Exquisite Buddhist temples, restaurants overlooking the Mekong, and peaceful streets all combine to create a sense of serenity in Luang Prabang, the spiritual heart of Laos
Silence and getting a quiet night's sleep are difficult things to achieve when mopeds provide the main form of personal transport in most South East Asian cities. But not in Luang Prabang, the spiritual heart of Laos. Due to the abundance of Buddhist temples surrounding the area, the Lao government made it against the law for any form of motorised transport to enter the town centre. As a result, serenity reigns supreme on the streets, in the bars, by the side of Mekong, and just about everywhere you turn in Luang Prabang.
But what really makes this town tick is not just the peaceful atmosphere. At six o’clock sharp in the morning, on every weekday, the drums of the neighbouring temples are struck to summon the monks to the Buddhist ceremony of alms-giving. For those who are early risers, this provides the perfect opportunity to experience Lao community life. The ceremony of alms takes place in the town centre adjacent to the Mekong river. Be prepared to offer up enough rice to feed at least 10 hungry monks - I turned up with only enough to fill two bowls and felt pretty guilty!
One fantastic aspect of Laos is that the native people are generally very relaxed, gentle and easy-going, with Luang Prabang being no exception. When looking around the temples I was lucky enough to be able to partake in one of the hourly worships, a truly enlightening experience. By just quietly admiring a group of shaven-headed monks undergoing their daily Buddhist chants, I felt an unexplainable sense of privilege at being able to observe such an intimate aspect of Lao culture.
Further exploration of Luang Prabang’s temples required me to climb numerous steep, snaking pathways to a summit. Here, golden painted pagodas lay in wait, along with a breathtaking panoramic view of the surrounding Lao rainforest, the Mekong and Luang Prabang. This seemed the ideal time and place to catch my breath after my excursion up the winding footpaths. Indeed, after travelling around some of South East Asia’s busiest cities beforehand, I couldn’t help but think that Luang Prabang was the perfect place to stop, slow down, and chill out.
On the spiralling descent downwards, I met a monk who enthusiastically pointed out the exact location of a large Buddha footprint that reputedly Buddha himself cast into the rock in his time on earth. This was an enchanting moment. For me, it epitomised the willingness of Lao people to go out of their way in order to enhance my travelling experience, for no obvious gain of their own.
As I continued my descent to the town centre, I noticed that a particular member of the arachnid family was studying me. It was undoubtedly both the most colourful and the largest spider I have ever seen in my entire life! But the monk behind me was noticeably unimpressed by my excitement, claiming that he’d seen larger. And I didn’t doubt for one second that he had indeed.
Shop and flop
When darkness falls, the night market is bursting with hand-made jewellery, hemp clothing, paintings and an eccentric selection of silk. I purchased a few colourful hemp T-shirts, which were ideal for the humid climate and gave my tired Western clothes a bit of a rest. What’s more, after a bout of healthy haggling, the prices turned out to be more than affordable.
Apart from the night market, the local bars in Luang Prabang held an essence of what I would imagine Goa must have been like in the clutches of the Sixties: slick, smart, stylish and affordable, with each oozing its own unique funky character.
After all that shopping, my appetite was beginning to get the better of me. I took a short stroll downtown, past the rows of trendy little bars, and settled myself into a restaurant that specialised in traditional Lao cuisine. I ordered a chicken curry and a beer. This was my first experience with the Lao national larger, imaginatively named Beer Lao and still to this day it upholds the mantle of the best larger I have ever tasted. No lie.
As for the food, Lao food appeared to be heavily influenced by Thailand, with coconut, cream and a range of spice all blending together in harmony. As an added bonus, all restaurants in the area cutely position their tables so that it's possible to look out over the Mekong whilst dinning. This only added to the chilled-out ambience that encompasses this beautiful, and as yet uncommercialised, part of the world.
Where to stay
During my time in Luang Prabang, I stayed at the Sala Prabrang Hotel, which was immensely clean, spacious and charming, not to mention boasting the best power shower system in the entire town.
Where to eat
L’Elephant Restaurant is immersed in a variety of tropical plants, with the Lao mountains arching across the South East Asian horizon. This provides a suitable backdrop for a relaxing meal whilst you indulge in the variety of Lao cuisine on offer. The wine menu is extensive and every bit as sumptuous as the main courses. As for afters, the crème brûlée with coconut and pan-fried bananas is not to be missed!