With a camera in one hand and a book (or a coffee) in the other, I always find enticing byways—such as Luang Prabang.
1. Enjoy a Tropical Storm
Without warning, the rain tumbled from the sky. Laughter filled the air as people dashed for cover. Sheltering on my veranda, I watched the fat drops dance across the garden and onto the road. In only a few minutes, the streets were deserted. Once the tropical rains begin, few venture outside.
Fairy lights hung in the trees lining the street, slowly coming to life as the afternoon light faded. I could just see them through the rain. The path leading down to the road bubbled with water, a small river running down the steps. I could hear nothing but the rain thundering about me. The mighty Mekong was but a stone's throw away, but she flowed invisibly. Another month of these rains and the floods would come, sweeping away bridges and leaving roads impassable.
I soon learnt to find a spot in a cafe or my hotel when the clouds threatened a storm. With a cup of coffee or a cooling drink, I simply sat back and enjoyed the spectacle.
2. Partake of Tak Bat
The faint sound of drums woke me before dawn: Tak Bat, or the giving of alms, had begun. Every morning, an endless procession of saffron and orange weaves through the streets as monks walk silently through Luang Prabang with their alms bowls.
Although already 32ºC and exceptionally humid, men and women sat quietly on the side of the road, offering each monk some sticky rice as they passed. All was done in silence. By giving rice (or ‘making merit’), Buddhists believe they will not go hungry in their next life.
Monks of all ages passed in slow procession, accepting the offerings in gracious silence. Tak Bat remains a sacred tradition; anyone watching should wear respectful attire with both shoulders and knees covered, and all photos should be taken from a discreet distance.
I'd chosen the far end of town as my vantage spot, where there was not another tourist in sight. Three monks make their way down a steep flight of stairs and into a waiting long-boat. The golden tops of their temple peeped through the forest on the other bank, and I could hear the faint peel of a bell coming across the water.
3. Visit the Cave of 1000 Buddhas
After a fortifying breakfast following my pre-dawn adventure, I later headed down those stairs and into my own long-tail boat. Soon all I could see was a wall of green, with the gold or red of a wat peeping through the trees every now and then. The occasional boat lay pulled up to the bank, secured by a stick of bamboo stuck into the mud. Water buffalo stood amongst the undergrowth, with half-naked kids sitting on their backs and splashing in the water around them.
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Near where the Nam Ou and Mekong Rivers merge, limestone cliffs rise from the waters, many dotted with caves. The Pak Ou Caves comprise a lower cave, Tham Ting, and the upper Tham Theung (reached by a steep climb). These serve as a retirement home for Buddhas. Thousands have been retired here from temple duty, usually when they become too damaged for display.
The statues are of all sizes and poses, often covered with dust and cobwebs, many with incense burns and missing digits. Nevertheless, they are still revered, and in the Lao New Year, villagers come by boat to bathe the statues for merit.
4. Cruise the Mekong
Daily life in this area of the world revolves around the rivers. Where else to understand them but on a small boat, cruising forgotten watercourses? A soft breeze drifted over the water, granting some relief from the heat. As the little wooden boat putted further and further upstream, the river gradually became narrower and narrower. Local houses opened onto the water, and kids splashed amongst the mangroves. Long boats were drawn up amongst the trees or tied to a hidden jetty. Fishing nets were strung through the water, or hung on trees, drying.
A maze of tiny waterways opened off on either side of the river, leading further into the unknown. On my own, I would soon become incurably lost. The heat of the day closed down around me. Aside from the river lapping against the boat, the only other sounds were the buzz of a dragon-fly or the splash of a walking fish. Masses of hyacinths adorned the riverbanks, and kingfishers darted amongst the greenery. As the boat drifted along, the heavens opened yet again, and a tropical shower left me drenched within a few minutes. It just as quickly passed, and soon I sat steaming in the heat.
Civilisation seemed far away. This is what I came here to find.
5. Return to When Travel Was a Leisurely Affair
Despite the influx of tourists trying to rush Laos into the 21st century, life in Luang Prabang continues at a walking pace. From the air, the gold decorations of the airport sparkled amongst the primeval forest. The heat and humidity engulfed me as I stepped onto the tarmac, yet the air smelt sweet and clean.
With Laos closed to the outside world until the 1990s, the short drive from the airport covers decades (if not centuries), back to an era of romantic, slow-paced travel. Five minutes from the airport, the four-lane highway came to an abrupt end, blocked by a house standing where the road should be. A water buffalo looked on placidly as our minivan was forced to detour along a dirt track, before continuing along the original bumpy road into town. Farms dotted the wayside, along with fields of rice and vegetables. Palm trees swayed in the breeze.
Such is Luang Prabang, a place to pack away itineraries and travel books, and simply enjoy, to wander along unmarked lane-ways and down a beckoning flight of stairs. To watch the monks at their prayers and their studies, or enjoy the colours of a vine in full flower as it embraces a stone archway.
© 2020 Anne Harrison