Last year, before flying to Australia, I met a lovely lady on a bus ride from London to Oxford and she told me all about her one month trip to Laos. She must have made a great impression on me because I kept Luang Prabang at the back of my mind for a long, long time. One day that I was in New Zealand, high season, summertime, I wanted to get away from the crowd and booked a flight to Luang Prabang out of the blue. I needed something different than the anglosaxon way of life (but I do love New Zealand).
As sometimes you do while travelling, I just followed my instincts and went to Laos without putting much thought into it. It was a very good idea!
Well, I knew I would be going to the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaburi (My article about the Elephant Center), though, so what I just said is untrue. I was interested in discovering Luang Prabang, first, because of what the lady on the bus told me about the city. I had no idea of what to expect, which is great. What I like most is to get lost in a place unknown and walk around, even better when I don’t know the language, I begin wandering around and looking at life going by in a new land. I’m just an observer, really.
Buddhism is omnipresent in Laos as it is the first religion (or life philosophy) in the country. It means, of course, that you get to see temples, caves and lovely golden statues representing the spiritual character. In many places they also tell you that Buddha has been there, which I highly doubt, but who knows. At least, he gets some beautiful art in his honor and we can all appreciate that.
As I said before, I am a wanderer and I like to observe the little details. The first thing that struck me were the colours of the monk’s outfits. They are just so solar, radiating and they are everywhere. They are boys and their heads are shaved, they always seem to be lost in some deep reflection at such a young age or focused on a secretive conversation with their fellow monks. You might be surprised to see them on smartphones too, sometimes, but it’s the modern age and tourism brings high technology along (unfortunately?).
I would be lying if I said I didn’t try some nice food, there are plenty of restaurants in Luang Prabang and because of the history with France (back when Laos was a French protectorate) you can find croissants and French pastries in the city. Laos food is quite similar to Thai food. For instance the soup Tom Yam (prrrretty spicy) exists in both countries. You can get plenty of vegetables and sticky rice in Laos but I tried to find a fancy Vegetarian meal one night (because I like to take myself to dinner and enjoy my food alone, without talking) and I found the perfect dish!
I went there : Indigo Café
They sell pieces of cake or croissant in front of the restaurant so it is easy to recognize, it is settled at the beginning of the street to go to Mount Phousi or the night market. It was slightly more expensive maybe because it is on a busy street, but very good food and tea.
I came back there to have dinner after tasting a delicious ginger tea there in the morning, also meeting a lovely lady from England who was travelling solo as well. We had a rich and beautiful conversation for more than an hour and I didn’t even read my book in the end. Lovely place.
I would recommend trying some sticky rice but as a dessert with mango and coconut. It’s vegan, you know! And delicious! I think the papaya spicy salad is also very typical and extra spicy if you like that. I think I cried a little but for a good reason obviously, it is healthy after all and you have to try real spices! In Europe we tend to tame the spicy side of Asian dishes, in Asia it is authentic. The street food is something very common on the night market in Luang Prabang, but you should be warned especially if you eat meat: you can get very sick, it’s not always super clean.
Another thing you will find everywhere: fruit juices/smoothies/shakes. I suspect that one of those little buggers got me sick as I had never been before. Fruits and vegetables can sometimes be “cleaned” with water coming from the Mekong river, which is nasty, let us be honest. When you are not very resistant to germs and strong bacteriae, you might end up just like me :
So I had a couple of these smoothies by the Mekong river, it is lovely there to have a drink, tried some street food and one of these was the death of me. I was stuck in bed for 4 days with the strongest cramps I had ever had in my life. As I became sicker and sicker and was struck by constant vomiting and diarrhea (yay…) I quickly felt vulnerable and I must say the owner of the place I was staying at was the most amazing woman on the planet. She nurtured me and brought me all the possible sticky rice, bananas and hot ginger teas I could ask for. For free. Her friend even gave me her tiger oil (apply on your belly, it helps with the cramps!). If you are interested in staying in a lovely place close to the river and center, that’s where I was staying: My hostel.
