Luang Prabang is a darling town overflowing with culture. The rituals of everyday life are deeply rooted in Buddhist tradition, wherein the art of living is a spiritual practice itself. Dana, or generosity, is one of the foundations of the Buddhist path, and in Luang Prabang each morning begins with an act of giving. At six in the morning, the monks stream out of their monasteries in silent procession, fanning out down the side streets for the receiving of alms. Each monk, many of them young boys, holds a bowl and accepts food donations from the townspeople, usually rice. Although the ritual has turned into something of a tourist spectacle, it remains a moving tribute to the monastic community, who are the lifeblood of the city.
Tempted by the promise of turquoise waterfalls, we headed out to Kuang Xi in a songthaew. The water was more of a muddy brown due to the heavy rains of the monsoon stirring up sediment.
A cold shower was just what we needed after an early wakeup for the alms ceremony. This is about the point when I slipped on the wet bridge and fell on my butt.
Free the Bears is a non-profit organization located within the park. They rescue and rehabilitate bears that have been victims of illegal wildlife trade. In Laos, poachers capture bears, often cubs, to sell to bile farms. The bears are kept in cages, and their bile is drawn through catheters for use in some traditional Asian medicine products. Free the Bears is working to end this cruel practice through education. The cubs are unable to be released into wild and must be cared for at the center their entire lives. Free the Bears does not receive government funding and is run exclusively on donations. For more information on how you can help, visit FreeTheBears.org.
Catch up on your reading at a Parisian style sidewalk café while enjoying a croissant and a cup of coffee. In Lao time, the pace is slow and easy.
A prime example of French colonial architecture. The vintage car makes for a nice picture, but the scene is obviously staged. Like a lot of things in Luang Prabang, it’s trying a little too hard to be quaint. I guess that’s what happens when your entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We woke up early to see the monks again.
Then we got in a boat and cruised down the Mekong River in search of the Pak Ou caves.
When Claudia and I were planning our trip to Laos, we considered traveling from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang by boat. It was this hilarious blog post from a woman who calls herself the Travel Stylist that made me question whether that was a good idea. OK, not question, but decisively run in the opposite direction. I highly recommend reading it. She goes into grotesque detail about the whole experience, from the nasty hotel she stayed in the night before at the Thai border town, to the harrowing seven hour ride in a boat never meant to go that speed. If you have to wear a motorcycle helmet on a boat, that can’t be a good sign. And you should feel lucky if you even get a helmet! Do yourself a favor and get on an airplane.
We briefly disembarked to make a pit stop in a place called Whiskey Town. Keep in mind this was before ten o’clock in the morning and on the way to a Buddhist sanctuary. Upon entering the town, you are handed a shot of Lao-Lao rice whiskey that burns all the way down. Chase that with a shot of rice wine, and you’re good to go.
The scenery along the way was gorgeous, and we were also introduced to a unique type of boat that appears to be a barge with a house on top, equipped with a satellite dish, of course.
After about two hours on the river, we reached dry land.
Inside the upper cave, there is a young girl with a flashlight who illuminates your path and shows you the Buddhas. She is very persistent in getting you to offer her a dollar or two for her services. The situation seems odd somehow, like you’re getting scammed. When she whispers, “I love you too” in your ear, you feel creeped out, but also kind of touched and like you ought to give her something because she’s only a child. She doesn’t keep the money, but places it in a donation box. It’s all very confusing.
The shrines in the caves are over a thousand years old. It was tradition to leave behind a Buddha statue, so there is quite a collection. These in the photo are only a few inches tall.
Wat Xieng Thong is perhaps my favorite temple I’ve seen in Southeast Asia. The details are exquisite.
President Obama visited the temple the day after we did during his tour of Luang Prabang, which is the biggest thing to happen to Laos since…well, ever.
The sunset glowing on the Mekong
The next day, I came down with some kind of illness, so I had to take the day off and watch the season finale of Bloodline on Netflix. The rest of the time while I was lying in bed, my latest worst case scenario involved getting medevac-ed in a helicopter back to Thailand. I also did some preliminary research on the prevalence of malaria and dengue fever in various regions of Laos. Malaria is fairly low risk in Luang Prabang, so I felt somewhat confident in ruling that out. Dengue, however, is endemic all over Laos, and I had all the correct symptoms of its less severe stages, which happen to be the exact same symptoms as the flu. This put me totally at ease because both are incurable. There was absolutely nothing I could do, which was a great relief. The day after, I was fine, so the next logical step to take would be to climb a mountain. (It’s a small mountain.) It was very hot and humid, so we didn’t spend much time looking at the temple, Wat Chom Si, but the view was fantastic. Then it was back to the airport. On our way, we passed by a United States Air Force plane parked in a field. Unfortunately, we were unable to catch a ride with the Prez, so we settled for coach.