Travel Tuesday: Luang Prabang

By: Caitlin Russell 

The atmosphere within Luang Prabang differs to anywhere we've visited so far; it's quiet, relaxed, and the people - locals or otherwise - are lovely. Luang Prabang, in Laos, is minuscule in terms of its land mass, thus matching Laos’s relatively small size. It was a place beyond refreshing after several weeks of big cities, swarming with beeping horns and overcrowded subway stations. Although the skyscrapers in the Chinese cities were undeniably impressive, I am decidedly more fascinated by the Lao landscape of waterfalls and mountains, the ability to see up close the craftsmanship involved in the temples and buildings dotted around the town, whilst meeting the friendly locals.

In this tiny little town there are 37 amazing Buddhist temples. You're able to donate food to the monks every morning having bought supplies from the morning market which runs along the town's Main Street between four and six in the morning. The owner of the guest house ran us through the rules, how to show respect to the monks, their religion and the locals, which of course was of vital importance. As you’ll know if you've ever visited Luang Prabang, the size of the town means it is exceptionally quiet; loud noises could virtually be heard from any point and so as a mark of respect Luang Prabang is free from the night parties that can be experienced in many other Southeast Asian towns and cities.

The guest houses in Luang Prabang are plentiful, immaculate and really fairly priced. Ours, The Apple Guesthouse, was part-owned by an Australian couple who we began talking to during those past couple of days - the things they've done philanthropically speaking are beyond admirable. Their two adopted children are Lao, and they employ local young people at the guest house, send them to school and provide them with several meals a day in return. This goes hand in hand with a mountain of their other voluntary work which includes teaching the monks at one of the temples English, an experience which tourists are encouraged to help out at (unfortunately we weren't there on a Wednesday or we would both have loved to help). They also gave us a map of the town, pointing out all the things we could possibly be interested in and all the ways to get there quickest. The hospitality we received at the Apple Guest House was unlike anywhere else. There was a communal balcony upstairs, which was as immaculate as the bedrooms and offered guide books, coffee, tea and fresh water.

Our first day of exploring Luang Prabang got off to a very slow start. It was Paul's 23rd birthday and so of course when we both took our malaria medication on an empty stomach it resulted in vomiting and an extra few hours recovering in bed afterwards. When we finally ventured back downstairs we walked first to the river bank and alongside the Mekong River which runs directly through the town. You're able to take boat rides across to the other side of and along the river, where there are copious restaurants lining its banks. We then made our way into town we tried some of the areas famous, fresh baguettes. Even in the heart of the town, the subdued atmosphere continued. People working, walking or cycling around us had smiles on their faces and for the entire time I felt entirely welcome and at ease.

We climbed to the highest point of Luang Prabang, Mount Phousi, which has a temple atop it, along with giant Buddhist sculptures on the path upwards. In thirty five degree heat more than a few bottles of water were necessary, but the views at the top were more than worth it. Inside the temple a Buddhist ceremony was underway and so everyone was silent, only heightening the beauty of the entire experience. The remainder of our day was spent looking at the many other temples around the town and the National Museum. That evening we had dinner in the centre followed by some drinks and a visit to the night market.

Luang Prabang is surrounded by wilderness, and sadly, one of the carriers of felled trees are elephants. As time progresses, and it becomes more taboo, more of the elephants are being moved from timber camps to settlements set up to rehabilitate them. Some of the camps are purely to visit the elephants, where alongside the monks visitors can aid their bathing. As an animal lover myself it was by far one of the best experiences of my entire life, to be so close and able to touch, feed and wash them was something I will remember for the rest of my days. I was so surprised by how their skin felt, and how overwhelmingly huge they were. The relationship evident between the animal and the 'mahoot' or trainer was wonderful to see, and I loved every single second of it.

After watching the bathing of the elephants in the Mekong River, we then visited the Kuang Si Waterfalls, around five minutes from where the elephant sanctuary was located. Sunday is traditionally the Lao people's family day, so it was busy, but stunning nonetheless. I had looked up the waterfalls in the months previous to our trip and I couldn't believe the injustice that people’s photography, including mine, had done to them. The water was a light blue-green in the white pools, paths had been beaten into the trees and greenery underfoot, with bridges stretching across the pools. Tree swings hung from the sky, with a continuous flow of people falling and diving into the water. Outside the falls lay a market with clothes, souvenirsand food and just inside the park there was situated a small zoo with bears and other animals that I admittedly didn't pay attention too as the bears were extremely fascinating.

Almost a year after visiting Luang Prabang and revisiting the piece I wrote on it, I feel my affection for the area has only grown. Being able to compare it with almost twenty other locations in Southeast Asia, it was hands down my favourite place, and it beats the locations I've visited elsewhere in the world, too. The art, the nature and the people make it so worth the visit, but if you go, simply for a break from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding towns and cities, I guarantee you it will be the best break you ever take.

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