Laos is For Photo-Ops, But You Won’t Want to Take Out Your Phone
The early bird gets the worm. Early birds in Luang Prabang are assured of the best photo-op as a couple of hundred Buddhist monks draped in ochre robes take over the city’s main street. It’s one of the many sights that has seen Laos’ cultural capital become a magnet for evolved global travellers who want a slice of South East Asia that’s not overflowing with tourists and away from the beaten track.
I discovered a city where everything moves in slow-mo – and ran into solo travellers from countries as diverse as France and South Korea.
Located in Northern Laos at the confluence of two rivers – the Mekong and the Nam Khan – Luang Prabang is an hour’s flying time from the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. But if you’re flying in from India, make the connection via Bangkok or Singapore (Silk Air offers seamless connections) that ensure you can reach your hotel just after breakfast.
I didn't waste much time before hitting the road on a bicycle (most hotels offer free bicycles for guests). That’s the easiest way to get around this charming town where no ride is usually longer than 15 minutes.
My first stop was the Wat (temple) Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang’s most emblematic shrine. Constructed in 1560, this is one of the finest examples of Lao temple architecture with its two-tiered roof, precious mosaics and a dramatic ‘tree of life’ glass montage on the rear temple wall.
This temple has benefited from an ambitious restoration programme in the 1960s that saw its gold leaf gilding and gold lacquering restored. One of the highlights are the flower motifs and scenes from the Lao version of Ramayan – Phra Lak Phra Lam. With over 30 temples in the vicinity, you will be spoilt for choice.
Do make time to stop at the Wat Mai, an 18th Century temple that is best known for its Emerald Buddha.
Take in the Views
Hindu legends are a recurring theme in Luang Prabang. A short trek took me up Mount Phou Si located in the heart of the city and home to a Buddhist shrine. One local legend suggests that it was Lord Hanuman who transported this mountain here. He couldn't have picked a better place; this mountain offers sweeping views of the Mekong river and the city. It’s also one of the best spots to catch a sunset.
After taking in the sunset, I made my way down Mount Phou Si and straight to the evening market. There’s a busy vibe and yet it’s not overcrowded like its counterparts in Thailand and Vietnam where a lot of the produce is sourced from.
Keep an eye out for local merchandise that include fine silk stoles, silver jewellery and lamps. Of course, the market is also one of the best places to sample local culinary delicacies.
Whatever you do, don’t skip town without digging into Larb, a fiery meat salad and the unofficial national dish. It’s certainly not for mild palates though.
My search for the perfect Larb ended in Pin Kai Zap, a nondescript local restaurant where my newfound friends from the Philippines were the only tourists. After a couple of epic ‘Lost in Translation’ fails with the waitstaff, I opted to stay within the city’s popular tourist zones where I stumbled upon l’Elephant with its tasting menus that give you a quick peek of Laotian cuisine.
If you’re a self-confessed coffee hipster, I’d recommend a chilled glass of Laotian coffee – that combines a strong shot of coffee, condensed milk and milk foam, at Joma Bakery.
Of Early Mornings
You might be on holiday but do pick one day to wake up at 5.30 am. Locals line up with freshly prepared food – while tourists queue up for the perfect vantage point with their mobile shooters.
This is rush hour in Luang Prabang.
The city is a sea of saffron at sunrise. Dozens of Buddhist monks walk through the heart of the city. The alms giving ceremony has been a tradition in this city since the 14th century. Locals shower the monks with rice, fruits and traditional sweets. Laotian Buddhist tradition recommends that monks should collect food for at least one meal a day.
I was among the swathe of tourists who attempted to capture Luang Prabang’s most defining image – the alms giving ceremony.
Three days is time enough to unwind, pause for an unplanned foot massage or cycle past French-era colonial buildings on Sakkaline Road.
You can also stay in one of these buildings that have morphed into charming boutique hotels – like the 3 Nagas. If you want to experience a completely different side of Laos, I’d urge you to make the 45-minute trip to the Kuang-Si falls that takes you through the countryside. Luang Prabang is not a city where you strike off items on a ‘to do’ list but where the small moments count.
(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, one of India’s only cross cultural trainers and a consultant. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends)