Luang Prabang: Untouched by the Hands of Modernisation

It’s hard to pinpoint my favourite Luang Prabang moment. Could it be the beautiful views? The general laid-back feel?  The readily available and utterly delicious food? The relaxing boat ride? The warm and friendly locals that always had a ready smile and a wave? Maybe it was all of the above. That, and the beginning of my love affair with Beer Lao.

I’ve never been much of a beer drinker, or any form of alcohol for that matter; Beer Lao worked its magic around me and completely changed my mind. But more on that later.

 

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Located over 340km from Laos’ capital city of Vientiane, Luang Prabang seems to have escaped the hands of modernisation, retaining its old world charm, drawing visitors with nothing but the promise of a feast for the eyes, at any pace they want. Unlike the more famous Vang Vieng, well known for tubing and other forms of water activities and notorious for its nightlife, Luang Prabang invites visitors to just take. things. slow. If Vang Vieng is compared to coffee that screams ‘adreneline rush!!!!!!!’ for 20-something backpackers, Luang Prabang is the evening wine that 30-somethings enjoy while gazing out at the beautiful sunset.

In other words, oldies, Luang Prabang is the place for you. It’s accessible enough via flights from Vientiane or Bangkok – we did the former via Laos Airlines on a smooth 40-minute comfortable flight. You could take a coach at a fraction of the cost but the lack of time and our concern of safety (there were recent travel advisories pertaining to shootings by bandit along the roads from Vientiane to Luang Prabang), plus the prospect of being on a bus for 11 hours, made us decide otherwise.

Though we enjoyed pretty much everything during our stay at Luang Prabang, that is probably the least helpful piece of information we could share. So, in the essence of helpfulness, here are some must-dos we recommend, when visiting Luang Prabang.

1. Visit a waterfall

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There are two popular waterfalls to choose from, each no more than a half-day expedition. Kuang Si Waterfalls is located 36km away, or about a 1-hour drive via tuk-tuk. If you are familiar with the said form of transport through experiences in Bangkok, have no fear, you can easily find bigger and sturdier ones in Luang Prabang, which provide a reasonably comfortable ride.

Tak Sae Waterfall is situated much closer, only 10km away. We went to the former, and were blown away by its beauty and sheer majesty. There was a designated swimming area with closed-door changing area, but the water was freezing. At Kuang Si, there is a bear sanctuary (bear Lao is not to be confused with beer Lao), at Tak Saw, there are elephants. In case that is a defining clause for you.

Which one to visit? It’s best to check with your hotel because sometimes during the dry season, Tak Sae (since it is the smaller waterfall) dries up to a trickle and you would have wasted your trip. But if there’s been a heavy rain, Kuang Si can get flooded (you can see evidence of that in some of our pictures). We hear that during the rainy season, the water turns turquoise. We would have loved to see that, but when we visited, it was not to be. But still beautiful nonetheless.

 

2. Wake up at dawn to witness the alms giving ceremony

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The age old alms giving (Tak Bat) ceremony is a sacred tradition for Buddhist monks where they head out at dawn to collect alms for their daily meal. This starts at around 5.30am and the monks set out from the various temples, walking out from the main street of Luang Prabang, then heading out to the smaller streets. They do this barefooted and in silence.

The locals, mostly women, wait on the streets with their offerings, usually rice, and deposit their alms into the monks’ individual bowls, also in silence.

While this is a local tradition, tourists are not discouraged to witness it; all in the name of experiencing a culture, right? However we’ve read about some over zealous tourists who have turned this sacred ceremony into a circus, jumping off tour buses and pointing their big cameras at the monks, and were mortified. So we decided not to head out to the main area to witness (and be disgusted by) this; we didn’t want our trip to be marred by badly behaved tourists.

But our hotel happened to be along the route that monks took, so we headed out at 6am one morning to try to catch some of the procession. A fellow tourist said she had been out earlier and ‘it was all done in about 2 minutes’. We hung on anyway, and were rewarded with perhaps the most serene and beautiful simple exchange ever.

I kept my distance, dressed conservatively, turned my camera to silent, and zoomed in as much as I could.

