Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Luang Prabang is the Brangelina of scenic towns. A gorgeous marriage between traditional Lao architecture, on display in its many wats, unchanged wooden houses and a smattering of royal residences, and the gentility of French colonial buildings and their faded yellow walls and white trim, you get the feeling that in Luang Prabang, authenticity isn’t a slogan, it’s a way of life. In order to keep its UNESCO designation, the town is devoted to restoring its storied heritage. It is a town where time has stopped.
The beauty of Luang Prabang is that the town is practically located along one main road, traversing the length of the peninsula, providing something novel to experience from dawn till night. To discover the best this town had to offer, I set out to create a perfect day.
6:30am. The grey early morning finds me bleary eyed, staking out a coveted seat in front of a shuttered shop. A handful of tourists are similarly lined up on this side of the street, curiously eyeing the locals who have set up an equally formidable line on the other. As the dark gives way to light, sashes are straightened, the last remaining faithful take their places, silver steamers filled with sticky rice are placed just so. There is a palpable buzz as entire family groups, visiting Khmer monks and the odd Western tourist await the objects of their devotion.
Even on the drive over, I see small groups of 2-3 monks swathed in saffron robes, making their way from the city’s 32 wats past alms givers scattered around the city. Their destination is Luang Prabang’s main road, Sisavangvong, where the same colorful procession incredibly repeats itself every day of the year. This is the famous Alms Giving Ceremony, an opportunity for the townspeople to offer gifts of sticky rice, bananas, crackers, sweets and money. While similar events take place across the Buddhist world, the sheer number of monks that join this daily procession, usually numbering into the hundreds, is extraordinary.
I ask Khamuanne, one of the city’s residents and himself a child monk for three years, why the monks sometimes put food back into baskets placed along the route.
“They cannot stop even when their own basket is full. Putting food back into baskets on the ground is a way for them to give back to the people.”
Racha, another young devotee, adds,
“This is our honor. I have to work in the morning, but I get up at 4am every day to make sticky rice for my mother to give to the monks.”
Indeed, through the mass of bodies creating a solid wall of orange, tiny hands can be seen with clumps of sticky rice, purposefully finding their way into baskets.
I leave the hour long procession with mixed feelings. While the spirit of generosity is not lost on me, the theatrics of what this simple ceremony has become diminishes whatever spirituality it had. Half awake tourists clamor over each other to take pictures, flashes firing in the early morning gloom. It feels like Spiritual Disneyland. Although undeniably beautiful, I find the experience strangely empty.
8:00am. The 100 meter tall Mt. Phou Si dominates the center of town, and a climb of 355 steps to the very top is rewarded with a gorgeous panoramic view. From the vantage point of the Buddhist temple at the top, you can see the merging of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers to the east, and the city of Luang Prabang to the south.
Friendly monks are on hand to talk about what is reportedly a footprint of the Buddha. Worshipers pick up small baskets of sparrows along the climb, to be released in a symbol of merit at the top. Freeing animals is said to bring good karma. I watch a Lao family with two small children as they make their way around the temple. The children have taken the birds out of their bamboo cages and clutch them tightly in their tiny hands. I wince as they start plucking the feathers off the still live birds. I don’t think the parents are aware and I’m not sure it’s my place to scold them for their impending bad karma.
9:05am. The region is rife with scenic waterfalls, the most famous being the Kuang Si Falls, located 25km out of the city. Travel agencies arrange daily tours all leaving at 11am, but the night before, we arrange our own van to beat the crowd. When we arrive, I scarcely believe my eyes. The main 60m waterfall is pretty, but it’s the iridescent mineral-rich water, not unlike the electric blue of Vang Vieng’s Blue Lagoon, cascading over dozens of smaller cataracts wending their way downstream that makes me catch my breath.
In the area of the falls, there are caves to explore, hills to climb and picnics to be had. By noon or so, the crush of tour buses arrive en masse, so I’m thankful for the few quiet hours we had to simply soak up the natural beauty of this place. My only regret is not braving the frigid waters of what must be one of the most beautiful swimming holes I’ve ever seen.
2:00pm. A quick lunch of the ubiquitous grilled chicken and sticky rice and we’re fueled for the afternoon. Directly across from Mount Phou Si in the center of town is the Royal Palace Museum, previously the residence of King Sisavang Vong and his family. On the smallish grounds also lies the picturesque palace chapel of Haw Pha Bang, housing a Buddha statue said to represent the right to rule Laos for whoever is its caretaker.
3:00pm. The few streets that crisscross the peninsula of Luang Prabang’s Old Town are filled with gorgeous crafts shops, trendy spas and chic eateries. We wander around, fingering scarves and trinkets while vendors slowly start setting up red tents for the night market.
4:00pm. Ready for a break from window shopping, I make my way to Luang Say Residence, a cluster of French colonial buildings on the outskirts of town. While not original buildings, the complex feels as though someone transported an entire French manor, complete with flowering trellises and plantation shutters, to the middle of humid SE Asia.
Malheureusement, there is no space in any of the five pavilions, so I can only longingly visit the magical rooms and must content myself with a walk around the lush gardens and afternoon tea in the 1861 bar. I rest my weary feet in a tufted club chair, the space lit by floor to ceiling windows, alternating between savory turkey sandwiches on crusty bread and sweet raspberry panna cotta.
6:00pm. All of this is simply a dreamy prelude to dinner, as I rejoin my friends in the Old Town. By now, the night market is in full force, colorful red tents claiming a 1km stretch of road, now closed to vehicular traffic. Vendors lay out their wares which come with surprising variety, handmade by some of the 12 ethnic groups in the province.
I relent and pick up a few embroidered pencil cases, more than I could ever use, simply because the vendors are so refreshingly cheerful. Tourists try their hand at bargaining and are met with patient smiles or a gentle shake of the head. Unlike in so many other countries, there is no loud talking, aggressive tugs or open contempt at a lost sale.
7:00pm. Following a local tip, we try to find “Food Street” at the mouth of the market. We see no such “street” until we notice a steady stream of travelers heading into a narrow alleyway. Here, we discover stalls on both sides, loaded with noodle, rice and vegetable dishes. My Vietnamese travel companions let out an audible gasp when they find out you can pile as much of the vegetarian fare as will physically fit on your plate for just over a dollar. They view it as a personal challenge to create mini Mount Phou Si towers of food. Grilled meats and fish are also available.
Satiated, we slowly make our way through the city’s quiet streets back to our hotel. So ends my perfect day in Luang Prabang in what can only be described as a string of perfect days.
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