A Few Days in Luang Prabang

What do you picture when you visualize Thailand? Looking at the pictures I have posted about our journey so far, you may think it is one of the most beautiful places to visit. And, you would be correct, or at least partially correct. The temples are amazing; the scenery outside of the cities is phenomenal. The cities themselves? Not so much. In Chiang Mai, there is a spectacular temple every few blocks, but the city itself isn’t especially pretty. Before visiting, I visualized a much smaller, more intimate place. It is actually the 4th largest city in Thailand. Before we got to Chiang Rai, I pictured a small, quaint town set in the hills of Thailand. The reality? It is much like Chiang Mai, only smaller, and without all of the temples. Not pretty at all – most of the “good stuff” is outside of the main part of town. So, I was delighted to arrive in Luang Prabang and find that it was everything that I dreamed it would be.

The historic part of town is only about a mile long and is inspired by French architecture. Our hotel, the Indigo House Hotel, is at one end of the “main drag”. If you keep walking down the main street, you will eventually reach the Mekong River and can loop back along a street the parallels the river. And, it is completely flat so easily walkable.

We chose Indigo House because of its location and excellent ratings. It has a lovely rooftop bar on the 4th floor where you can, if you get up at the crack of dawn, watch the monks gathering alms, or, in the evening, watch the night market which stretches at least 1/2 mile down the street. We were welcomed with a cool drink when we checked in; always a nice touch. The room was quite large and had shuttered windows that looked down on an alley below. There were food stalls set up along the alley during the evening hours; the scents of the food cooking wafted up into our room. By the time we checked in and unpacked, it was dinner time. We decided to be lazy and eat at the hotel rather than exploring. Between the bus ride and flight, we were a little tired. I decided to try laab, a minced meat dish that was quite piquant and delicious. I can’t remember what Clayton had, but I do know that he tried a Beerlao, which is the brand sold all over town. The sun was setting as we ate and we were able to watch people strolling through the night market.

We did not have any set plans here. We had investigated tours ahead of time, but found them to be quite expensive. We had decided to wait until we arrived to see if tours were even necessary. Since the town is so compact, we weren’t sure we would want or need a tour. The main tours being advertised were the Kuang Si and Tad Sae waterfalls (all of the tuk-tuk drivers offer to take you to see them), elephant camps (both sanctuary and the type that allow you to ride the elephants), morning alms-giving, and the Pak Ou Caves. There were opportunities to trek, bike, and kayak. The alms-giving has become quite the tourist attraction. Monks go out early every morning to collect alms (typically rice and food items). Local people line the streets to offer their alms. Tourists have apparently ruined this tradition by getting in the way of monks, and treating the ceremony disrespectfully which is why there are signs posted around town about what is and is not appropriate to do.

There are multiple cafés that line the street and the prices are even cheaper than in Thailand. The most we spent on a meal, including drinks, was $10. You can buy sandwiches on fresh baguettes for $1-$2. The food is so fresh and so delicious. I was not familiar with Lao food before visiting and was delighted to learn how delicious it was.

There are vendors out all day long selling many items, but textiles are the most common. There are beautiful sarongs, elephant pants and shorts (of course), aprons, children’s toys, scarves, table runners, and all manner of things made of cloth. There are wood carved items, jewelry, paintings, lacquer bowls, and t-shirts. Unlike so many other markets we have been to, there are not cheap quality trinkets. I know that not everything here is hand-made, but nonetheless, the quality seemed superior to what you would normally find at this type of venue.

Our first day was spent exploring the town. We learned how to convert prices from kip to USD – move the decimal point four places to the left. We stopped at the Royal Palace Museum (admission 20,000 kip or $2). I was told I would have to check my camera; no photography allowed. I also apparently wasn’t dressed modestly enough. I had on a short-sleeved top and was told to tug my sleeves down to cover more of my arms. We were sent to an outer building to stow my camera (lockers were provided free of charge) and then walked around the grounds. There was a temple-like structure that was very pretty. We had to remove our shoes at the foot of the stairs. I am not sure why since the door was roped off and we could not enter the building! Oh, well! All of the wats (temples) that we have seen here have the many headed dragons adorning their entrance. This one was quite pretty, but not in quite the pristine shape that the wats in Thailand were. Other people were taking pictures here so I came back with my camera to snap a few photos before we left.

There was a building displaying royal cars. Most were donated to the Lao King in the 50’s and 60’s as gifts from the US. The Pathet Lao took over in 1975; the country has been Communist ever since. The Royal Palace was converted to a museum when the king and his family were ousted and sent to a re-education camp.

We entered the main museum after removing our shoes and placing them on racks provided for that purpose. The museum was interesting. I enjoyed following the legend of Prince Wesentara (the spelling of his name varies). Artwork displaying the parts of the story were displayed along the periphery of the palace. My favorite part was the first poster. The princess was granted 10 wishes. One of her wishes was to have “vertical breasts, not saggy from nursing babies”. I guess a girl can always hope! Other than reading the legend, we browsed through rooms that allowed us a peek into how the other half lived, as well as looking at gifts sent to the monarch from other countries. We saw a model of the lunar module sent by Richard Nixon, which paled in comparison to the ornate gifts sent by other countries.

Across from the Royal Palace Museum are the steps leading to the top of Mount Phousi. Many people like to climb them to reach the top for the spectacular view. This is probably best done early in the morning (when it is cool) or late in the day to view the sunset.

We cut over a few blocks to walk along the Mekong River. We were offered boat rides by several men. I am not sure how comfortable I would be jumping on a boat with someone not affiliated with a boat company, but obviously, some people do. It is probably perfectly safe but we decided against finding out. We did find a company that advertised a 5-hour boat trip that stopped at a village that makes rice whiskey and the Pak Ou Caves, as well as feeding you lunch (all for $25). That sounded intriguing, so we decided to give it a try the following day. The company had a website (luangprabang-cruise.com), so we would be able to look them up to see if they seemed legit. There were multiple companies offering sunset dinner cruises, but this itinerary appealed to us.

So, we spent the day exploring and relaxing – a great combination. The only negative part of the day was when a local man walked up to me with his arms outstretched. He opened his hands to reveal a snake! I am afraid of very few things, but I am absolutely petrified of snakes! I am not sure why he did this, but he got a reaction out of me. I took off running down the sidewalk; Clayton had no idea why. I can only assume the guy had some mental issues – why would anyone do such a thing otherwise?

Later in the day, we walked through the night market and I purchased a couple of sarongs. I don’t usually buy much (if anything) when we travel, but the skirts here are so beautiful that I could not resist.

The following day, we went back to the riverfront and found the place to catch our boat. Along the way, we walked through the morning market. This is where locals go daily to buy their food. Some of the food was so fresh, it was still alive. I always enjoy walking through local markets; it is a nice way to get a glimpse of how others live.

We located the place where we had seen the tour advertised the day before. The sign had advertised the price in USD, so were unsure what currency we actually needed to use to pay. We were lead down a dirt hill to the boat and paid the man that had led us down. We were really hoping that he was affiliated with the boat company – he did not have a company shirt or any way to identify himself as someone official. We didn’t have exact change in either kip or USD, and since we were the first customers, the man didn’t have change, either. But, while Clayton was looking through his wallet for money, he noticed that we had some Thai Baht. So, we ended up paying with a variety of currencies that added up to the correct amount! He left us at that point. We were offered coffee or tea while we waited for the boat trip to begin. Eventually, our tour guide, Saengkeo, came on board. He was still learning English, but was a nice man that did a good job with explaining things to us along the way. It turns out that he would be our private guide; the only other person on the tour was an Asian woman that had her own private guide.

The boat ride to the village took about an hour. It was very scenic and peaceful. We saw lots of farms along the banks. There are around 7 million people in this country; 70% of them live along the river. The Mekong passes through 5 countries and is over 2700 miles long. Just like in Thailand, there are many hilltribes – Hmong, who tend to live farthest up in the mountains, Khmu, and Lao Loum. Most of these villages have no electricity; most electricity in this country is found in cities. Children attend primary school in their villages, but go to towns for secondary school. The public library in Luang Prabang collects books to send to the villages; children there do not have access otherwise. If you visit and want to do a good deed, bring along some children’s books to donate. Saengkeo grew up in a village about 3 hours from Luang Prabang. He takes the boat to visit his family almost every weekend.

