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LUANG PRABANG - The Lao Royal City - Trip Report

This tiny city was once the seat of Lao royalty, and is now a Unesco Heritage Site.  Pictures cannot really capture the feel of this place, Western and Eastern, French and Lao, fragrant and earthy, lively yet languid, beautiful and rustic, great bi-cultural food in charming restaurants, monk novices, rivers, night markets, wats, tribal crafts, rituals, physical activities, and creature comforts of all kinds.  This is a report on highlights of our second trip to Luang Prabang in February 2017.  

Luang Prabang.  Luang Prabang is a compact bustling but not crazy town, with tuk-tuks, motorbikes, markets, trees, and more as we will see.  As shown below, central LP lies in a peninsula between the Mekong River and the “Nam Khan” the tributary that joins the Mekong in LP..  Central LP is small – just over a km long and barely 1/3 km wide with just three streets and an alley running its length.

Wats and Palaces.  Luang Prabang  has numerous beautiful wats (temples) and also the royal palace as it is the historical home of Lao royalty.

Streets of Luang Prabang.  In town we were re-acquainted with its charming mix of old colonial French architecture, lush vegetation, lovely décor, and nice shops.

Mando da Laos.  We discovered a lovely restaurant called “Mando da Laos” which is situated on three Unesco World Heritage lotus ponds.  Beautiful by day, an enchanting candlelit restaurant at night. 

Feeding the monks.  There are dozens of wats (temples) in town, each with novice monks in attendance for very rigorous education and their omnipresence in town lend it a rich and unique local color.  At 6 AM, after two hours of prayer, the novices walk down the street collecting food (mainly rice) for their breakfast, which is supplied by locals and tourists who delightfully take part in this ritual.  Sarah got a stool and some freshly made sticky rice to dole out.  

The Night Market.  That night, after dinner we visited the night market, which is a fun and festive place open every night.  Lots of stuff here.  The local tribes come into town with every kind of thing including rice whiskey called laolao made in the villages and sometimes containing a scorpion or a python in the bottle.

Tuk-tuks.  The next day we hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us into town and chauffeur us around.  These colorful fun conveyrances are ubiquitous.  The day of chauffeuring cost us  100,000 Kip! ($12).  This is our guy.

The Viewpoint.  We went to the point where the Mekong and Khan join and there the “Viewpoint” restaurant provides a great vista of this junction as well as the bamboo bridge over the Khan to the weaving village.

Monk crossing.  While  at the Viewpoint, some monks decided to give us some photo ops crossing the bridge with their robes and umbrellas mirrored in the river.  

Young  monk encounters. Walking around town, Sarah had an encounter with some cute young monk novices.  Then we encountered a tuk-tuk full of young monks.  What could be more fun than a tuk-tuk full of monks!

Morning market.  In the morning we visited the central LP morning market which is crammed into little alleyways in town.  Very colorful and lively.  That log being weighed is actually a local spice called “saakhan” – which is derived from the bark.  It is used in the local Orlam stew.  Don’t ask us what some of the other stuff is.

Cooking class.  The next day we had a Lao cuisine cooking class put on by one of the best restaurants in town – the Terrace.  We were picked up at the hotel in a vintage Mercedes.  We started by going to the large market on the edge of town to be shown the various Laotian vegetables, herbs and other ingredients.

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Then we donned our cooking gear and got going fixing, under the guidance of the Terrace chef, a four course lunch – fresh spring rolls, Orlam – a local stew using the saakhan spice mentioned above, Mok fish (local fish with wonderful spices cooked in banana leaves), and pork-stuffed lemongrass.  Chris did OK chopping and cooking despite his shoulder situation, but Sarah beat him finishing every task.  OK so she can beat a cripple!  The lunch was delicious if we do say so ourselves.  And way too much food.

Favorite restaurants.  Left:  We dined at 3 Nagas, another excellent restaurant and guest house in a historic French colonial building.  BTW: A “naga” is a dragon.  Right:  Another of our favorite restaurants is L'Elephant, with a Lao menu and a French menu.  Both delicious.

Local activities.  Our guide Nith arranged an evening starting with bocce ball – a very popular game in LP.  This was followed by a Baci ceremony – a ritual performed on special occasions - to bring healing, long life, and drive off evil.  The ritual was followed by dancing and singing, and literally ending with “Auld Lang Syne” sung in Lao.

The weaving village.  The next day we decided to cross the picturesque bamboo bridge to the weaving village where we bought some scarves.

Hmong village.  We visited a village Hmong tribal village where we visited a Hmong villager's home.  We also saw whisky being distilled, cloth weaving and children in tribal garb.

Festive LP at night.  After dinner we walked along the Khan River side of town which has restaurants overhanging the river with festive but not garish lighting.