Monday, 20 February 2012

Luang Prabang

As the hours on the bus passed we seemed to move further and further into an abyss of mountain jungle and remote villages.  So how in heck could we have arrived at this gem of a place?   Luang Prabang is referred to as a city but it is really more of a town and a sleepy sort of one at that.  Sleepy in a wonderful tranquil and timeless way.  Sitting on a peninsula formed by the Mekong and its tributaries Luang Prabang enjoys enviable positioning.   It seems that no matter where you are in this town you need only turn your head or turn a corner to get glimpses of riverbanks with children playing and limestone hills flush with vegetable terraces and other greenery.  Nestled in this natural setting lie beautiful shady streets marked with splendid temples, lantern laden shops that reek of Chinese influence and French Colonial villas. Is this really Laos? Is it really Asia?  It is like a movie set from the 40’s.  Its' designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site has no doubt contributed to the pervasiveness of the “Time has stood still here” feeling that you can’t help but have when you are in Luang Prabang, Asia’s most well preserved “city”.

The plethora of excellent restaurants, shops and guesthouses provide evidence that tourism is thriving yet the town is far from overrun with visitors.  As we discovered, it is not an easy place to get to.  Let’s hope it stays that way!  For now local life in Luang Prabang seems to blend seamlessly with tourist life.  In deed, the locals pay little attention to us foreign intruders.  This is likely just the sort of place Jimmy Buffet was looking to be beamed away to when he proclaims he’d “ like to go where the pace of life is slow”.  No hustle, no hassel.

 As you can see above, even the cats in Luang Prabang have character!

Our week in Luang Prabang passed too quickly.  The city bewitched us.  We enjoyed it more and more every day.  It was not the sort of place where we rushed to complete a “things to do see and do list” and perhaps that was part of the appeal.  You could “do” Luang Prabang in a couple of days but in our opinion, in taking that approach you would miss the magic as it is truly the essence of the place which will make it one of the highlights of our trip to Asia.

(Beer was in deed cheaper than water in Luang Prabang....but we didn't swap the two.)

As far as dining was concerned there was no lack of choice.  You could eat at a fancy restaurant or fill your plate for a couple of dollars at tables like the one above in the night market.

One of the cool things we did while in Luang Prabang was spend time at a place called "Big Brother Mouse" which is a teaching centre for people wanting to learn English.  Visitors can go to help out and as soon as we arrived it was evident that our presence was appreciated.  There were lots of University aged students there eager to practise their English.  We met some wonderful young people who we ended up spending time visiting Mount Phousi with.  The pictures below are from the trip up the mountain to watch the sun set.

Luang Prabang is the centre for Buddhism in the region and that fact was apparent everywhere.  It seemed there were as many temples as there were houses and as many men in orange as there were men in trousers.  One of the sacred Buddhist traditions that has over the years turned into a bit of a tourist attraction in Luang Prabang is the morning alms giving.  Every morning just before dawn hundreds of Monks form a procession and stroll throughout the streets collecting their daily alms. (One of the very few “possessions” the Monks are permitted is a bowl with which they collect their “alms”, their food for the day.) The site of hundred’s of Monk’s, young and old, their billowing orange robes flowing through the streets is truly magnificent.  While there is certainly concern that this holy ritual has become somewhat of a “spectacle” rather than a true spiritual exchange, our experience did not lead us to believe this was the case.  Locals knelt on their mats waiting to give to the Monks and the few tourists that were present seemed to keep their respective distance and let the ritual unfold as it should. 

The Monks share their excess with the street kids. The children below were lined up with their baskets waiting for hand outs.

As we mentioned in a previous post, the people in Laos are by far the most relaxed we have encountered on our trip.  The Peoples Democratic Republic (PDR) of Laos is also affectionately referred to as Please Don’t Rush your in Laos.  The pictures below speak for themselves and confirm just how true this proved to be even in Luang Prabang.   

The township of Luang Prabang is in itself worth all the trouble it takes to get there but in addition to the town the surrounding area also begs to be explored.  Between cappuccinos, temples, night markets and lazy strolls about town we also enjoyed spectacular waterfalls, elephant treks and some pretty authentic craft villages.

The waterfalls were so much fun we went a couple of times.  Not many opportunities to frolic in waters like this so we thought it was best to take advantage of it.

Hanging with the Elephants

We were thinking that it was pretty awesome to be doing what we were doing and then the elephant that Rob & Eric were on got a bit ornery....he started trumpeting and throwing his trunk around.  Needless to say we were a little concerned and even more so when the Mahout used the instrument below to show the elephant who was boss.  Fearon was mortified and wanted to get off on the spot.  It definitely put a damper on the experience.


The trumpeting elephant and the tossing trunk put enough of a fear in me that I decided I didn't want to "bath" the elephant.  Rob, on the other hand was still up for the challenge.  Unfortunately our camera ran out of batteries and we didn't get too many shots.  The one that we would like to have got was Rob's face when a huge chunk of elephant dung floated by about two inches from his head! 

Through out our trip we have seen loads of what seemed to be beautiful “crafts” purportedly made by “locals” but more likely than not having arrived straight from Chinese sweat shops.  Seeing the same lovely scarves in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand makes one wonder.  In Luang Prabang it was a little different and we were particularly impressed with the efforts of a neighboring village in terms of showcasing not only their final products but also the process involved in getting there.  We enjoyed an easy bike ride across the river to the village and then enjoyed learning and seeing how they make paper from elephant dung and the bark of mulberry trees and silk from silk worms that is eventually woven into beautiful scarves, wall hangings, blankets and such.  It was wonderful to see how affluent the village was relative to other places we have visited.  This seemed to be a great example of the positive impact that well thought out and sustainable tourism can have.  It sure seemed as though the local people have been able to not only maintain but to also improve their way of life without losing their traditions. 

You can likely tell that we loved Luang Prabang.  There was definitely something about the place that extended even beyond what we saw and did.  There was a teacher from the boy’s elementary school and her husband that happened to be there at the same time as we were and it was absolutely fabulous to spend time with them.  On top of that we were walking down the riverfront and recognized another couple from our neighborhood.  They had just arrived on a detour from a trip to Bali.  We enjoyed dinners and coffee chats with them.  Eight people, three different parties who live within a one mile radius of each other in Fairfiled Victoria all happen to be in tiny remote Luang Prabang at the same time.  Not only that but there was another couple from the community of Fairfield, Victoria Australia who were there too…I was convinced that there was some kind of energy field thing happening and it must have meant something.  I have no idea what but am still convinced that it was something.

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