Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Natural Charm of Luang Prabang

This is the main reason why I wanted to visit Laos. I knew nothing about Luang Prabang when I overheard someone said it is a UNESCO heritage town. Curiosity tickled my mind, how can a town be a UNESCO Heritage site. I mean, most of the UNESCO heritage sites I have been to are places or just spots like the Rice Terraces in Batad and the Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, but not really an entire town to be called as such. Then I asked my friendly neighborhood aide Google for more information… and the next thing I knew, I was engagingly researching how to go to Luang Prabang the cheapest possible way.

Luang Prabang, which name means The Royal Buddha Image, is also known as the Jewel in Laos Crown. There is really something fascinating in this town to be chosen a UNESCO Heritage site, and I wanted to see and experience for myself the mystery of this place.

From Vientiane, I took the VIPsitting bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. I didn’t book any accommodation in LP, but I had one guesthouse in mind. It’s quite far from the bus terminal and I need to ride a tuk tuk for 20,000 kip. But since, I was trying to save my money, I decided to walk. I just asked for directions going to the city centre and started walking. Though most Lao people cannot converse English properly, they were kind enough to show me the way. There was even one guy who offered me a free ride –  siguro nahalata nyang wala akong pangtuktuk haha... but I declined. Hindi pa ako masyadong confident. Haha.


So I enjoyed my morning walking exercise… trying to feel the cold, quiet mornings of Luang Prabang. I noticed they only have tuk tuk, motorbike and bikes… and private cars. No trucks and buses visible on the streets.

Upon checking in at Xayana Guesthouse, I didn’t waste my precious time inside the dorm. Even when my bed is so tempting, I decided to start my tour in the town – at midday! (Sunogan ito ng balat!)

Did I ever mention I haven’t eaten yet – I mean, a proper meal? Yeah. And these row of food stalls just few steps outside my guesthouse saved my day. I just bought iced coffee and baguette. Since Laos has been colonized by French government, not only their buildings are French-inspired, but also their bread.

bags of baguette

With my hands full, I started walking while sightseeing… and trying to contemplate why and how this town made it to the UNESCO Heritage site lists.

Luang Prabang is just a small town and you can cover the whole area in a day, that is if you want to cover the whole thing. But I just wanted to enjoy the walk and feel the difference of this town.

I saw these children in a day centre. Talked to them, but they cannot speak English much. They were actually the first ones to ask me where I’m from – because they thought I am a local. I look like one. Haha.

Compared to Ho Chi Minh and Siem Reap, Luang Prabang is a quiet and simple town. Very laidback, parang probinsya lang. No motorbikes queueing the streets. No skyscraper buildings and modern infrastructures. No theme parks like Hong Kong. No shopping malls like Bangkok. No casinos like Macau. Everything in Luang Prabang is traditional. Seeing the old houses and ancient looking architectural structure gave me the feeling that I have been transferred to a different era of Lao history. Though French influences are noticeable but they have also kept their tradition alive – and those streets and houses and buildings even hotels speaks for themselves. 

 the Mekong River

Talk about tradition, did you know that in Laos, all women are ‘required’ to wear their traditional skirts all the time? It's called sinhs. The sinh, woven with diverse motifs and colors, reflects the culture, social relationships, and beliefs from community to community and region to region - sourceI first noticed this tradition while in Vientiane. I thought it was just a uniform in an office, but upon seeing even a pancake vendor wearing almost the same style of skirt, I begun to wonder – and suspect that this could be part of their rich culture. I mean, I never saw a Lao lady wearing any other skirt apart from this kind. Even when they’re just staying at home or running errands, they’re wearing it. They have different colors, different designs but it has one signature style. Even school uniform for girls has the same style. I saw they’re selling these skirts in the night market, but as much as I wanted to buy one, my budget won’t fit. So I just decided to take photos of the skirts worn by women. Apparently, I accidentally deleted all of them (don’t know how it happened, but I was able to save one.)

Other photos taken from the internet.

Luang Prabang has also strict curfew policy. It’s like the whole town shuts down at 11pm. Even the night market closes by that time. This event can be a nightmare for those who love the night life. You can perhaps try Vang Vieng – I heard it’s the party town of Laos. That’s 3-4hours drive from LP.

The town is also blessed with numbers of temple that houses hundreds or thousands of monks. Magsasawa ka sa kakasalubong sa mga monks sa bawat kanto… which is a great experience. It’s not every day that you get to see monks in their different shade of orange robes… up close and smile at them, sometimes interact and converse with them... though others seemed to look too serious.

All photos were taken discreetly… paparazzi style.

Did you also know that in Luang Prabang, locals give alms to the monks, every morning? Actually, it has become one of the tourist attractions in the town. I didn't experience this one, because I overslept – something I regret up until now.

You see, monks don't get pay checks.They get food every day from the villagers. In Luang Prabang, alms giving or tak bat happens early in the morning along Sisavangvong Road. At this hour, you’ll see a procession of monks, carrying their bowl, collecting their food for the day and sometimes giving it back to the poor along the way. And the locals, they never get tired doing this every day of their lives because they believe it gives them spiritual redemption. 

Tak Bat  must be done in silence and as a sign of great respect, alms giver cannot make  any eye contact to the monks while giving food. Apparently, this tradition has slowly become endangered because of the tourists improperly participating the ritual.

photo from Anis

Now I think I cannot question UNESCO for declaring this town to be one of the few priceless heritage they want to save. Luang Prabang has a very distinct tradition and rich cultural inheritance that needs to be safeguarded from any form of abuse... because their innate charm – can never found anywhere else in the world.

My photos may not suffice the natural grandeur of LP, but my eyes were delighted and satisfied, and my heart is just humbled to have travelled this side of the world and experience the exceptional beauty of the town of Luang Prabang. 

1 comment:

  1. Ohhh! Wonderful travel! Great Photos. It's like being in Luang Prabang myself