We said our farewells to Luang Namtha and ‘enthusiastically’ boarded the minibus for our next 8 hour bus journey to Luang Prabang, former capital of Laos. You would think that after seeing the decrepit state of the local buses, the first feeling you would get when you see a shining new silver minibus would be joy; quite the opposite, the newer the vehicle, the faster the driver, the more terrifying the journey.
What we now needed to figure into the equation was the state of the Laos roads. If it wasn’t bad enough that the road between Luang Namtha and Luang Prabang has more twists and turns than Jive Bunny, the issues were compounded somewhat with the fact that at least 30% of the roads had been dug up for resurfacing…What transpired was the bus journey to end all bus journeys. Terrifying, exciting, painful, wondrous and exhausting-it had it all (oh, and late, mustn’t forget late, 10.5 hours in total, and we travelled just 350km)
Truly the journey rattled us to our cores, and put something of a sombre mood on the end of the day….Given our plans to only travel overland, and the lack of any working railway in Laos, we really were just going to have to try and get used to long, terrifying, bus journeys! Realisation that this was going to be how ALL of our travel would be conducted in Laos was starting to sink in! At this point Jo hit delirium…
Still, we had arrived in Luang Prabang UNESCO World Heritage Site and former capital of Laos. The ‘French connection’ here is still hugely influential, the first place we went for breakfast even had the menu written in French! The town is very picturesque, with many quaint restaurants and coffee shops, as well as a plethora of temples. Luang Prabang is the most popular destination in Laos for holidaymakers, and many fly in for a few days before setting off for their next destination in Asia. This kind of throws you off kilter a little, and you feel slightly removed from authentic Laos culture-or at least I did anyway.
That’s not saying that the town is anything but likeable-the familiar feel and friendly local manner immediately puts you at ease and you find yourself relaxing into the local pace of life. The architecture is beautiful, and the thirty plus temples in the town are amazing, but as an example of a Laos town it lacks some authenticity in my eyes. Essentially it’s a Laos town that is easy for Western travellers visit…and love!
The ‘Old City’ of Luang Prabang is situated where the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers meet, it’s almost a small island in itself, and so the geographical surroundings are absolutely gorgeous. The sheer number of temples ensures that your days are filled to the brim with sightseeing opportunities, and come the evening there is a large craft night market that takes over the main street-with opportunities to chow down on some great street food.
One of the biggest ‘attractions’ in Luang Prabang, the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony. In a nutshell, at 5.30 every morning all of the monks leave the temples and walk in single file, with the most senior monk at the front to the most junior monk at the back. As they walk through to town they collect offerings of food from people of the village who are lining the streets waiting for the passing of the monks. The purpose of the alms giving is to make merit and for the monks to collect food for their daily meals. (Merit is a concept in Buddhism/Hinduism. It is that which accumulates as a result of good deeds, acts, or thoughts and which carries over throughout the life or the subsequent incarnations. Such merit contributes to a person’s growth towards spiritual liberation. src Wikipedia)
In Luang Prabang this ceremony is one of the most famous in Asia because of the sheer number of temples in the area, and as such hundreds of monks participate each morning.
This ceremony is a highly revered ritual for the locals, and so it is important to have some respect for the rules of conduct to follow during the procession.
Our top tip if visiting the ceremony is to check with your hotel about the route for the monks, and to try and venture a bit further from the ‘main drag’ of the high street. As is the popularity of the ceremony many tourists do visit to observe the spectacle, and all of the mini buses and tours drop people at the same place….By moving a bit further down the route you avoid the ‘crowds’ of other tourists.
In addition to this, sometimes the monks engage in drumming practice in the afternoons and it’s absolutely amazing-loads of energy and not exactly what you would expect. I don’t know whether this is a scheduled occurrence, I’ve tried to find out since but haven’t found anything-but we were lucky enough to be nearby when the drumming started and hightailed it over to watch: http://youtu.be/VosQNXOXcKc
Another local tradition that we got to ‘experience’ while we were in Luang Prabang was that of a local funeral-not as macabre as it may sound, we didn’t gate-crash or anything! We know about this as there was a funeral being held opposite our guesthouse. In Laos culture a funeral is very much about a day of mourning, and then two days of constant partying celebrating the lives of those who have ‘passed’. I kid you not the karaoke, music, drinking and dancing didn’t stop for three days! It was absolutely incredible, and for sure I will never again underestimate the power of karaoke.
As the bus journey from hell had finally started to fade in our memories, it was time to leave Luang Prabang and put ourselves through it all over again. Next stop Phonsavan and the mysterious Plain Of Jars.