Luang Prabang

Charmed in Luang Prabang

I have always had a hankering to go to Luang Prabang, so with a few days up my sleeve, and being in the neighbourhood (or near enough), I took a short plane ride to Laos.  New day, new year, new country!

A charming and sleepy little town, which was once the capital and seat of power when the Royal Family ruled Laos, it’s easy to see why why it has become so popular with travellers.  There’s plenty to see and it’s easy to access, and if you don’t feel like doing much it’s the perfect place to sit in a local restaurant and do not very much other than drink local coffee or tea (or something stronger if you fancy) and watch the world go by.

It was very wet, and surprisingly cold when I arrived, however I wandered around the pretty town for a bit getting my bearings.  Every second shop seemed to offer tours, or sell touristy souvenirs, so a typical travel hot spot.

The first evening I walked up to Mount Phousi to visit a temple and admire the views over the rather overcast town.  This sounds much more impressive than it really was, as the Mount is really just a largish hill with 410 steps up to the temple.  Coming down the other side (only 327 steps, so I definitely took the long way up), you arrive back on the main street, which is closed off in the evenings and converted to night markets.  Should you want a scarf or a t-shirt then this is the place for you.  Nothing tempted me.

Luang Prabang

Views from Mount Phousi

I had a very early start the next morning, as one of the main reasons for me to visit was to see the monks collecting alms.  Every morning at dawn, orange-robed monks and novices walk barefoot through the streets collecting offerings from the people.  It sounds beautiful and serene, but at this time of the year the offerings come more from visiting Thai tourists on package tours, than the local villagers.  The streets were lined with people ready with their offerings while designated members of their group are the photographers for the day, snapping the proceedings as it were a competitive sport.  I was most amused at the visiting tourist monks photographing the local monks.

Luang Prabang

Monks collecting alms. Dog looking for whatever he can!

Life for a monk these days is quite different to what it once must have been, with temples equipped with satellite dishes and wifi, and I spied many of the the young novices playing soccer or hacky sack.  Some of them looked so young!  However they will come in as novices mainly for the opportunity to be educated, often for only a very short time.

After the hustle and bustle of the dawn ceremony, I transferred to a private boat and headed upstream on the Mekong for a couple of hours.  It was a beautiful, peaceful and very scenic trip, with just me on a huge boat.  The green riverbanks were dotted with temples, and occasionally there would be a flash of orange as I spotted a monk in the garden, or fishing, or doing some morning chores.  Mostly however it was thick, dense green jungle and it was gorgeous.

Luang Prabang

Views from the Mekong. Flashes of orange are monks.

My destination was some limestone caves, filled with thousands of Buddha statues ranging from the tiniest of only a centimetre or two high, to huge seated Buddhas that dwarfed me.  The caves had also once been used by the King as a hideout for his military, so there was an interesting history to the Pak Ou Caves.

Luang Prabang

Pak Ou Caves, where there are thousands of Buddha statues

We stopped off on the way back to Luang Prabang at a small village that makes rice whisky.  I sampled a couple – the first was basically fire water, while the other one was quite drinkable.  The villagers had bottled up the rice whisky in jars for purchase.  Some of the more special ones were sold with local delicacies in them for added strength, such as snakes and scorpions.  I shuddered, and declined.

Luang Prabang

Bottles of rice whisky – snake or scorpion?

Laos is a fascinating country and having gone there with very little understanding of its history or politics, it was interesting to learn more.  My guide, Po, was surprisingly open about the corruption and pointed out the luxury cars being driven by Government officials.  He also told me that in 2009 he graduated from university with an economics degree and tried to get a job in the public service.  However in order for his application to be considered favourably he needed to pay 10 million kip, which is the equivalent of around $US1300.  Now that’s a lot of money whoever you are, however the Laos GDP per capita is around $US1570, so that gives you an inkling of exactly what a princely sum that is, and how unattainable getting a position in the government is for an ordinary person.

As Po and I walked around Luang Prabang and viewed the sights he explained some of the history of Laos to me.  He frequently referenced 1975 not as when the Communists came into power, but when the Royal family was ‘re-educated’. As I was wandering around the town visiting the Royal Palace, admiring the magnificent temples built by the last King, and seeing the numerous luxury vehicles of the Royal Family (mostly gifts from the US government, a couple from the French) it soon became clear why re-education was necessary.

The town is filled with temples and interesting places to see.  Most are a brilliant gold, so I asked Po if they were gold painted or gold leaf.  He looked at me strangely and confirmed it was gold paint. He said if it were gold leaf, there would be people there every night stripping off the gold for themselves.  I was reminded Laos is still a very poor country.  However someone is making a fortune out of gold paint!

Luang Prabang

At the Royal Palace

Luang Prabang

Buddha at a temple. Wat Sensoukarahm perhaps?

Luang Prabang

Someone, somewhere, is making a killing on gold paint.

 

Luang Prabang

Detail of door panel

Luang Prabang

Detail of door panel. Note that she is standing in the flames to demonstrate her purity….

Luang Prabang

Waterfalls near Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang

Waterfalls near Luang Prabang

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