Oh Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang gets billed as one of the most charming places in southeast Asia. It didn't disappoint.
Luang Prabang, which sits at the confluence of the Nam Kahn and Mekong rivers, is a city of about 50,000 people (I live in a city more than 450x as big. 50,000 people feels like "small town" to me) in northern Laos. It was the historic capital of the kingdom of Luang Prabang and the former capital of Laos until the communist takeover in 1975. It's known for its beauty, its Buddhist temples and monasteries, and its chill atmosphere. Strikingly, while Luang Prabang is full of tourists, it didn't feel like a tourist trap (unlike, say, Lijiang) -- hopefully it'll continue to withstand the ravages of time and tourism.
What did we do in Luang Prabang? We woke up to the sounds of the rooster crowing and the procession of monks begging for alms.* We enjoyed quiet breakfasts in the courtyard at Lao Wooden House. We rambled down to the banks of the Nam Kahn river. We wandered aimlessly through town, checking out a number of the Buddhist temples, which feature a striking contrast between monastic simplicity and ornately decorated wats. We "window-shopped" in the night market and climbed Mount Phou Si to see the town from above.
Tea with sugar "for the goodtime" during breakfast at Lao Wooden House
View from Mount Phou Si
With the slow pace of life in Luang Prabang, we took time to enjoy things you won't find mentioned in any tourist guidebook. We sat and watched local guys play a sport (I wish I knew what it was called) in somebody's backyard. They played in teams of two, with a badminton-height net, and no hands allowed. We snacked on crickets. We stopped to admire the flowers. We drank from coconuts.
Our two day trips, one by moped to Kuang Si falls, and one on elephant(!) at Elephant Village, were true highlights. You'll see posts with photos of those soon.
* Begging for alms is a daily tradition for the monks of Luang Prabang. The monks, all dressed in orange robes, line up and walk through town, collecting food from locals and tourists. "Begging for alms" in Lao culture contains none of the negative connotations -- it is, rather, a privilege for the giver.
** I knew very little about the history of Laos before arriving. In a sense, the country exists today because of French colonialism: from the 18th century until 1893, when it became a French protectorate, Laos was divided into three different kingdoms which could have been subsumed by the stronger powers in the region -- Thailand, China, Vietnam. Like Cambodia, Laos was neutral during the Vietnam War; like Cambodia, it did not escape unscathed. "From 1964 to 1973, the US dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions -- equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years -- making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history" (source).