A breeze through Luang Prabang

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First published 2nd February, 2014

Five years ago, I first read Travelfish’s assertion that Luang Prabang is the destination in Laos. Though I had come close to visiting in subsequent years, LP had always eluded me, like an itch that I could never quite scratch. At the tail end of 2013, I finally made a spur-of-the-moment break for the ancient capital, and it proved more enchanting than I had imagined.


Every travel guide out there describes the bus ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang as “long and gruelling”. They’re not kidding. To give an idea of what the terrain is like, the journey takes 11 hours by local bus but just 30 minutes by air. The ticket seller didn’t take pity on this lanky foreigner, forcing my long legs to be folded up like origami in the tight back row.

Welcome to LP, finally ...
Welcome to LP, finally …

As we set off, the friendly 19-year-old monk riding next to me popped a tiny yellow sleeping pill. For the rest of the trip, a sharp monk elbow stabbed into my thighs as the prickly hairs of a hard monk head dug into my shoulder. Though the scenery was breathtaking in places, it felt as though the bus was the tip of a pencil that wrote the letter S over and over (and over) on sloppy slopes of papier mache. Exhaust steamed inside the bus, passenger overflow relegated to plastic stools in the aisle. If you can afford it, take a plane.

A quick rest stop, with the bus pictured on the right.
A quick rest stop, with the bus pictured on the right.

The next morning I wandered along the languid riverbank draped in tamarind and starfruit trees. A traveller strummed a guitar in the shade. The word “Boat?” lifted from nearby, and a skinny man with a smooth face and jet black hair appeared with a hopeful look. Within seconds I was perched on the engine shaft of a long and thin wooden skiff painted a similar hue as the hazy blue sky.

Morning along the Mekong.
Morning along the Mekong.

I had seen the Mekong several times before, but only in places where it formed a border between Laos and Thailand. Here, it’s Laos’ river, and it wasn’t until this ride that I came to understand just how vital a resource it is to this otherwise landlocked and mountainous nation. If Luang Prabang is Laos’ heart, the Mekong is its soul.

Looking up at the driver from the back of the boat.
Shoving off.

Enclosed in bamboo fences and tended by old women with elaborate diamond patterns embroidered on their dark blue silk skirts, vegetable gardens sprouted on the fertile flats that stretched up to steep banks. Children played “King of the Mountain” as their fathers sat motionless next to long fishing rods dangling over chocolate-milk water.

Unforgettable scenery.
Unforgettable scenery.

Unlike most rivers that slide steadily along, the Mekong seems to follow its own rhythms and whims, flowing this way and that, bubbling like lava and swirling unpredictably. The driver expertly skirted the black, menacing rocks that churned up just enough white water to give me a thrill. In other stretches, the surface seemed to smooth out like dough under a rolling pin.

Floating filling station.
Floating filling station.

Scraggly grasses clung to the moon-like stones. A family sat on the far bank, charcoal smoke and the scent of grilling fish billowing above. Beyond them, unspoiled jungle.

Mekong life.
Mekong life.

We pulled up to a floating bamboo pier, and I soon found myself strolling through the tiny village of Xang Hai. The people here seem to produce two things — silk scarves and alcohol made from rice and rye, often infused with actual snakes in an ancient elixir that’s believed to increase sexual vitality.

Approaching the whiskey village.
Approaching the whiskey village.

In different parts of the village, a group of old men showed off jagged teeth while cracking smiles and waving me over, and a boisterous group of young people yelled for me to join their karaoke and rice wine circle.

The silk weaving makes for better photos.
The silk weaving makes for better photos.

When I returned to find the boatman standing with a bottle in hand and guilty look on his face, he said, “Just little bit for me.” Barrels containing rye whiskey rendered from Mekong water smoked over charcoal fires nearby. Across the lane, an old woman used an even older wooden loom to fashion a pink scarf from naturally dyed threads of silk. Just down the road, a group of monks accepted a donation of onions and fruit brought by motorbike.

It's easier to sing in Lao after a little rice wine.
Singing in Lao is easier after a little rice wine.

Back on the boat, dramatic karst cliffs emerged from the haze to the north, and we soon pulled up to Pak Ou Caves. Carved like shelves into a foreboding cliff that dangles many metres over the water, monks, pilgrims and curious foreigners have been coming here for centuries.

Keeping the wheel spinning.
Keeping the wheel spinning.

The age-old custom of leaving Buddha images inside the caves has created a haunting and dishevelled melange of ancient, museum-worthy pieces mixed with souvenirs bought yesterday in Luang Prabang’s night market. I had the sense that the caves are a sort of repository for past karma, which is encapsulated in the images.

The cave houses thousands of ancient Buddhas.
Cave of ten thousand Buddhas.

Though the caves now fill up with almost as many tourists as Buddhas, the chalky air still seems to drip with a mystical power. Fragrant incense smoke mixes with mustiness; bits of gold leaf shimmer amid shadows cast by flickering candles; thick cobwebs reach from one ancient Buddha head to the next.

Yes,
Yes, “haunting” is the word.

On occasion, monks spend days or weeks meditating in the darker and more distant upper cave. Near the mediaeval wooden doors that mark its entrance, pilgrims attempt to conjure their wishes by shaking out fortune sticks from a weathered crimson cup.

