Luang Prabang, Laos part 1

After Bangkok, we took the overnight train to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, where we spent a few days visiting a friend of mine from the Peace Corps. However, I’m going to skip talking about Vientiane and cover that later, as we’re going back there next week for part 2 of our visit. Instead, I’d like to chronicle our last few days in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Luang Prabang was the former capital of Laos until 1975 (until the communist takeover), and was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is simply a beautiful city set in a beautiful location and worth a visit for anyone going through southeast Asia. The city is set between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, and surrounded by lush, green mountains. It’s really something out of a postcard.

Monks receiving alms through Luang Prabang

Monks receiving alms through Luang Prabang

Our first day here was spent leisurely strolling through the old city, which, thanks to its UNESCO status, looks like an old city. It is lined with two story wood buildings with local businesses, and thankfully devoid of banks, hotels, large trucks, chain restaurants, and other cruft that tends to ruin a beautiful city by tourism. At sunset, we ascended Phou Si mountain, which is perched over the city and afforded some beautiful sunset views over the Mekong. We could also see boats practicing for the upcoming boat racing festival to mark the end of Laos’ equivalent of Lent. A stroll through the night market, the nicest (read: most authentic stuff, least in your face) we’ve seen in Asia, completed the night.

We woke up at 5 AM on our second day to witness the Alms (or tak bat) ceremony, a local tradition in which all of the local monks join a procession to receive their daily food from the people of the city (plus some tourists that participate). It was really beautiful to watch the monks walk, single file, oldest to youngest, and collect the food they will eat that day. The ritual represents the symbiotic relationship between the monks (who need the food) and the almsgivers (who need spiritual redemption).

Waterfalls at Tad Thong

Waterfalls at Tad Thong

After breakfast, we rented bikes and headed out to Tad Thong nature area/waterfall. The bike ride there was a grueling 3 mile (6km) uphill ride, with the last half on unpaved road. Our rented bikes were gearless city bikes – not recommended in hindsight! It was all worth it once we arrived – it felt like we’d immediately stepped into the “real” Laos. The nature area has two waterfalls, and a 2 km path connecting them, as well as a swimming lake with free tubes provided. The path itself was well maintained stones and some log bridges, with trash cans and signage placed along the way. It was cool to see ecotourism done well.

Approaching the village through the jungle

Approaching the village through the jungle

The hike itself, although on a stone path, was through pretty dense jungle. There was a literal “off the beaten path” option that we took to go to a small Lao village that was made up of a few wooden huts, a store, and not much else. It was just locals going about their day, smiling and saying hello to the stupid tourists wandering through, and living their lives normally and unaffected by us. Very cool to see. The waterfalls were nice, the swim in the lake was refreshing (after being drenched head to toe in sweat), and the ride back was thankfully downhill the whole way.

In the evening, we went to a nice cook-your-own-meat BBQ restaurant, and it was delicious. Usually I dislike those kind of restaurants, but something about the broth made it really good. It was a pleasant end to a pleasant day. Laos and Luang Prabang are like that, though – the pace of life is slower here, people always smile and are nice and don’t hassle you (even if it’s their job to), and most importantly, it’s a beautiful, relatively unspoiled part of the world, which is always refreshing to see.

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