Luang Prabang, LAOS, October 14-16 – Welcome to a place in our world where in several ways ‘time stands still’. Laos PDR (People’s Democratic Republic) really means ‘Laos Please Don’t Rush’ … and for the most time, nobody does. Flying down through the lush green mountainous valley, following the mighty (muddy) Mekong River, one immediately is surprised by the tiny airport amid the fields. In fact our Boeing 757 seems just enormous here. We disembarked to heat & humidity and clear air, but it’s bearable because Autumn is already settling here over the hills of Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang is always a lovely discovery to our clients … as it has been to so many travelers, as well as historians and archaeologists. It’s rather a ‘jewel’ of a little town slipped on to a slender finger of land at the confluence of two rivers, the Nam Khan and Mekong. Circled by lush green mountains, this sweet little town of gentle pace retains some outstanding examples of regional Lao architecture, side by side a unique blend of local and European-style buildings. Laos has – for most of its life as a country – been dominated by others … Thai, Japanese, French, & American. Luang Prabang, the former royal capital city, is a blend of traditional and colonial. Acknowledging its uniqueness and importance to mankind, Luang Prabang was designated a World Heritage Site in 1995. So, parts of the old town have thankfully benefited from a considerable amount of restoration work.
Our delightful colonial home here is the ‘story book’ hotel of Belmond group, La Residence Phou Vao. Positioned atop a hill, gazing across the sacred mountains, and with stunning views, this colonial splendor seems unreal to be here. This hill was a playground to the last king of Laos … a quiet private place where as a young boy he was brought to play in the jungle and fly kites. As a gift later his father built him a royal ‘Residence’ here … and today we get to enjoy it. It is the only hotel in Luang Prabang built on Phou Vao hill, – translated as the hill of the kites. It’s a tranquil place with all the needed ‘creature comforts’, excellent cuisine beautiful tropical gardens, large garden suites with balconies, and a lagoon pool with infinity edge overlooking the dense green forest. We are all very happy here!
Our arrival brought us the age old Lao tradition (since 8th Century) … predating Buddhism here. This “Baci Ceremony” of traditional welcome is considered the most respectful and proper form of welcome. During the ceremony at La Residence, an Eminent Monk leads us in prayer and chanting and selected Lao ladies tie white strings symbolizing long life and health around our wrists while offering prayers for our present and future well being and protection. A small ‘toast’ of rice wine is offered. We all enjoyed a delightful dinner party on the outdoor veranda overlooking the beautiful tiled pool … lanterns strung in trees … while being entertained by a group of young dancers (all young girls), dancing the fable folklore stories of Lao for us. Already the “magic” of Laos is upon us. Did I mention we are all very happy here?!
We began our explorations the following morning … after a leisurely breakfast at our hotel, we set off to the nearby “morning market”. By 9am it’s already a hive of activity of sellers’ stalls and buyers (locals and tourists). A long street of stalls. It’s fun to be a part of the bustle. This is where traditionally Laotians come to buy their daily provisions … from fresh veggies and fruits, eggs (chicken and duck), fresh teas and coffees and assorted rice, poultry and river fish (catfish and carp), pork and water buffalo, even frogs, squirrel, and live birds in cages. Several of our group bought the live birds in rattan cages … for a releasing ceremony later in the nearby garden park. It was a good time for all in the market.
We walked over to the former royal palace, now the National Museum. An interesting place showcasing the home life of the former Lao royal family during the 20th century. This palace – a large house amid gardens – was built by the French in the early 1900s and was occupied by the royals until 1975. Nearby, we visited the more stunning small temples of Luang Prabang (Wat Visoun, Wat Aham, Wat Xieng Thong). Our lunch was at a local downtown restaurant, L’Elephant and most of the group enjoyed the good local Lao beer (a partnership with Carlsberg). We celebrated a birthday of one of the guests in our group. For the heat of the afternoon we retreated back to our ‘sanctuary’, Le Residence de Belmond.
Close to sunset we set off for the ‘night market’, a longstanding tradition of cities in this region of the world. A whole street is closed down by 5:30pm and is almost instantly transformed to a long walking outdoor market of goods and handicrafts. Bartering is expected. Our group enjoyed some easy shopping for basic interesting colorful local crafts.
Our second day required a pre-dawn wake-up … for very good reason. The ritual of ‘Alms to the Monks’ each morning at dawn. Hundreds of monks move around the town, their woven baskets in hand. The monks live entirely on donations of food and money. We are all seated along a key street as dozens of monks stream by. Besides giving some local currency, we also gave balls of sticky rice, bread rolls, as well as fruit and apples. It was a great experience to give in person. We, of course, headed back for a delicious breakfast at our hotel. Mid-morning we took a private boat ride up the Mekong River. We headed up to the Tham Pak Ou caves, an interesting cave temple up in the rocky hillsides along the river. En route we stopped at a local Lao river village, Ban Xiang Hai, which is famous for making the 55% proof rice whisky, as well as the lesser strength rice wine. It’s a truly delightful river ride along the ‘mighty’ Mekong. On our return downriver we can see elephants bathing in the river in the distance.
The afternoon offered time for enjoying more hedonist lifestyle at our lovely hotel sanctuary, or visiting nearby families who specialize in paper making silk making (from silk worms) & weaving. Both of these are becoming lost art forms around the world, but not so here where families and friends still pride themselves in paper making from wood bark, and silk making (spinning and weaving) and the use of local fruits and seeds and barks for natural dye coloring.
In the evenings, we had our choice, as usual on Lakani luxury jet tours, to dine in our hotel’s excellent dining room or select from the good local restaurants found in Luang Prabang.. Fusion style cooking and blending of spices brings East together with West. Good healthy fresh foods with aromatic flavors that we all enjoyed along with a great selection of international wines. There’s a beautiful crescent moon hanging over us this evening. The Mekong has slivers of silver light dancing … we’re so happy and content in this little paradise place called Laos.
It’s a leisurely morning to swim, exercise, walk, read, daydream, and breakfast on our balconies or the cool dining room veranda. Our luggage was quickly collected from inside our rooms and whisked away to airport and onto our ‘sky bird’. Later we moved that way too … easily and efficiently … and all too soon we were on board with champagne and fresh fruit juices and even an ‘Eminent Monk’ (one of our guests with a good sense of humor). We’re soaring skyward … climbing higher into the skies and spectacular circling up and away from the densely forested lush green mountains. And there’s the mighty Mekong flowing far away below us. We’re leveling out … setting course, looking forward. It’s too soon to leave Laos but there’s already anticipation in the air. We’re staying with the tropical exotic … heading southwest and rather more toward the equator. We are headed to the large island of Sri Lanka, southeast of India, formerly known as Ceylon, and our next base in the capital city of Colombo.