Luang Prabang: Old-School Beauty

A SERENE EVENING greets me as my tuktuk delivers me to my guest house in central Luang Prabang. I’ve long wanted to go to Luang Prabang, Laos’ tourist epicenter, with its elegant old school vibe and temples and French cuisine. And now I’m here, asking the lady at the guest house lobby about my companions.

Right on cue, CJ appears and finally seeing someone familiar in this foreign town after being on my own for the past few days, I feel comforted. Seconds later, Roxy emerges and joins us. The two have been here since this morning after an overnight trip from Vientiane, and have already explored much of the town, as well as the nearby Kuang Si Falls.

Luang Prabang is a long way from Vientiane – around 218 kilometers as the crow flies. But the ride through zigzagging roads wedged between towering mountains of untouched forests stretches the trip to more than 330 kilometers, approximately an 11-hour ride. Making the trip at day, though, rewards the traveler with really spectacular views of the rural Laos.

After checking in a separate room beside my two companions and dropping my bags, we step outside to revel in the quiet evening. Most of the stores have shuttered down. A handful of people, mostly tourists are strolling around. I get the impression that it’s deep into the night, or maybe even past midnight, but my watch corrects me – it’s only a couple of minutes before eight. This is Laos on barbiturates.

“Have you eaten?” CJ asks me.

“I haven’t,” I say. “Have you?”

“Yeah, we just had our dinner,” she says.

“There’s a buffet there for 15,000 kip,” roughly equivalent to 80 pesos or two dollars, Roxy chimes in. “Let’s check it out if you want.”

“Really?” I say. “For 15,000 kip?”

“Yeah, but they have a different idea of a buffet here,” Roxy says. “You can get as much food as you want but it’s only for one plate. If you want another serving, then you have to pay another 15,000 kip.”

It doesn’t matter. Soon enough I’m sitting at a table on a street corner overlooking the Mekong River. CJ and Roxy go to check out the river, leaving me to eat with two white foreigners. Under a fluorescent lamp I eat. Battered squash, eggplant soaked in vinegar, string beans and bean sprouts. It’s all filling and healthy, yet with flavors that are full. Not bad for a 15,000-kip meal.

The moment I’m done with my vegetables, CJ and Roxy return and we make our way to the main road of Sisavangvong, where the night market is. Every evening this kilometer-long stretch of road is closed to vehicle traffic as vendors turn it into a bazaar offering an extensive collection of products – from tacky souvenir shirts to hand-woven scarves to local coffee. Little English is spoken but most of the traders gladly make an effort to chat up about their wares. Even for a non-shopper, the marketplace makes for a pleasant stroll, with a pace so slow – visitors are not hassled into buying anything, taking their sweet time to explore the items on display – that if it were in any other city, it would signal closing time or simply a bad day for sales. Granted, we have arrived in Laos during the low season but I’ve seen enough to know that languidness is really a Lao thing.

The top of Phu Si Hill rewards climbers with eye-filling views of Luang Prabang especially at sunset.
The morning procession of monks is a famous Luang Prabang event, but has become the subject of criticism regarding tourist etiquette.
Left, all smiles, a young woman shows one of her products at the night market. Right, novice monks in their bright orange robes walk in the streets.
Buddhist temples abound in Luang Prabang, like, left, the Wat Pha Pai. The most famous is the Wat Xieng Thong, whose walls, right, are drawn with depictions of Lao legends.
The Haw Phra Bang inside the Royal Museum complex towers over tents at the night market.
Left, diners rest in a cozy deck in Utopia. Right, larb served with sticky rice is the quintessential Lao meal.

I WAKE UP at six the next morning and meet CJ and Roxy at the lobby. We have planned to witness the daily alms-giving ceremony but all we come across with as soon as we step outside is an empty street. We have a feeling we should have woken up earlier, but we try to look for someone who can give us a concrete answer. Which we find from a man standing in front of a nearby store.

“You missed it,” he says, confirming our suspicion. “The procession starts at five-thirty and ends around six.”

We just shrug.

“Hey, how about a tour to Kuang Si Falls?” he says. “Just 35,000 kip per person.”

Normally I wouldn’t bite such an offer, especially from a random man we meet on the street. But Roxy tells me that they were able to snag a similar offer for 50,000 kip yesterday, and assures me that these guys peddling their services to take you to the falls are legitimate. The catch is you will have to share a van with other foreigners, but that’s a fair trade off for something that can cost 100,000 kip if you go via a tour agency. I settle the tour with the man, which involves him issuing me a receipt guaranteeing that the 35,000 kip is for a round trip.

