We were blessed to spend four days in Laos and specifically, in the UNESCO World Heritage Site city of Luang Prabang.
Day One – Luang Prabang
We arrived in Luang Prabang, an absolutely beautiful city located in Laos, at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan Rivers. The city was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1995, and has been called one of the most romantic, intriguing and magical cities in Southeast Asia. It’s just charming. The city is a lovely hybrid of Asian and French culture. The French occupied Laos from the late 1800s until 1945 when World War II ended. The quiet streets of the city are lined with beautiful French colonial style buildings on one side and awe inspiring temples on the other. The population here is only 60,000. It is a very safe city and the people are so incredibly kind.
We arrived late in the day and set out for dinner at 3 Nagas [Nagas is the name of the serpent protector on the top of the temples here]. 3 Nagas was named the best restaurant in Luang Prabang by the New York Times, and the food, the atmosphere and the service were delightful. We ordered each of the specialties of the house. For appetizers, eggplant puree wrapped with fresh rice noodles and vegetables and we had deep-fried Mekong riverweed [seaweed] served with a spicy buffalo jam. For the main course, we ordered chicken and onions marinated in a red coconut curry and we ordered steam fish in a banana leaf. Everything was spectacular. The atmosphere of the restaurant is gorgeous, and, with the tables set outside beneath paper lanterns and banana trees, you feel completely relaxed. They even had our place setting ready, with Timothy James painted on a banana leaf.
After dinner, we strolled down the main street in Luang Prabang called Sisavangvong, where you will find upscale boutiques, hotels and restaurants. At the western end of the block, you will find the night market, where vendors sell their wares. The night market, located in front of a stunning temple, takes place under bright red and blue tents, which creates a great backdrop for the market. The market carries the smells of the local street food and the incense that vendors burn along the way.
We next headed along the banks of the Mekong River to take a stroll. There were restaurants and singing and dancing taking place along the way by locals and tourists alike. The trees on both sides are filled with various shapes and sizes of paper lanterns, which add a mystical ambience to the waterfront. The paper lanterns are made in Laos of paper made by hand from the Saa tree. At one point, there was a restaurant where you pick your meat, vegetables and other condiments and you cook it yourself over hot pots set up on picnic tables. The cost of this, “all you can eat” treasure was approximately $8 U.S dollars. The exchange rate here is approximately 8,000 Kip for $1. As a tourist, you don’t have to carry around a big stack of Kip, as most everyone here takes U.S dollars and/or credit cards as payment. We finished our lovely stroll along the water and returned to the hotel for the evening.
Day Two in Luang Prabang
We woke up at the crack of dawn to meet our guide for the daily aims-giving procession throughout the city. Monks from the monasteries across the city form a procession at around 6 am each morning to collect donations of food [largely sticky rice], snacks and money for their breakfast. The local people gather along the side of the roads where the monks walk in line, with the most senior monk in the front and the most junior [usually young boys] in the back. They open their begging baskets and as they proceed past the local people sitting in chairs outfitted with a black and white check shawl, rice is dropped into their basket. Monks only eat breakfast and lunch. They rely on donations to eat. It was such a beautiful sight to see – the orange of the monk robes against the light of the rising sun. Tim took part in the ceremony, wearing a blue and white checked shawl [tourist] and sitting on a small stool, he handed out rice to the monks as they walked by. It was a truly humbling experience.
When the procession of monks ended, we walked over the morning market, where locals gather to purchase vegetables, meat, herbs and honestly, anything you can think of to cook. There was also barbeque that you could buy ready made and noodles with different types of broth and condiments to make the perfect bowl of soup. The colors were vibrant and the smells wafting through the market made us hungry for breakfast. We returned to the hotel for our breakfast and a short nap before heading out again with our guide in the early afternoon.
Our first stop was the Royal Palace Museum, which was built in 1909 in the Villa Maly architectural style during the period of French colonization. The palace was built as the home of King Sisavang Vong and the royal family. In 1975, it was converted to a museum containing ancient artifacts and information about the royal family and how they lived. In the back, there is a garage with cars that were gifted to the king from various countries to win favor. Most of the cars were from the United States, including that classic clunker, the Edsel.
Luang Prabang is densely populated with temples. At one point they had over 60, but the various wars over the years and other calamities has unfortunately reduced that number to 34 wats [word for temples in Laos’ language]. We visited a few of the highlighted wats in the city in the afternoon.
The first, and most beautiful, is Wat Xieng Thong, renowned for its magnificent tree-of-life mosaic on one side of the temple. The mosaic comes to life at sunrise and sunset, as the branches made of colored glass, sparkle in the sun. The temple has beautiful teakwood panels around the mosaic and low-sweeping tiered roofs that are just stunning in person. We tried to capture it in pictures. The temple was built in 1559 and as such it carries significant cultural and historic significance.
