This article features Luang Prabang Travel Blog information and Travel Writing, Photos and a Video. See below for the list of articles and travel tips from Luang Prabang and Laos.
LUANG PRABANG TRAVEL BLOG: WRITING, PHOTOS, VIDEOS
Few of Asia’s towns and cities can claim a comparable mix of natural and spiritual splendor as Luang Prabang, Laos’ heavenly abode tucked in the middle of the Elements, nudged in the confluence of rivers, forest and mountains.
Whether this will last with the onslaught of wildfire urbanization is an entirely different question.
And, to be sure, time and time again as I travel through Asia, I have wished (selfishly, perhaps naively, of that I’m aware) for the times of yore, in order that I may dream of the Orient while watching sampans row away through the stillness of crystalline lakes, disappearing through the gently swaying groves of bamboo thickets, only to be met with the dull reality of the grizzly micro-particles of air pollution and the thick rampant fumes of diesel and fuel, and the loud rhythmical surge of sledgehammers and bulldozers clamping together heaps of identical pavilions by the hundreds.
But as of now, the beauty of Luang Prabang, cradled in the motherly arms of the two rivers that run around its slovenly peaceful houses, remains intact. (Ask those who came thirty years ago what they think of it now, then ask the explorers of the past century, and learn that what I speak of is nothing more than the power of nostalgia, which is always more loving of the simple, curveous beauty of nature than it is of the complex, hard-angled scaffolds erected by Man.)
“Many peasant there still practice ‘bruli’. Do you know what that is?” she asks.
Sister Marie-Catherine, 83 years old, whom I meet at the airport on our way to Luang Prabang. She works at an orphanage, educating deaf and mute children both through primary school and with professional training.
“It comes from the French word, “to burn.” It is when people burn patches of land on the mountain slope, in hopes of making the land fertile. You see, they have neither fertilizers nor modern machines. So they burn the ground and dig a hole where they sow their rice. After, they leave it to God’s Good Will.”
Her age and venerable demeanor deliver an immediate sense of security.
She’s accompanied by two French volunteers, who evidently look up to her with great admiration.
I try to interview her, asking: “What’s your philosophy of life?” She calmly, reservedly declines. Maybe I sounded too eager. (Read more about her thoughts on the project and Eastern Philosophy vs Western Philosophy.)
More oft than not though, the views willfully or unconsciously chosen by the mundane traveler (and which I have echoed above), which focus on a place’s spiritual beauty and glamorous monuments, ignore whole heartedly the poorer outskirts and austere comforts of rural lifestyle.
The Luang Prabang of tourists may be populated by golden-sheathed temples and benevolent monks. The Luang Prabang of locals is a far cry from that vision, poor thatch houses built roughly upon the mountainside, a daily struggle for soup and rice.
Despite their gruff appearance, it seems every household is equipped with satellite dishes, albeit rusty. In some cases, even the unfinished, roofless houses already have one. Satellite TV comes before a roof and bowl of rice?
Till recently, there was barely a paved road that led from Vientiane all the way up to Luang Prabang. Laos remains one of the countries in all of Southeast Asia with the least developed infrastructure. But quick-paced change is on the prowl.
We set our bags down in a comfortable hotel, and meet in the street with Coco’s parents. An appointed driver takes us out of the city, to a small village on the banks of the Mekong.
A pirogue, steered by a petite woman, rows us to the other bank.
There’s a cave full of Buddha statuettes. The air is damp and cool. The Mekong drifts by, its brown waters rolling softly. As we do.
There are hundreds of steps up to another cave. A dragon snake coils up the sides of the steps. We’re in continental Southeast Asia now. Buddhist country. This I hadn’t yet realized.
Coco’s father grins as he waits for us: “I’ve seen it already.”
Coco, her mother, and I ascend slowly, each at our own pace. We halt to rest along the way, taking in the welcome shadow of a lone tree. The sun beats down unwaveringly.
Two monks step out of the cave as I reach the top.
There’s a wooden gate with iron reinforcements, which must be closed at night to thwart thieves.
Three other monks are inside the cave. There are hundreds of figurines and larger Buddhas. The two cadets are taking pictures of the third monk, who’s posing by one of the bigger replicas.
There’s a flat, unassuming stone slab set on the ground near the entrance. This is someone’s resting place. Someone special.
To the right can be found a backroom, which is very dark and quiet. The light of the candles barely flickers, its feeble glow blues the walls of the cave. There is no wind here, only silence.