Afterwards I amble around the town with CJ and Roxy. Under the daylight filtered softly by the cloudy skies, Luang Prabang reveals itself to be a wonderful blend of traditional and European architecture, with houses that serve as reminders of when Laos was a French colony. Compounds of golden-roofed wats stand across shops with wrap-around teak balconies and colonial-style shuttered windows. Unlike Vientiane, with all its uninspired Soviet-era buildings and modern trappings, Luang Prabang’s retains a romantic feel, its atmospheric old center woven with quiet, narrow lanes. Next to this, Vientiane feels like Bangkok.

We weave our way through the morning marketplace in the western end of the town, stopping briefly to check out each stalls of mostly fresh produce from the nearby fields, and bounties from the river. With all the activity going about, it’s surprising – or, considering we’re still in Laos, unsurprising – that there’s a relaxed energy to the proceedings.

It’s not when we reach a food stall in a parallel street that we have breakfast. I order Lao-style sandwich, a hulking piece of baguette stuffed with egg, pork floss, tofu and vegetables. I pair it with Lao coffee, which turns out to be too sweet for my taste. That’s saying a lot, considering I’m a Filipino.

After resting in the guest house for about an hour, I part ways with CJ and Roxy who are set to go to a cooking class while I meet with the man I had a deal with earlier to take me to Kuang Si Falls. He leads me in his van and we drive around town, picking up fellow travelers who include three New Yorkers, a South Korean couple and loud-mouthed Brazilian talking about his gap year. Soon enough, we’re zipping through the highway with some great scenery of the verdant mountains and fields.

At 3 pm I’m back in Luang Prabang. After I meet CJ and Roxy in the guest house, we go outside and proceed to our plan of climbing Mount Phu Si to view the sunset. It’s not a particularly difficult climb, because there are stairs and it’s really just a small hill at 100 meters high. We climb the steps opposite the Royal Palace Museum. Halfway to the top, we see the temple of Wat Pa Huak, which, except for a large stupa and the closed-up sim, has been abandoned. A woman reminds us that the way to the top isn’t free and has us pulling 20,000 kip each from our pockets.

On top, there stands the gilded stupa of Wat Chom Si built on a large rock outcropping, while a small chapel sits beside it for prayers. But what really draws our attention are the wide-angle views we get of Luang Prabang, with mountains surrounding the lands and the Mekong River cutting between the town and the forests on the northern side. The Nam Khan River snakes through the town in the southern side, going through the old bridge and past a golden stupa in the distance. It’s really a touristy thing with the place packed with people, but seeing the sun dip and cast a magical orange glow to the town ties up this whole Lao experience.

Serenity defines Luang Prabang especially in the early morning.
Luang Prabang teems with buildings such as this store, which features a patchwork of Lao and French colonial architecture.
Verdant surroundings make for a calm background as a vendor walks by.
Longboats await passengers by the banks of the famed Mekong River.
Grilled foods are just some of the products at the morning market.
Food stalls serve cheap stomach-fillers at the night market.

THE NEXT MORNING at 5:30 we finally catch the alms-giving ceremony. The procession sees the monks leaving the monasteries at dawn, then walking in a single file, they carry bowls where people would place food, flowers or incense sticks. Also known as the tak bat, the practice of Theravada Buddhist monks collecting food in the streets of Luang Prabang and other parts of Laos as well as Thailand has become such an iconic sight, so much so that its popularity increasingly endanger its sanctity. Ideally people who are not part of the procession are to keep their distance from the monks but tourists have been disrupting the parade by going too close less to participate than to derive fun from the event. It doesn’t help that locals not just tolerate such behavior, they even make money from it by selling offerings that are reportedly of low grade.

That afternoon, CJ and Roxy convince me to spend our remaining hours in Utopia, a bar-slash-restaurant with a vibe so chilled out it’s hard to leave once you’ve settled in one of the seat on the deck overlooking the Nam Khan River. CJ and Roxy will leave in a few hours for Hanoi while I’m set to backtrack to Vientiane, and we intend nothing more than to oblige to what has always seemed to be a national plea to never rush things. Reveling in our surroundings, CJ and I find it fitting to order larb, Laos’ most famous recipe as a farewell meal along with a Beerlao. When our meal – ground chicken with piquant herbs and a fiery basenote from the chilies – arrives, the server places along with it a small basket of sticky rice. It doesn’t take me long to finish it.

I lie on a mat on the edge of the deck. Eventually I fall asleep. When I wake up, I stare at the river and the tall grass in front of me and it has though I’m caught in a time warp. It dawns on me that I love this place, this country, so much. I’ve come into a place that is both peculiar and familiar, where the slow movement of life is an anomaly in a world obsessed with instant results. I thought it was unlikely that a society can still embrace such pace in this day and age.

But Luang Prabang still does.

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