks skidded and struggled around in the mud trying to make it to the top. From the top there is a footpath across a small bridge heading north along the river and past many houses and temples along the way.
There are a handful of old temples along the way, some offering great views and picture opportunities. Most charge a small fee, around 10,000 kip (a little over US$1.00) to tour the grounds and take pictures. One of them offers a cave tour as part of the entrance fee, which doubles as a temple as there are dozens of Buddha statues inside.
About a 45 minute drive from town in a shared taxi you can find the Kuangsi Waterfall. Actually a long series of separate falls, it is well known for its clear baby blue water and limestone ‘stepped’ appearance. The falls is very popular with tourists and shared taxis and tuk-tuks wander the old town looking for tourists who want to go, so there are plenty of options, don’t be temped to take the first overpriced offer.
Once at the falls you will find not just a waterfall but a whole nature park. There is bear rescue preserve just inside the park, filled with bears rescued from poachers and smugglers who capture and kill them for their bile, bear bile is apparently very popular in Asia, particularly in China. From there you can walk along the river until you reach the stepped waterfalls, at the end there is an optional hike up a steep hill to see the top of the very highest falls. After checking out the falls you can see the butterfly exhibit just outside the park about a five minute walk down the main road away from the park entrance.
UXO Lao Visitor Center
Just a short walk from the old french quarter, don’t bother trying to take a taxi as no local has ever heard of it, you can find the UXO or unexploded ordnance visitor center. The building is more or less a museum to educate people about the millions of tons of unexploded bombs which litter the countryside for the entire length of Laos. Laos is the most heavily bombed country in world, beating even Germany and Japan for sheer tonnage of bombs dropped. Though some of the bombs were dropped by the Japanese during World War II, the vast majority of bombs were dropped by the United States during the Vietnam War along the Ho Chi Min Trail used by the northern Vietnamese to attack and arm their fighters in southern Vietnam.
According to UXO Lao, between 1964 and 1973 over 270 million bombs were dropped over an area covering about 90% of districts in Laos. Of those bombs dropped an estimated 30% or 80 million failed to detonate. Almost no area was safe from bombing, and each year many Lao, particularly children, are maimed or killed. The UXO Lao has been working to remove these bombs and make land usable and safe again, however since 1996 only 446,711 or 0.55% of the bombs have been removed, detonated safely or disarmed, making the clearing of these mines a project that will last over a hundred years.
The center is responsible for clearing away mines and unexploded bombs and other dangerous materials and producing educational videos and training for locals, especially children, teaching them what to do if they find something they suspect to be a UXO.
Luang Prabang is a place which is really hard not to like. For many visitors to Laos, Luang Prabang is their favorite stop and not surprisingly, it was ours as well. But after one week it was time to continue our journey southward with a bus ride to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.