If there is a more photogenic city in the world than Luang Prabang, Laos, I’d like to see it.
I’ll be the first to admit that I had never heard of Luang Prabang (“LP”) when we started planning this trip. Looking at photos online and in guidebooks, I was struck by what I saw—saffron-robed monks strolling by crumbling French colonial buildings and majestic temples and monasteries, palm trees swaying in the breeze.
Seeing the place in person, I was duly impressed. Tucked away in a green, semi-tropical valley, LP hugs the banks of the Khan and Mekong Rivers, and is within striking distance of several dramatic waterfalls. LP is Laos’s ancient capital and doesn’t look as if it has changed much in the last several hundred years, being pleasantly devoid of chain restaurants and neon lights—thank Laos’s communist government and the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status for keeping out the gaudiness.
There is a slow pace of life here. LP is almost unnervingly quiet; no trucks or buses pass through downtown, another condition of UNESCO World Heritage Status. Things get off to an early start at 6 a.m. when the monks from the various monasteries spill out into the streets to collect alms (sticky rice mostly) under the watchful eyes of a number of locals and just about every tourist in town. Bedtime, for the whole city, is early—there is an 11 p.m. curfew (strictly enforced). Visitors hoping for nightlife will be sorely disappointed; for us, traveling with Jude, it was perfect.
Even the weather cooperates in giving this place its fairy-tale charm (at least in November, when we were there). Each day starts with an atmospheric valley fog. Then, at 10 or 11 a.m., the fog lifts and gives way to pleasant sunshine, with highs generally reaching the mid to low 80s. When the sun starts to set, at 6ish, it hangs around like a giant pink orb over the Mekong for a little while, before descending in full and turning the sky into a smorgasbord of oranges and pinks.
One big highlight of any trip to Laos is the people themselves. Walking around town, Luang Prabangers (OK, that’s probably not a real word) would call us into their homes or shops to talk to us. “Where are you from?” was almost always the first question. “How you like Lao?” and: “How many days you stay here?” would usually follow.
One night, coming back to the hotel from dinner, several members of the staff who were drinking in the courtyard called me over to share a fried duck and some Beer Lao with them (they drink it with ice!). I ended up spending over an hour with them, learning about their lives and country.
It was fascinating. The receptionist’s boyfriend, who was talking with us, but spoke limited English (better than my Lao; I could only say “hi,” thank you,” and had just learned “cheers”), was a former disciple monk, a “novice” as the Laos call them. (Many Lao men are monks at one time or another in their lives. Most novices spend several years in a monastery, before moving on and doing something else. The night watchman at the hotel told me that he had been a novice for all of three days, which was supposedly enough for his family to “earn merit.” He had also been in the army for two weeks. The receptionist told me that this guy had “commitment issues.” I was beginning to see that.)
Speaking about his three years as a novice, the receptionist’s boyfriend told me that he had had to give up alcohol and touching women; he explained that novices were forbidden from talking with women at all beyond answering basic questions, lest any lascivious intent be mistakenly imputed (maybe not in those exact words). He also told me that he was only allowed to eat between dawn and noon. Like all novices, he had had to shave his head and eyebrows, but now sported a Justin-Bieber fringe.
While walking by our hotel collecting his alms, he had noticed the receptionist and thought her pretty. Once he left the brotherhood, he made his move. He went to see her in her village and asked her to go to a waterfall with him. For her part, she claims not to have noticed him (“there are like 250 novices; they all look the same”). She was also frustrated by his lack of life skills—“he doesn’t know how to ride a moped and I have to show him everything.” Apparently, his spiritual development had come at a cost.
I asked every former novice I met about the alms procession—were they annoyed by all of the tourists? Did they feel like animals in a zoo? The answers varied. They uniformly found flash photography irritating. One mentioned that Chinese and Japanese tourists were by far the worst, going as far as getting in the monks’ way, asking them to stop for photos, and generally being obtrusive. Another mentioned that Western women often were not sufficiently standoffish, and sometimes even touched the monks, which made them feel uncomfortable. (I asked the same former novice [now a mountain-biking guide] if bringing the sometimes loquacious Jude to the deadly-silent alms procession would be a problem. No, he said. Little boys are OK, but little girls are not; novices don’t appreciate having them around as they sometimes touch their robes. When we did bring Jude, on our last day, he was perfectly behaved. He watched us hand out sticky rice, and one of the novices threw him a Halls cough drop. We don’t know why.)
One guest at our hotel, a late-middle-aged American woman, receives the prize for most inappropriate monk-related behavior. Climbing Phousi Hill (the large hill in the middle of town, which houses an impressive temple and several monasteries) on one of our first days in LP, we saw this woman asking a monk for directions. She seemed to be standing very close to him, we thought, and while they talked, she touched his arm several times (we tried not to stare, but it was hard to resist looking at the first conversation we had seen between a monk and a Westerner).
When we returned to our hotel, Bliss was in the lobby using the Internet when the woman returned, the monk following just behind. The woman thanked him profusely for showing her back, then asked the hotel staff if she could bring the monk up “to talk” in her room. The monk did not say anything himself, remaining impassive (he never showed any interest from what we could tell, and seemed fairly confused by what was going on). “I think the garden is better,” the staff member politely replied. (Not only are monks prohibited from touching women, but a Lao law, on display in the hotel, prohibits foreigners from entertaining Lao members of the opposite sex in their hotel rooms.) The woman nodded in agreement, and proceeded to the garden with the monk. After they left, several moments of awkward silence followed. Subsequently, the staff exchanged a couple of words in Lao, and burst out laughing, seemingly unsure of how to react to the awkward interaction they had just witnessed.
Walking around the beautiful palm tree-lined streets of LP, or sitting in one of the French-owned bakeries, enjoying a baguette or cup of coffee, it is easy to forget how desperately poor this country is. But the numbers don’t lie. The Lao male life expectancy is 59 (it’s 63 for women); the average annual income is $2,500.
The poverty is of course there for all to see, but it’s not the constant that it is India, where the tourist is hard pressed to forget about it, even for an instant. Vendors don’t harass or harangue like in other poor countries, and instead politely ask for your business. (It was highly effective. I kept buying little trinkets and odds and ends. Jude loved them, and the cost was next to nothing.)
One afternoon when I went kayaking and biking, Bliss took on Jude by herself as a thank you for my doing the same during her cooking class. The two of them paid a visit to Big Brother Mouse, a Luang Prabang charity, to help interested locals practice their English. It was a rewarding experience for all involved, even if Jude isn’t yet the best teacher out there. We also donated Jude’s Mrs. Potato Head doll (a present from his cousin Zoe) to a local orphanage. Again, the people in LP are so nice, it’s almost impossible not to want to help them in some way.
Medical care in Laos is, unsurprisingly, fairly dire. As one travel brochure for Laos (given to us by some hotel guests we met from Brooklyn) provided, “Medical facilities and services in Laos are limited and do not meet Western standards.” Or, as our hotel owner, an Australian, succinctly put it, “self-medicate or fly to Bangkok.” He suggested that in the event we ran into any problems that we just go to a pharmacy and pick up any prescription drugs we felt we needed—they are sold without question or judgment to all takers.
Fortunately, we did not run into any health problems—not even any stomach ones. (As back up, we have travel insurance that includes air-lift/evacuation coverage; we might be adventurous, but we’re not crazy.) We felt safer eating in local restaurants knowing that Laos have a reputation for cleanliness; the norm being twice-daily bathing. The kitchens we saw in LP (including the ones we saw on the side of the road) looked cleaner than some of the kitchens we’ve seen in New York.
ALL PICTURES FROM LUANG PRABANG, LAOS: here