 

3. Take a boat ride on the Nam Khan River

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Many take a trip out to Pak Ou Caves, a 2-hour boat ride from Luang Prabang over 25km. We weren’t sure how we would feel on a 2-hour 2-way boat ride, so while strolling along the river, when a boat man called out to us to offer a 1-hour joy ride, we said yes. At 50,000 kip (USD 6), we had our own private boat ride. The thing that surprised us the most was how clean the river was – there was hardly any garbage at all.

 

4. Climb Mount Phousi

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150 metres above the centre Luang Prabang is the summit of Mount Phousi. There are over 300 steps to conquer, but it’s gradual and doable for anyone of a reasonable fitness level. There are stops along the way with temples to visit, Buddha statues to pray at, and views to admire, but the summit is where it is most beautiful, where you can catch a 360-degree view of Luang Prabang. It is at the summit where you can release caged birds, symboling happiness and good luck.
Halfway up, we met a young monk who approached us for a conversation. He told us he was looking for any opportunity to practice his English, which we were happy to oblige. After telling us of his story – he left his family in the countryside to study at the temple- he asked us for a donation. And he continued repeating his story and asking for more.

While we were happy to contribute whatever we could to make another’s life better, we couldn’t help but wonder if we had been scammed. Our hearts told us to give him the benefit of the doubt, that linguistic miscommunication was the barrier that prevented him from expressing himself clearly, and that as a monk, he symbolised everything that was honest and true, but our minds were skeptical. So, while others at the summit released birds, we released our doubts and chose to move on.

 

5. Visit the Royal Palace Museum

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For a crash course in Lao culture, pay a visit to the Royal Palace Museum. It’s at the foot of Mount Phousi so a good idea could be to climb the mountain in the late morning, then descent and have lunch before heading to the Royal Palace Museum to escape the heat, and emerge just in time for a late afternoon coffee, and then stroll along the night market, located conveniently at the entrance of the Museum.

The Museum, otherwise known as Haw Kham, is set in central Luang Prabang where all the action is, amidst a beautifully manicured garden. Not too long ago, it was the residence of the King, and the rooms of this gorgeous palace have been very well preserved. The National Theatre is next door but still within the grounds, and there are daily performances in the evening with a fee.

It costs 30,000 kip to enter, and bags, shoes and cameras are not allowed. Lockers are available for free (the fact that they aren’t high tech lockers but just old cabinets really just adds to the charm!). It opens Wednesdays to Mondays, from 8am to 11.30am, and 1.30pm to 4pm, closing for lunch in between.

 

7. Shop at the night market

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What’s there to buy? Lots of local handicrafts, paintings, lamps, clothing, exotic drinks (scorpion whiskey anyone?) and jewelry made from bombs and scrap metal. The night market stretch opens 5pm to 11pm. Vendors are open to a bargain but please remember that a saving of $1 to you is equal to 8,000 kip to a local’s family.

 

8. Eat like a local!

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If you’re on a year long road trip around the world, then it’s justifable that you’re craving for more familiar food. If not, there is no excuse not to try out local grub, and Lao food is totally delicious. Oh my gosh, coconut pancakes. Oh my gosh, sticky rice. Luang Prabang, wait for me, I’m hopping on the next plane!

 

And finally, more Luang Prabang happy snaps before I bid you farewell!

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Most of the pictures of our trip were captured with the Canon PowerShot SX540HS. Thank you, Canon, for preserving our beautiful memories.

The pros: As photographers one level below amateurs, we had no trouble with this camera. It’s quick to start, a useful thing to have for impromptu photos. It’s got a powerful 50X optical zoom but we never had the opportunity to utilise that function. Social media addicts will enjoy its built-in Wi-fi functions; transferring and sharing images and videos couldn’t be easier. It’s slightly bulky but surprisingly, not very heavy. Weighing just 400g, I only felt the weight after a long day out. Battery life was amazing. I’m used to charging my electronics daily, but over our 6-day trip, we only charged this camera’s battery twice and it managed beautifully.

The cons: Our only grouse with this was that the viewfinder button was extremely sensitive and we would sometimes find that it had been accidentally activated in the bag. This could probably have been avoided with a dedicated camera bag, but one more thing to carry is one more thing to worry about.

 

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This was a trip we took without our kids so we weren’t on the look-out for kid-friendly activities.

