As a red moon hazily settled over the Mekong river, my heart felt so full. This was the Asia that I had dreamt of seeing. With a fresh coconut in hand, we gazed down the toffee coloured river, watching the barges sleepily come and go. Beneath the distant outline of a rickety bamboo bridge, saffron-robed monks thrashed playfully in the water. Crickets hummed to the palpably slow rhythm of Laotian life; time seemed to pass in slow motion here, at a pace that I could truly embrace.
Nestled along the Mekong, the city of Luang Prabang’s intoxicatingly languid atmosphere will draw you in. After all, “The Jewel of Indochina” is a big title to live up to and the city achieves this effortlessly. No grit, no grime, and certainly no 7/11’s in sight, Luang Prabang is seemingly frozen in time. The perfect place to re-charge and re-focus, I left invigorated by a new sense of clarity and returned to Hong Kong with an inspired mind.
If you’re in search of a party destination, then Luang Prabang may not be for you. A UNESCO World Heritage site that is remarkably untouched by tourism, its magic and history are still perfectly intact. With monks disappearing down the streets wherever you go, and the hundreds of ancient wats and temples, it’s clear that Buddhism is at the heart of this somnolent city. At sunrise, the locals gather for the alms giving ceremony, a fervent display of respect for the young monks embarking on their spiritual journeys.
I owe the romance leftover from French Indochina, in part, to my love affair with Luang Prabang. Dotted all over the city are old French buildings, cafes and quiet bars where you can sip red wine as tuk-tuks rattle by. Nestled in the palm trees of the Mekong were abandoned colonial mansions that glared down over the tin shacks and bamboo huts below them. Here, the contrast between the exuberant French rule and sleepy south Asian life felt even stranger. This is a place where you can cycle to a bakery for croissants in the baking Asian sun and occasionally make light French conversation with the older generations. Sipping coffee beneath the shutters of a quintessentially French café as the atavistic throb of drums and Monks in prayer began to reverberate down the streets will remain one of my fondest memories of Luang Prabang.
Across from La Banneton was the “Phon Heuang”, a temple situated in the heart of the monks’ living quarters. With no tourists in sight, we ventured cautiously around the exteriors of these beautiful, tiered-roofed temples. A young monk approached us and invited us into his classroom to meet his school mates. A long-standing cultural tradition, it’s expected of Laoation boys to leave behind their local tribes and live in the city as a “novice”. Cheeky and curious, they were enthusiastic to practice their English and learn more about us, too.
Hundreds of temples are scattered across the city and we frequently lost hours to temple-hopping. Residing between two banyan trees is Wat Aham, dating back to the 14th century, it has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt due to local superstitions. Intricately decorated in gold and red, the walls are covered with depictions of scenes from the Jakata tales and other murals show the punishments faced in Buddhist hell.
In the early morning sun, we ventured on a barge for a two hour journey to the Pak Ou caves. They were filled with 400 year old yet well preserved Buddhas that we examined in the darkness by torchlight. Along with the Kuang Si waterfalls, this was our only experience that actually felt “touristy”. Wading in and out of the hordes of people made it difficult to imagine what these caves were once like. People travelled here on pilgrimages to worship, leaving the statues behind as offerings to Buddha and the river spirit. A strange, magical shrine hidden away in the limestone, it felt intrusive to be there, as though we had stumbled upon something that should have been kept secret.
Rather than racing through our to-do list, we joined in with the slow pace of life. Utopia was my favourite place to take a book, sip mango juice and gaze over the Mekong river. We also loved the L’Etranger where you can borrow a book and relax on their mats if you need to escape the sun for a few hours.
There you have it. A brief travel diary of our time in Luang Prabang. Stay tuned for my next post where I will tell you about the “Top Things To Do in Luang Prabang”!