Welcome to the beautiful city of Luang Prabang. If you are looking for a clean, calm city, where you can bicycle around quiet city streets, watching beautiful colonial architecture, finding inner peace, and drinking great coffee while meeting your deadlines in chick cafes with acceptable wifi! This is your city in Laos.
Arriving early in the morning after sleeping on the night bus from Vientiane, this was like coming to another country. My hotel was close to the river, and I had to cross it to get to the city center. They had a bamboo bridge that is washed away when the river floods, and built again every year after the monsoon. In the rainy season, the current is too strong, and the water level is too high to have a bamboo bridge. You have to pay 5000 kips for a roundtrip crossings. A devoted young mother is sitting in the bridge booth collecting Kip with a big smile and a friendly “Sabaai dii” and “khap jai lai lai” (Hello, and thank you very much) that made me smile and reply with the same words every day. There is a wooden bridge further upstream that you can cross with bikes and bicycles. I used that one when treading around on two wheels on the hotel’s complimentary bikes.
The nature in Laos is beautiful. Beautiful lush mountains with spectacular waterfalls and rivers to feed the land, the people and to get you from A to B. The Kuang-shi waterfalls is a must visit when you venture Luang Prabang. After several waterfalls in 4000 islands I was a bit never mind about the waterfalls, but hiking the mountains is always on the list. The waterfalls are not only water raising the hills, but there are also pools after pools of turquoise waters with small natural waterfalls leading from a pool to pool. What a sight. I never saw anything like it. The pictures can give you a visual, but you need to be there to feel the temperature in the air and in the water, and hear the sounds of the jungle along with water gushing, and trickling in the different areas of Kuang-shi.
A Mekong boat trip is a nice break from the heat. Rent a vessel by the Mekong and enjoy a 2-hour ride zigzagging the current on the Mekong with one of the local boatmen. This will cost between 340 and 400 kips, and he will take you to see the Buddha caves and villages along the Mekong if you want to see more of rural life. They have the regular tourist trap communities like the Whisky village but talk to the skipper and tell him you want to see real villages and life along the Mekong. I saw gold diggers washing sand illegally, a small village of Hmong people that moved from the mountains to the river so the kids could go to school. Along the river, you can also see birds, brown and pink water buffalos having a dip, the strangest looking ferry’s transporting cars across the river and woman washing clothes, and kids playing in the water. You will also see high mountains, jungles of rainforest growing thick and breath exhaust free nature made air into your lungs. The Buddha caves had two caves carved into a steep limestone rock. The lower cave is ok, with over 4000 Buddhas displayed. The upper cave was dark, so I did not see much, but the entrance gate was gorgeous.
In the morning, at sunrise, you can watch the Alms giving ceremony. You will see around 100 monks walking in line, chanting and receiving food from the locals. This was a peaceful ceremony to watch, there were no sounds except the monks chanting, and the calm atmosphere hung in the air long after they passed. This is one of the most sacred Lao traditions, and if you are not part of the ceremony, you are advised to keep a distance and not cross the monk’s path. Another beautiful place to be at sunrise or sunset is the Phousi Mountain in the center of town. An easy climb up the stairs from across the national museum on the main street, and you have to pay a 20000 kip fee, halfway up. Walking down on the other side of the mountain, I meet a monk. He wanted to talk to me to practice his English. We talked for an hour on the mountain, outside the Buddhas footsteps. This 16-year-old boy had already been a novice for 5 years, and he had 3 more years of studying before he had to decide if he wanted to be a monk.
In the main street, you will find bars, restaurants, textile shops, and massage places. At 5 they also set up the night market here. Textiles is a big thing in Luang Prabang, and they are proud to present the different tribe’s patterns that are woven and used to make purses, bags, pillows, blankets and clothes. Visit the heritage center that explains the patterns and the areas they are from. They also have two stores and the people working there are knowledgeable and will explain the differences between the styles and traditions, and where they are from. This is a way of exploring Laos through textiles. The prices in the stores are much higher than in the night marked, so go hunt for bargains at night, when you know what you are looking for. You are also supporting the local woman weaving and sewing.
After 6 days in this beautiful, calm tempered city, I was not ready to leave. I fell in love with the Sabaai dii`s, the friendly people and the way they take care of their heritage. Some of the coffee-shops, like saffron coffee in Khem Khong street and Joma on the main road are supporting local coffee farmers and building schools to make sure the children in the future can read and write in this poor beautiful country. The legacy from what they call “the secret war,” still ruins many life’s every year. Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos by the USA during the Vietnam war. About 80 million of these did not detonate. Less than one percent of these have been destroyed after 40 years. Each year about 50 new casualties occur. 60 percent dies, the rest loses body parts. Most of the victims are children playing, and farmers working the land. If you did not visit cope visitors center I Vientiane, stop by the UXO Laos Visitors Center behind the Chao Anouvong Monument to learn more about the most heavily bombed country in history.