We passed under a bridge that is being constructed by the Chinese for their high speed train. We passed by people scooping sand into their boats. They sell the sand to make concrete. We noticed some empty plastic water bottles in the water. It turns out that they are used to mark the place where fishing nets are left.

Saengkeo accompanied us up the hill to the village. He gave us samples of two types of whiskey. The first was reddish in color and tasted slightly of vinegar. The other was the strong tasting rice whiskey. As you can see, they bottle their whiskey with all types of nasty critters. Unlike the worm in tequila, the snakes and scorpions are not eaten. They are thought to contribute to “male vigor” – Lao viagra, I guess.

The rest of the village was lined with women and children selling textiles. A scarf here only cost $1. There was a wat at the edge of the village. A few monks were there counting money (donations, I assume). We had asked our guide about who becomes a monk in Laos. Every family has a male child become a monk; it prevents the family from going to hell. If there is no son, they pay for a neighbor’s child to become a monk to receive the protection. We asked Saengkeo if he had been a monk. He said he had, but for only a week! Apparently, a boy or man can be a monk for a very, very short period of time and it still counts. Who knew? As soon as a boy is old enough to read, he can become a monk.

After about 1/2 hour at the village, we got back onto the boat for the sort ride to the caves. Saengkeo told us that Pak Ou is not the proper name of the cave. He called them the Ting (pronounced thing) caves. Ou is the name of the river that joins with the Mekong at this location; Pak is the name for the place where two rivers join. The caves are very sacred. Before Buddhism was brought to Laos in the 13th century, it was believed that spirits lived in the caves. Now, they are filled with statues of Buddha. Most of them are old, wooden Buddhas. It is kind of the like the island of misfit toys in the show, “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer”, but for Buddhas. New Buddhas are added every year, and once per year, the Buddhas are ritually bathed. Monks used to live here, but now live across the river.

We climbed the hill to the lower caves where we joined lots of other tourists. Happily, we did not need to remove our shoes here. If you go, be sure to wear appropriate footwear. The climb to the lower caves is not too bad, but you do need to be able to climb multiple, uneven steps.

Since we had about 45 minutes, we decided to head to the upper caves. Along the way, we were offered the opportunity to buy small birds in bamboo cages. We weren’t sure why they were being sold, but found out later that you can release the birds in the caves as a way of giving alms. We also read that the little birds are then collected by the locals and resold to other tourists. So, don’t buy them thinking you are actually buying their freedom! There were also women and children selling jewelry and food, in case you couldn’t manage to make the hike without a snack. I think they would do better business if they sold bottles of water. It was quite hot, and a fairly long hike to reach the upper cave.

If I had done a little bit more research before going to the caves, I would have known that we needed to bring along either a flashlight or a cell phone because the upper cave is much deeper than the lower cave, and is pitch black. I had left my phone on the boat, so we were not able to see much other than the Buddhas at the very first of the cave. It was quite a bit of effort for very little payoff, but entirely my own fault for not doing my due diligence.

The return trip was spent enjoying a sumptuous lunch. Most of the foods on the menu would not be things I would have chosen, but each and every one was incredibly delicious. Our only problem was that we were not able to finish the meal because there was too much food!

The caves themselves weren’t the most fascinating we have seen (we are spoiled and have seen some amazing sights), but we very much enjoyed the boat ride and felt like it was worthwhile.

Altogether, we spent 4 days in Luang Prabang. Other than the boat trip, we didn’t “do” much. We did visit TAEC (Traditional Arts & Ethnology Center) to learn about the local people. It is a relatively small museum, but I found it quite interesting. I enjoyed the musical instrument displays, and was fascinated to learn that the musicians use something called “circular breathing” to avoid having breaks in their music. Basically, they inhale through their nose and breathe into their instruments simultaneously. I can’t imagine how they manage to do so.

Something I noticed was that the tourists seemed to fall roughly into three groups: backpackers (20-somethings), French people, and people in the 50+ set. It was kind of interesting as to why there were so many older tourists here. Maybe it is because it is such a beautiful city – great architecture, delicious food, and very friendly people. I highly recommend a visit.