Gold leaf remnants on a cave wall.
Gold leaf remnants on a cave wall.

Nearly five hours after setting off, our boat returned to the modest dock in Luang Prabang. We arrived just in time for a sublime Mekong sunset.

Entrance to the upper cave.
Entrance to the upper cave.

The next day, I wandered Luang Prabang’s historic area, stopping every few steps to photograph the heritage houses that line the leafy streets. Some look like estates that were plucked out of the French countryside; others feature elegant Lao-style gabled roofs perched atop rustic wooden walls. Many fall somewhere in between, and therein lies the town’s distinctive blend of architecture.

There's nothing like a Mekong sunset.
There’s nothing like a Mekong sunset.

Dozens of ancient temples add to the compelling architectural mix — and rich history — that afforded the town its UNESCO World Heritage status.

At the impressive 450-year-old Wat Xieng Thong, I stopped under the bronze-tinted leaves of a similarly ancient Bodhi tree and daydreamed about the kings, warriors, princesses and monks who would have prayed here long ago.

Layer upon layer.
Layer upon layer.

In a word, the temples of Luang Prabang are magnificent.

An ordinary Luang Prabang scene.
An ordinary Luang Prabang scene.

Seeking a break from the chilly late December air, I sought out a hot cup of coffee in Cafe Du Laos, one of many cafes that would fit seamlessly into a Paris street corner. I sat back and poured the rich and bitter French press brewed from beans grown in the surrounding hills. A classical guitar was picked with skill nearby. Even if travelling alone, it’s impossible to deny the romance of Luang Prabang.

Strolling down Sakkaline Road.
Strolling down Sakkaline Road.

Revitalised from the local brew, I climbed the 190 imperfect stone steps that lead to the golden chedi atop Mount Phou Si. From here, all of the elements that make Luang Prabang so special come together in one tremendous view.

Looking southwest from atop Mount Phou Si.
Looking southwest from atop Mount Phou Si.

Gracefully-arched temple roofs nestled up to galvanised houses. Slow-paced life unfolded on porches and in the streets. Never far off in both sight and mind, the Mekong slid past, just as it did when the area was settled many centuries ago. A surrounding vista of breathtaking green mountains rose to meet the clouds. There’s no doubt that Luang Prabang is touristy, but like Hoi An in Vietnam, the town seems to understand that preservation is vital to tourism.

Many locals earn a living by creating art for travellers.
Many locals earn a living by creating art for travellers.

As darkness fell, I wrapped myself in a steaming bowl of noodle soup with fresh local greens, sprouts and chillies.

The food is another Luang Prabang highlight.
The food is another Luang Prabang highlight.

At night, Luang Prabang’s markets are inescapable — the only option is to be swept into streams of fresh meats, piles of clementines and dragon fruit, spicy bamboo shoot and papaya salads, aromatic soups, grilled Mekong fish, handmade sausages and endless displays of locally-crafted silk, silver and handicrafts. In a dim market corridor that was absolutely stuffed with food, travellers huddled around tables with Beerlao, local rice wine and laughter to keep them warm.

And, of course, the markets.
And, of course, the markets.

After a few more leisurely hours enjoying coffee and croissants in Luang Prabang’s fabulous cafes, I returned to Vientiane the next day. Rather than endure another one of those bus rides, I opted for a relatively cheap flight with the tiny local carrier, Lao Central. Though it was just a short taste, I learned first-hand that Luang Prabang is not only the destination in Laos, but indeed, one of the most magical in all of Southeast Asia.


About the author:
Usually found exploring Bangkok's side streets or south Thailand's islands, David Luekens is an American freelance writer & photographer who finds everyday life in Asia to be extraordinary. You can follow his travails here.


Read 6 comment(s)

  • Hi David, lovely photo blog! Did you end up trying the snake-infused brew? Sounds interesting! I like the Sakkaline Road photo... looks like it could be taken from a small Portuguese town. Thank you for sharing!

    Posted by Mzuri on 8th February, 2014

  • The travel scene in vietnam. I would love to go to this country if only to experience the culture and foods including the hundreds of exquisitely designed temples. Great travelogue David

    Posted by Robert Kamau on 10th February, 2014

  • Lovely article :) I am planning to fly from Hanoi to Luang Prabang (during my trip this April) and then take a bus to Vien Vang, and on to Vientiane. I want to keep my plans as open (and cheap) as possible, which is why I am mostly going to take buses and trains. It seems like you must have purchased your flight on Lao Central very last-minute. How much did that cost? Would love to have that as an option as to by-pass the bus if I so decide.

    Thanks!

    Posted by Claire on 16th February, 2014

  • nice photo blog!:)

    Posted by gatesbill on 19th February, 2014

  • Thanks for this charming article. I am visiting Luang Prabang in November and this has made me even more eager to go. Can we have a follow up on Vientiang next? I am going there also.

    I love this newsletter. Thanks for all you do.

    Posted by Janet on 19th August, 2014

  • I am in Laos now but will visit Vietnam in the future and appreciate your info on scams there! Always helpful to know what to watch out for.

    Thanks.

    Posted by Alexsandta on 26th September, 2014

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