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Exploring Laos: Why we fell in love with Luang Prabang

A trip to Laos is just the thing for the traveller who is searching for culture and beauty. Many visitors find this quaint, landlocked Southeast-Asian country a deeply spiritual place – a quiet backwater that allows you to slow down.

You can’t get much slower than sitting. On my first day in Laos, I found myself resting in an ancient Buddha cave. It’s the sort of experience I love – being in a place that removes me from my own culture and allows me to embrace the unfamiliar.

To get there, I cruised up the Mekong River, with dramatic limestone cliffs looming in the distance, and the soft rhythmical put-put-put of the long tail boat engine lulling me into a peaceful state.

Arriving at the Pak Ou Caves, however, was far from serene. As I negotiated my way across several boats tied together, I realised I would be sharing the caves with about two hundred other tourists. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to be in the presence of over four thousand Buddha statues. The caves collectively function as a temple, attended by the local community for prayer and rituals on festive occasions.

A small Lao woman at the entrance to the cave encouraged me to donate a few kip and draw from the Buddha fortune sticks that were bunched together in a small wooden container. She smiled around her three front teeth, shook the container vigorously and let me pick a stick. She checked the number and handed me a small piece of paper inscribed with a fortune in Lao. The firm way she squeezed my hands and the glint in her eye told me I had drawn a good one. But I will never know what it said.

Three hours easily drift by at the Buddha caves, and even though you have to share this place with other tourists, they come and go. You can enjoy the place at your leisure and relax into the laid-back tempo of Laos.

Luang Prabang

There’s a saying: “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow.” There is no better way to understand this than by spending time in the old city of Luang Prabang.

An ancient royal city ringed by mountains, coconut palms, and dense jungle, Luang Prabang is positioned at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers. The strict building codes help preserve the flavour and charm of this UNESCO world heritge-listed historic city, which  juxtaposes French colonial architecture, timeless timber shopfronts, grand royal palaces and residences, and 14th-century temples.

Luang Prabang has an 11.30pm curfew and is free of advertising billboards and backpacker nightclubs.The old city is small and life moves at the pace of the local  tuk tuks and 50cc motorbikes.
The Royal Mile
The best way to discover Luang Prabang is by walking the famous Royal Mile that links the palace with Wat Xieng Thong, an impressive Buddhist complex of ornate temples decorated with intricate gold stencil work.

There are over 30 temples to visit in and around the town. It was at Wat Choumkhong, a small but very pretty temple, where I had a conversation with a monk named Sanoi. As he gracefully swept the ground with his straw broom, he told me, “I have been a monk for eight years and I am very happy. It gives me the opportunity to study and to learn English.”

Indeed, his English was near perfect. “I am from a poor village and I feel privileged to be getting an education. I have a happy life.” As he delicately tended the poinsettia trees in this delightful little garden, I could feel his deep sense of contentment.

Getting lost in the tiny lanes and crooked alleys of Luang Prabang brings enchanting sights at every turn. Mottled sausages hang on twine, cats snooze in the sun, and squatting women grind fresh spices with mortars and pestles. It seems that every second building is a guesthouse, and through the open windows of the small, quaint teak houses you glimpse the charm and character within.

There is plenty of diversion to keep you occupied. You can sample fresh French-style pastries in the cafés, and there are plenty of good coffee houses serving locally grown coffee. It takes restraint to pass up the indulgence of a $US5 Lao or Khamu massage, or a herbal spa treatment. As you discover the delights of this charming town, the scents of mango, tamarind and lemongrass seem to chase the gentle breeze that follows the Mekong River. Or maybe it’s the spiritual energy that tails the wind in a place where two rivers meet.

The Art of Giving

The next morning I took part in one of Luang Prabang’s living Buddhist traditions, the morning alms-giving. I was awoken around 5.30am by the soft shuffling of slippered feet, and the sweet, aromatic smell of warm sticky rice wafting through my window.

In the early morning light, I knelt on the woven mat kindly offered to me by a street vendor. After taking up position next to local residents and other travellers, I prepared myself for the act of giving. A flow of saffron robes appeared in the distance, moving slowly and silently toward me. As each monk passed, I placed my offering in his bowl – rice, biscuits or mandarins – and gave myself to the rhythm of a timeless ritual that bestows honour through the practical act of giving.

It is customary for neither the donor nor the recipient to show emotion. Eye contact is not encouraged. The result of your actions is to feel boun, or merit. It was a most humbling and memorable experience.

Laos is a comfortable, easy place to fit into. Life moves at a gentle pace and has a rhythm all its own, much like the Mekong River that flows through the country. If you can slow down sufficiently to match the pace, you too may find yourself listening to the rice grow.