Spirit house in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang: The Tourist Trail Isn’t So Bad After All

We couldn’t leave mainland Southeast Asia without first sampling the delights of Luang Prabang and Angkor Wat. Luang Prabang is the one place in Laos where shit works. Restaurants never confused our order, the city is walkable, and the tourist sites are well run and worth checking out. A lot of backpackers and tour groups come here so it is definitely not off the beaten track. There are some irksome features such as the frankly tedious and overly large night market that clogs up the main drag, and the tourist hordes around the beautiful tak bak ceremony are frankly unpalatable. However, the UNESCO designation means that it is one of the few large towns in Southeast Asia that retains a timeless air. After bitching about tourist crowds in our last post, we really enjoyed Luang Prabang and stayed longer than we planned.

Highlights

  • The temples. All 33 of them.
  • Great local food and drink
  • Traditional urban architecture
  • For a tourist city it is surprisingly friendly and hassle free
  • Local handicrafts
  • The very sobering UXO center

When we were there
February 12-16 2016

Lowlights

  • Night market

GETTING THERE & AWAY

We jumped on the pickup from Nong Khiaw. It cost about $4.50. It was fast and efficient and naturally air conditioned! Another pickup dropped us right at the hotel for less than fifty cents. We flew out to Siem Reap in Cambodia on Lao Airlines. Since there are no budget airlines in Lao this really is the expensive option. But, to be honest we couldn’t face the idea of traveling another two or three days overland.

FOOD AND DRINK

Luang Prabang may well be the posh food capital of Southeast Asia. There was all manner of expensive continental cuisine and even a raw food restaurant. Thankfully, budget travelers are well catered for too.

  • Breakfast and lunch at the baguette and juice stands on the main street. We particularly liked the chickoo milk shakes, mango/mint/ginger smoothies, and starfruit juice. The PBJ baguettes hit the spot for breakfast and tofu/avocado baguettes for lunch.
  • The coconut shake at L’Etranger was delicious
  • The buffets in the main market were exceptionally good value for dinner.
  • The grilled fish stuffed with lemongrass was as divine as it sounds!
  • There was good fruit a plenty too. Chickoos, jackfruit, and mango were all in season. Laura is a chickoo addict and Laos was the first time we had seen them on this trip.
  • Paul ate an insect in the market. Very tasty but he didn’t go back for seconds!

OUR STORY


After a few rough and ready guest houses in Laos, we decided to treat ourselves to something a little nicer. The French-Lao owned View Khem Khong was a delightful heritage guesthouse on the Mekong riverfront. The room was a little small but it was a very cosy little retreat with stylish touches. It was the first place in Laos without a stinky toilet! The service was excellent too. At $25 it was a little more expensive than anywhere else we stayed in Laos, but far nicer.

A Wander through Luang Prabang

Novices in the woods
Novices on Mt. Phousi

Luang Prabang is that rare destination, an Asian city that is pleasant to stroll around. The standout feature of Luang Prabang is the architectural uniformity redolent of a long past age. This is one of the only cities in Southeast Asia with well-preserved traditional and colonial architecture along with a multitude of glittering Buddhist wats. The temples represent many different eras of Laos history but to the non-expert they exhibit a pleasing uniformity. Because of the UNESCO designation most civic, tourist, and private buildings in the central area maintain their original character. It was nice being in a town center and not seeing the ubiquitous yellow Beerlao signs everywhere.

Many cities in Asia have incredible buildings, the Taj Mahal in Agra and the main square in Esfahan immediately come to mind, but the overall effect is muted by the disastrous modern ugly sprawls that surround them. No such problem in Luang Prabang.

Alley. Luang Prabang
Little alley in Luang Prabang.

Spirit house
A nat (spirit) house: a Lao animist tradition.

There are at least 33 wats (Buddhist temples) in Luang Prabang. We didn’t visit all of them, but popped into several to get some understanding of typical Lao religious architecture.

Naga staircase
Wat Xieng Thong

Craning monk
A monk is never without a cell phone.

The morning produce market is a great place to pick up fruits, vegetables, and the odd fried insect snack. While the market doesn’t have a fraction of the color of the markets in Mandalay or Mrauk U, it was still an interesting place to wander. There was a great selection of fruit, including Laura’s favorite, the chickoo (aka sapodilla or sawo). Humble in appearance, like a small potato, this fruit has a sweet flesh with a malty caramel flavor. Chickoo milkshakes have to be one of the greatest rare pleasures of the tropics.

Chikku. Market
Chickoos.

White and green. Wet market
Produce at the morning market.

Artfully arranged. Market
Artfully arranged goods at the market.

Luang Prabang’s food options hit the spot for us after a few too many plates of fried vegetables and rice in northern Laos. We became regulars at the sandwich stands across from the tourist office on the main street. A row of vendors sells cheap, tasty baguette sandwiches and fresh fruit juices. I think we averaged three fresh juices a day!


In the evening, a food market bursts into life next to the tourist office. We kept coming back for the grilled fish stuffed with lemongress and brushed with soy sauce. At $4 for a fish big enough for two, it was a real bargain and one of the best fish dishes we have had on this trip.