We also visited Wat Wisunarat, or Wat Visoun for short! This is Luang Prabang’s oldest temple, dating back to 1513 and the reign of King Wisunarat. The wat has a storied past. It was first crafted of wood, but was burned by enemies in 1887. Then it was rebuilt with stucco and brick to house the artifacts that remained after the first invasion. It is an amazing site made more visual by the orange of the monks’ robes strolling past this historic place.
At 5:00 pm, we climbed the 200+ stairs to get to the top of Mount Phou Si or the “Holy Mountain,” where you can watch the sunset and take in panoramic views of the rivers that surround each side of the town and the city itself. The sunset over the Mekong River at approximately 6:00 pm, and it was worth every minute waiting for it.
While it was hard to top that stunning sunset, we headed over to a local Laos restaurant called Coconut Gardens, where we sampled traditional Laos food, including chicken steamed in a banana leaf with sticky rice and a spicy sauce, beef and onions in an oyster sauce, fish soup and a fresh salad. The restaurant is decorated with a myriad of lanterns hanging overhead in a courtyard sitting across from the banks of the Mekong River. What a way to end another amazing day in Laos.
Day Three – Pak Ou Caves
Our guide picked us up in the morning and drove us to the village of Ban Xang Khong, renowned for the villagers hand made silk scarves and other products using traditional loom techniques that have been passed on from generation to generation, and beautiful paper products made from the bark of the Saa Tree. The locals gave us a demonstration on how silk is made, all the way from the silk worms, to the cocoons of the silk worms and the evolution of raw silk to the loom. We then received a demonstration of how paper is made from the Saa Tree, from start to finish, with Tim helping to grind the pulp with a see-saw type tool. The paper is often decorated with flowers and leaves to enhance the beauty of the paper which is used to make notebooks, cards and other gorgeous products. We purchased several silk scarves of various colors for gifts and we also bought two hand painted paper paintings representing traditional Laos’ traditions. The shop will take credit cards and will take care of shipping the products to you so you don’t have to carry them on your journey.
After the village, we walked down to the banks of the Mekong River where our private wooden boat was waiting to take us on the two hour journey to the Pak Ou Caves. The boat was like a private Chris Craft-like wooden boat, very upscale, with your own private bar and bathroom on board [very important for me, LOL]. We were awestruck by the beauty of the Mekong and the village life that we were able to observe as we made our way leisurely down the river. Farm life, wild water buffalo and elephants coming down to the river for water and to play at the banks – it was all there to for us to see.
Just before we arrived to the Pak Ou Caves, we stopped at the Ben Xang Hai Village, which is the whiskey village. They make whiskey there and we observed the process under which it is made and then Tim sampled some of the whiskey. The rest of the village is a mix of vendors selling products made in Laos and brought in from China and Thailand. While we would not recommend this village as a destination, it is right on the way to Pak Ou Caves, and it’s location makes it worth the 15 minute stop.
The Pak Ou Caves is one of the most significant holy sites in Laos and has a history dating back more than 1,000 years. Although there are many limestone caves around this site, there are two main caves that are part of the Pak Ou Caves that are open for view. The caves are renowned for the over 4,000 [and growing] Buddhas that have been placed there by pilgrims over the years. The Buddhas are in many shapes and sizes and they take various positions, including the teaching pose, peace, rain and the reclining Buddha. The lower cave is easier to access. The upper cave has over 200 steep steps that you need to climb to get there and you will need a flashlight to view the Buddhas there, but the more significant Buddhas are contained there and it is worth the effort to get there. No matter what religion you are, you cannot help but feel at peace when you are in the presence of these breathtaking symbols of love.
We finished at Pak Ou Caves and got back on the boat for our one hour cruise back to our hotel [two hours going, one hour back because of the current of the river]. We had scheduled a Laos massage at the finest hotel in Luang Prabang, The Sofitel. The massage was a perfect day to end our day.
Day Four – The Khouang Si Waterfall
It is with a heavy heart that I say this is our last day in Laos. Off to Vietnam tonight. However, before we departed, we headed to the stunning three-tier Khouang Si Waterfall located about 18 miles south of Luang Prabang. Shallow pools at the top of a steep hillside lead to the main waterfall. The main fall has a cascade of approximately 200 feet and the water collects in a myriad of turquoise pools as it flows downstream. We walked down a path to the left of the falls to reach them. While the pools are open to swimming, we chose to take pictures and observe it’s beauty as we have a flight to catch later in the day. STUNNING!!!
Off to Vietnam…. We cannot wait to see what adventures lay ahead for us. This trip has been spectacular so far. We have been here one week and have five more weeks to go!