Exploring Luang Prabang

Caves and waterfalls are popular excursions in Luang Prabang but we’re more interested in getting a sense of the town itself. The old section is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the fusion of traditional Laotian urban architecture and colonial styles from the 19th and 20th centuries. UNESCO particularly likes well preserved areas, and this one certainly is.

The city lies on a peninsula formed by the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. It’s only about three blocks wide so most days we walked one way or another down to the water.

We didn’t remember before we got here that Laos is nominally one of the few remaining communist countries along with China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba, so the occasional old hammer and sickle flag surprised us.

Two days after we arrived I got up before dawn and went down to the street to watch the morning alms giving. This is a ritual in most Buddhist or Hindu countries, where the monks walk through the streets gathering offerings of food and other needs from the faithful. We observed the procession from our rooftop hotel in Bhaktapur, Nepal, last year. Now I have the opportunity to watch from across the street. There are strict rules for tourists: no flash photography, no impeding the monks’ progress, stay out of the way and quiet.

As the sun rose, the monks came in waves. All in all there may have been about a hundred, many of them young boys.

Here in Luang Prabang the alms-givers sit on low stools with pots of cooked sticky rice and drop balls of rice into the monks’ bowls or baskets. In other places we’ve seen small packages you can buy to give the monks that include toiletries or other non food items.

We learned that many young boys enter the monastery for the purpose of education, since schooling is not free in this part of the world, and many poor families can’t afford the school fees.

The alms-giving ritual here in Luang Prabang was silent, with only the padding of bare feet on the street and the swish of the robes as soundtrack. In Bhaktapur the monks were accompanied by drums and chanting. I’m glad I witnessed both.

The small girl holding up a bucket is begging from the monks. This area, the historic district, is a relatively wealthy area, so I’m not sure where the children who are begging come from. I did see many of the monks share their rice with the children.

We spent each day exploring the town, trying different cafés for meals and coffee breaks. Often we ran into fellow slowboat passengers and shared more time with familiar faces. We felt like we’d gained a whole community by taking the two-day boat journey.

Luang Prabang is known as much for its crafts as for its architecture. Jewelry, textiles, carvings, unique clothing. We enjoyed every little shop, but of course with limited luggage space and no home to put anything in anyway, we had to walk away from all the beautiful hand crafted things we saw. These soft sculptures particularly delighted us. We’ve never seen anything like them, and we watched the women in the back of the shop working on other similar creations.

The days were warm and the sun was harsh. We usually retreated to our air conditioned room for a few hours each afternoon before heading out again in a different direction.

We saw this Silkworm Poo Tea in a small shop on a back street. We passed. And spoiler alert: we bought a couple of those soft sculptures. We love them.

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