How to go on a guilt-free trip without the kids? Read more here!

 

If you’re planning a trip to Luang Prabang, I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we did (we loved it, in case you couldn’t tell). If you know anyone who’s planning a trip to Luang Prabang, I’d love for you to share this with them.

 

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Guilt-Free Travel Without Kids

First of all, we love our kids. Just in case there was any misconception about that.

My husband and I have been together for 13 years and did a fair bit of traveling before kids (being part of a long-distance relationship helped). Since the arrival of the kids, we’ve either traveled as a family, or solo, meaning that they always have at least one parent with them. Our kids are 4 and 8 and this year we have finally bitten the bullet and taken a parent-only holiday. 6 days away from them meant 6 days of sleepover fun at grandpa and grandma’s (with no rules!), which they immensely enjoyed. Knowing that they were in good hands allowed us to fully enjoy our holiday.

While we don’t see ourselves doing this often, it is something that we thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend parents to try at least once. Think of it as an extended date, where you don’t have to watch the clock. Date nights allow you to reconnect and rekindle your relationship, so think of a holiday as a potent dose of date-nightlyness.

 

Here’s what we enjoyed most about traveling without kids!

 

1. Taking time to be a couple again

It sounds like a very simple thing but we really enjoyed just going on evening strolls and holding hands without any agenda. This trip reminded us that we were not just parents, but also a couple in love with each other. It was really nice doing couple-y things instead of just family friendly activities, to ask each other “Would you like to do this/that?” instead of saying things like “let’s eat here instead; there are better options for the kids”.

Being together just as a couple, with the responsibilities of parenting temporarily lifted, is such a carefree feeling.

l-i-f-e-that-luangPha That Luang, Vientiane, Laos

 

2. Rediscovering each other

When we went out on our first few dates when our first born was a couple of months old, we had moments when we struggled to think of conversation topics. We ended up talking about the baby all evening. The first few years of parenthood are all about the children so there is the risk of losing oneself and we are working very hard not to get pulled into that situation.

Being away without the kids allowed us to rediscover each other again. We saw each other as individuals again, not just partners in crime in the name of parenthood.

l-i-f-e-beerlao1Both of us having a beer with kids around? Not something we’d done before, nor something we intend to do in the near future!

 

3. Traveling for ourselves

Moving around with kids comes with the need for certain structure. Because we traveled without kids and their related accessories, we could travel light. So for the first time in many years, we backpacked. And although our aged backs complained, we felt young and free without being tied down to suitcases. We could also move around budget hostels and boutique hotels without first checking if there was a swimming pool with slides.

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Timings can be more flexible too – Wake up at 10am? Late lunch at 3pm? Pop into a cafe and linger for an hour? Spend the evening at a night market? Why not! One of the things we enjoyed the most was wandering around till we got thoroughly lost, something that would have been tricky to do as a family.

We also took the time to explain to our children that this trip was an opportunity for us to learn more about ourselves and each other, and they understood to a certain extent. We’ve always told them that we are all individuals despite the many roles that we play, so this trip cemented our belief in this, and they had a chance to see that even though we love them so very much, we also exist as individuals, not just as their parents.

 

4. In-depth conversations… or not talking at all!

Instead of conversations that can only take place when the kids are asleep and all the housework is done, we could talk over meals and as we were walking. Full scale uninterrupted conversations!

No one appreciates silence more than parents with young children. We enjoyed nice long moments of quiet just chilling with a book, or staring into blank space and being lost in thoughts (another thing I’ve taken for granted!).

We managed to do a mini stock take of our lives together and realigned some previously forgotten goals.

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5. Enjoying the destination

When traveling with our children, we don’t always get to carve out time to do things that we want. I love museums but that’s tricky to do with an active 4-year old.

Taking our time to visit museums and temples was just so wonderful! We held lengthy conversations with people without having to hastily retreat because of little hands tugging ours toward playgrounds.

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We ate street food almost every meal, we had chillis at every meal, we enjoyed local brews, we stayed out past bedtime – in other words, we really experienced the country instead of merely scraping the surface.

 

We enjoy experiencing destinations as a family, but enjoying a holiday as a couple is a whole new dimension that we found to be very fulfilling. Perhaps we could make this a yearly treat!

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