Video below, or see the photos
The petite woman sits in the prow of the pirogue, kneeling. At one point, as we reach the middle of the river, surrounded by the brown waters and scattered skies, she squats, almost kneels, burying her face in her arms, her hands clasped in prayer above her head.
We descend from the pirogue. Two very sad-looking children with brown, sun-washed faces, open their hands and show us trinkets.
An elephant emerges from the brush and onto the dirt road. A couple of jovial tourists riding its back. We leave the village. Green and yellow fields, cackling chicken, livestock, cattle, buffalo. Thatch and straw huts lain bare in the middle of the countryside.
We reach Kuang Si Falls, where Laotian families picnic in the cool shade – today’s a holiday. Tourists swing from a rope and into the turquoise water pools. Bystanders watch amusedly. It’s a jolly time.
See the Luang Prabang Waterfall and Kuang Si Fall Photos and Video.
Return to the city, past the thatch huts and satellite dishes, past worker bungalows set atop leveled fields of red dirt – homes to future somethings. Order tamarind juice by the side of the road on our way back.
Eat papaya salad, grilled chicken skewers, and other local dishes. In the evening, walk by the Luang Prabang night market, where I take some photos.
Tak Bat: Giving Alms to Lao Monks at Dawn
At dawn, I rush to the balcony, beckoned by the murmur from the streets. A small and sleepy crowd has gathered to witness Luang Prabang’s main ‘touristic attraction’: the round of monks as they walk through the streets to collect their daily ration of food and rice.
The local population is patiently seated on stools, or kneeling on mats and thin rugs. They carry baskets full of white sticky rice, which they scoop with their hand into the alms baskets of the monks going round the city. Head bowed down as they do so.
This is Tak Bat.
The tourists gawk, the more polite ones stand a pace behind as the procession walks by.
Others have purchased baskets of sticky rice, bananas and crackers, to partake in the offering. Luang Prabang’s monk walk has become a neatly packaged industry.
The more bashful visitors run and prance, pointing their tablets, cell phones and foot-long zoom lenses into the monks’ faces.
Most foreigners adopt a half-assed stance, standing behind, only to swoop in furtively for a shot, in imitation of the rest of the crowd.
I’m torn. I’d like to take some photos. But there’s no mistaking it: the monks, for all their good nature, are putting up with an annoyance, a distraction from a formal, sacred ritual.
“Would you like to come?”
Coco declines. Born from Lao parents, she’s been brought up to respect the monks too much to risk offending them: she’s accustomed to stopping in the street, looking down and slightly kneeling upon the sight of a Lao monk.
Perhaps even more discomforting are the looks on the faces of the local alm-givers, those who’ve risen early to share this communion of the community with its spiritual benefactors.
They, on the other hand, lack the disciplinary training of their robed peers. They seem hurt by each insolent tourist, each selfish picture taken.
There’s a faint drizzle and the light of dawn is green and unreal, I walk as in a dream, following the monks. I hope this would not be seen as a sign of disrespect.
The older one leads, the youngest closes.
I follow in silence, recording some of it.
The procession walks away from the city center. There are no more tourists in sight. There I take a few shots, as calmly and unobtrusively as possible.
As we loop back into town, I follow still, and put away my camera.
Taking photos, though condemned, is not the only reason for my discomfort. This can be done, to an extent, respectfully, given sufficient mindfulness and awareness of others’ feelings.
Rather I feel bad about giving in to the lame pleasure of getting some souvenir photos, rather than focusing on a rare moment of communal blessedness.
The very fact that every day, people from all over the city get out of their beds, pack their kneeling mats and carry the baskets of rice they’ve prepared, in order to share their meal with the monks, is special. Special enough that each bit of it should be savored.
I’m aware I’m trying to compensate for this missed opportunity by walking in their tow.
But sharing this walk does alleviate a part of the guilt: if only because for a few minutes, I not only tread behind, but with them. I don’t belong, but we can share these minutes. The processions loops back into town, onto the main street – it is a bit later now, more tourists have awoken – and we are assailed by the paparazzi.
I continue to walk alongside, till the monks return one by one into their monastery. I watch them go with mixed feelings.
Our taxi driver is nowhere to be seen. Coco’s father makes a call, hangs up.
“That was his wife. He’s too drunk to drive.”
For more photos, videos and stories from Luang Prabang, Laos’ Royal city of temples:
– All Luang Prabang Videos
Also view all stories, photos and videos and travel guides from Laos.