Lemongrass fish. Night market
Lemongrass fish at the night market.

Handicrafts

We had seen a bunch of cool textiles in the villages of Northern Laos, but not much quality stuff for sale. Again, Luang Prabang came up with the goods. The Ock Pop Tock handicraft center just south of the main town is a lovely spot to wander around for an hour or so. You can see the whole process of making silk textiles from silk worm to weaved clothing and handicrafts. The handicrafts were pitched at the rich tour group market but for some aspirational browsing it certainly hit the spot.

Weaving in progress. Ock Pop Tok
Weaving in progress at Ock Pop Tok.

On the way back into town we bumped into Kate, our on-and-off hiking buddy in the Everest region in Nepal. When we last saw her, she was hoping to stay in Nepal for five months working on a volunteer program. Expectations were not met and she abandoned it a few weeks in. It is amazing how many times I hear the same scenario when I am traveling. It is probably why I have never ventured to do something similar. I visit countries, put some money in the local economy, and occasionally help out the odd person in dire need. I have done my bit. Kate is now traveling around with her daughter and seems happy enough doing that for the rest of her sabbatical. We haven’t bumped into too many people again and again on this trip. It take that as a good sign. It means we are not on the BPT (banana pancake trail) too often.

Later on we headed to the Traditional Arts and Ethnography Center. The museum is quite small but beautifully formed and features handicrafts and clothing from many Lao tribes. They have handicrafts and clothes for sale in the back of the museum and, thankfully, this time they were pitched more in line with our budget. We picked up a couple of nice items. They were beautifully weaved and since the majority of the cash goes to the producer you know you are directly helping villagers in remoter regions.

War is stupid, and people are stupid… but, years later kids are getting fucking maimed!

My grandparents' tax dollars at work. UXO Centre
Laura’s grandparents’ tax dollars at work. UXO Lao center.

Our next stop highlighted the ugly side of life. We dropped into the UXO Center, which leads local efforts to remove, and educate local people about, the dangers of unexploded bombs. Although most people are familiar with the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, fewer people were familiar with the simultaneous covert war fought in Laos. American forces secretly dropped an incredible amount of bombs on Laos in an effort to disrupt Viet Cong supply lines. Astonishingly, there were more bombs dropped on Laos during the secret war than were dropped in all of World War 2. Many of these bombs, in particular the rather nasty cluster bombs, had a high failure rate so many unexploded bombs remain on Lao soil. Every year, farmers accidentally detonate UXO while plowing their fields and children pick up grenades they find on the ground. The UXO center has programs to educate local children about the dangers of UXO, but many injuries and fatalities still occur every year.

The UXO Center shows some informative videos and displays some of the decommissioned hardware. It seems incredible to me that people in the world go to work every day and design and build this shit. Even worse, that people want to use them. It seems remarkable to me when Lao people are still being maimed and killed by this hideous stuff that many Americans are in favor of it. I suppose you have to move on from history, but there was no doubt it made us feel slightly uncomfortable. Even if it wasn’t our generation that fought these wars.

‘The horror, the horror’

Tak bat monks.
Monks and tourists at the tak bat ceremony.

There was another horror to behold before we left Luang Prabang. The city has a sizeable monastic community. It is a tradition in Lao Buddhism for monks to partake in a daily alms round. This is actually a deeply meditative activity, creates a strong bond between monks and lay people, and puts heaps of good food in the monk’s bowl. The alms round in Luang Prabang takes place at dawn. The tak bak, as it is called in Lao, is undeniably photogenic with the monks resplendent in their bright orange robes, walking the misty streets, and collecting alms from locals who are kneeling on the ground with pots of food.

Sadly, tourists are having a significant negative impact on the ceremony. Some pious Buddhist travelers respectfully join in and give alms but some travelers sit there with poor quality food as a decoy so they can rudely stick cameras in the faces of the monks. Even worse are the large tour groups. They stand in front of the procession snapping away, breaking the meditative poise of the monks. The Chinese tour groups are the most obnoxious. The monks looked thoroughly fed up and practically ran through town. We tried our best to keep a respectful distance across the street (the photo above is cropped), but no matter what, you just know you are part of the problem. Personally, I think tourist bystanders should be barred from the ceremony. At the very least, they should be forced to stand on the opposite side of the road. Definitely one of the worst examples we have seen of tourists radically altering the character of a local event or sight.

The mixture of easy going Laotian life, good food, and hassle-free tourist sights certainly lifted our spirits. For us, Luang Prabang was not the most exciting place but it left us with favorable impressions of Laos. For sure, there are probably more exciting parts of Laos but none of them sounded as thrilling as places in Indonesia, Philippines, and Malaysian Borneo, places which would occupy us for the next four months or so. You can’t see everywhere in every country so you constantly make tradeoffs when traveling. One of our current travel maxims is to choose places that are more or less unique to a particular country. It sometimes means you hit the crowds, but we have done well to avoid them for most of the trip.

Photos

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2 thoughts on “Luang Prabang: The Tourist Trail Isn’t So Bad After All

  1. Dad

    Liked the short monk with the craning cell phone. Are you back in Indonesia now?
    What sort of app are you working on?
    Love, Dad

    Reply

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