I actually soon had to fly back to France to seek treatment as the doctor advised, instead of going back to NZ, which was a shame but at that point I just wanted a cure! Turned out some nasty bacteria led me to be sick with dysentery for nearly three weeks and only a strong cocktail of antibiotics could do the trick. My insides : burning hell. Don’t forget to stay hydrated in Laos (Asia) too, no matter what, it’s hot and humid there. You have to drink out of the sealed bottles, not the tap water, if you want to stay alive!
To close the subject on food, the best meals I had were actually at the ECC where the food was grown locally, it was traditional and simple, vegetarian options, cooked with passion, loved it!
In Laos you will notice the presence of stray dogs and cats (mostly dogs). Most of the time they seem to find food but I have seen some of them struggling to find food at the night market, which tore my heart apart. I tried to find some information on shetlers or rescue centers, but to no avail. It seems like cats and dogs don’t really get fixed in developping countries (although some organisations work worldwide and do an amazing job to sterilize them) so it is part of the travelling, but you can always check on the internet for animal rescue organizations if you see a pup or a kitty in trouble, there is always something to do. I fed some cats and dogs of course, I couldn’t resist, although it’s not a long term fixing of the problem. Overall people seemed to be respectful of the animals and just let them roam free, but wouldn’t hurt them on purpose. At least I haven’t seen blatant cases of animal cruelty there.
Right before the sunset I went at the top of Mount Phousi, but I saw those tiny birds trapped in the tiniest cages you have ever seen, for tourists to pay and set them free. The birds looked stressed and miserable, it could not stand it and I left as fast as I walked up the many stairs. Instead I went for a sunset along the Mekong river, which is pretty calm.
Luang Prabang has some quiet areas that are definitely more enjoyable, away from the hustle and bustle.
If you cross the bamboo bridges over the river (not the Mekong, the smaller one, the name escapes me) you get to a tribal village and it’s much quieter. You have to pay to cross the bridge.
I think I was a little shocked at how busy the city was. I guess it is touristy now, the lady I met on my way to Oxford had told me it was extremely relaxing. There are much quieter places around, lots of villages. However it gave me a good insight on life in Asian cities. Laos wasn’t always touristy, it is still pretty recent. I suppose mass tourism and the economy that it brings leads people to live in the city and start businesses, like everywhere. Sometimes it’s sad because you see that Laos inhabitants are friendly and they do smile a lot, but I wondered if it was always genuine. All these tourits coming from Europe or Western countries. It can be depressing, like the morning ceremony when the monks get offerings, sometimes tourists get in their way to take pictures and I found it extremely disrespectful.
Another problem for me was the pollution. I mean, you get pollution in London, in Paris, in Australia, but the tuktuks and scooters smelled particularly awful and I had a hard time in the city. I never would have thought that people had huge SUV cars in Laos. As I said, tourism brings money, but it remains a poor country, I wonder how the money is scattered in the country.
It’s interesting and, I think, important to enter less developped countries to understand things. I mean, it’s obvious that the Mekong is used as a garbage bin and there was plastic absolutely everywhere. And I think it’s because of tourism and Western influence. People there are not used to recycling or that kind of issue doesn’t necesserally cross their mind, they have other things to do. It’s a big problem though, because they have to live with it, while tourists can leave.
I would clearly advise you to visit Luang Prabang and maybe you can even stop by the language center to teach some English to the locals. People are very respectful and friendly in Laos. In Luang Prabang, especially at the night market, you might feel like a tourist because, of course, they need to sell their products and it can be off-putting, but remember that you are only a visitor and that these people need to live. So it’s easy to just decline and smile. Laos was hit very badly in WW2 and is still bearing the collateral damages of war and bombing.
Luang Prabang, its young monks, temples and statues are quite a sight to see. I would say, stick around for a few days!