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Luang Prabang is a Hinterland Outpost and I Love It

It is such a shame that Luang Prabang is tucked away in northern Laos, demanding a two day slow boat arrival or 19 hour overnight bus ride. I didn’t know it when I arrived, but this colonial gem was (for me), Laos’ redemption.

Before I left for Southeast Asia, all I knew was that Laos was the youngest sibling of its four neighbors, and very up-and-coming with the backpacker scene. Travelers were flooding into this country to exploit its natural beauty and its laid back attitude. I felt like the last person I knew who hadn’t been to Southeast Asia, let along Laos. Thus, I had a very definite, albeit skewed perception of Laos. What I didn’t know was that the country is very much third world and borderline comatose. This is why Luang Prabang, in reflection, justified my travel time invested in Laos.

The main street lined with old French style architecture dominates the centre of this picturesque city. In the evening vendors flood the street, creating a very colorful and animated night market. The market was full of handicrafts and unique contraband items that would cause a stir at customs (turtle shells, anyone?) The street also hosted the first bakery I had encountered in a couple of weeks, scoring major points for donuts. Ascending the nearby Phousi Temple afforded  a gorgeous vantage point of the surrounding area.

Luang Prabang is also a very good place to view Alms Giving (if you can manage to wake up early enough…or stay up late enough). This practice sees monks walking down various streets to collect rice and other foodstuffs, which provides them sustenance for the day. Crawling out of bed at this hour and finding an obscure place to sit on the street, I was endeared by the number of townspeople who also rise very early each day to give food to the monks upon which they are so dependent. The monks walk in groups respective of their temple affiliation in order of height, which is also charming. What isn’t charming but actually seriously annoying are the tourists who make a point to stand in the direct path of the Alms and chat loudly or take photos. They are clearly oblivious or ignorant (or whatever) to the fact that this isn’t primarily a tourist attraction, but central to the monks’ practice of Buddhism. While tourists are welcome to buy rice and hand out food alongside townspeople, one couple had me gagging. As the last visible group approached the corner I was sitting at, a Western woman and her husband ran up. Very loudly and panicky (as she was about to miss feeding the zoo animals) she plunked down and began to scoop rice into the canisters. Doing so, she was yelling at her husband, “Are you taping this?! Are you getting it?” The best part was that the husband fumbled the camera completely and missed the whole thing.

Other activities in the area include visiting two waterfalls which provide nice hiking and swimming (depending on which season it is). We only visited Kuang Si (the taller falls), but it provided a very demanding climb to the top which was later rewarded by a refreshing swim in its largest pool. This pool also hosts some fish which are happy to feed on a person’s legs and feet, which I am not so partial to. So my swim was cut short as I tired myself out trying to keep treading water to fend them off. Note about climbing this waterfall: sandals are satisfactory footwear up but you will not likely make it down without taking them off. Sports sandals would probably be ideal but let’s be honest, I’m trying to retain some fashion dignity despite being a nomad. We weren’t able to (economically) make it to the Pak Ou Caves, so for those who do intend to go you should organize it before 2:00pm so that you can carpool. Otherwise, it isn’t very affordable as you will have to foot the 200,000 kip alone.

An interesting but annoying feature (for the socially minded) of Luang Prabang is the curfew. Hotel patrons are encouraged to return by midnight and if you arrive later the guesthouse will be gated and locked. Granted the night watchman is likely sleeping on a cot in the reception and he will probably grumble a bit when you ring in. This is duly frustrating because if you want to watch Alms giving you will have to wake a hotel employee to let you out. And if you are Canadian, one might feel a bit bad about waking said night watchman up again. This was also alarming should there be a fire, and for some reason I have been more conscious than ever about fire escapes? I digress. So you have settled into a seat (and a cocktail) at the ultra chill Utopia bar and then 11:00 happens, and that sucks. Curfew dictates that it closes and you are left to either a) go to the disco; or b) go bowling. We chose the latter. We jumped into a taxi and proceeded to be shuttled way the hell out of town. When we arrived we literally stepped into a large, 15 lane bowling alley. No, ‘bowling alley’ was no euphemism for debauchery. This well lit facility full of white foreigners could have been anywhere in middle America, and for me that was a buzz kill. For the many parties of drunk backpackers it didn’t appear to be, however have no illusions about entertainment post midnight in Luang Prabang.

Other observations about Luang Prabang

  • Food appears to be more expensive than the rest of Laos
  • Utopia Bar is a must visit. While the bar is a challenge to find, you will be happy to observe the slow Mekong from the wood patio, catch a game of volleyball or just chill and watch the collection of short videos on the projector screen.
  • Does anyone else want to start a letter writing campaign with me? $42 is too much for a visa! My country didn’t even participate in bombing yours, and you tell me that the Americans pay less than us?
  • Unless you hate your baggage, you don’t need a tuk-tuk to reach the main street from the ferry wharf. Just walk up the hill, turn left and then make a right after 50m or so. Then continue until you find yourself on what appears to be a main street.

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