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Magical Luang Prabang

by Joanna McCall 10 Oct 2016
Magical Luang Prabang

On the banks of the Mekong River lies a secluded town packed full of awe-inspiring temples, warm and friendly people and delightful coffee shops and restaurants. Coupled with opportunities for outdoor adventures, crafts and cooking lessons, Luang Prabang is a stop not to be missed.

TIME FOR REST AND RELAXATION
Seated within the small propeller plane of Laos Airlines, we took a sharp turn and began our descent into Luang Prabang. Our approach took us right alongside the stunning Mekong River. This was the first time I had laid eyes on it and it was truly spectacular, surrounded by lush, green vegetation on either side.

The day we arrived in Laos was hot, and when I say hot, I mean absolutely sweltering – this is coming from someone who lives in Malaysia and is now used to an average of 33 degrees! We arrived late and settled into the colonial-style Belle Rive hotel, located at the end of the peninsular. We later realised what a great spot this was: close to all the shops, bars and restaurants, but located at the calmer, quieter end of town, away from the busier streets and louder bars.

We immediately set off to explore and were instantly struck by a sense of tranquility. There were picturesque buildings, small gardens overflowing with colourful, tropical flowers and overhanging trees creating dappled shade. A family played badminton on the street and children played merrily on bikes outside their homes.

Walking past one of the Buddhist temples, we could hear faint chanting by the monks, the sound emanating from the temple with its gold embellishments glistening in the evening light. It was at this moment, a mere two hours after arriving, that I realised this place was going to be special. In fact, it turned out to be one of the most incredible places I have ever visited.

The hotel guestbook advised us to start living on ‘Luang Prabang’ time. It suggested that after a few days we would soon forget all about our worries and may even forget what day of the week it was. One restaurant we visited also referred to Laos PDR as standing for ‘Please don’t rush’.

Taking this on board, we set about fully immersing ourselves into the chilled-out nature of this town. It wasn’t hard. After a de-stressing massage at Frangipani Spa, we grabbed our guidebooks and settled in at one of the many great coffee shops along the main high street. Novelty Cafe served up delicious filled baguettes, good coffee and indulgent cakes. It was a great spot for whiling away the hours, people-watching and soaking up the atmosphere.

AN OUTING TO THE WATERFALL
The next day, we got up early and took a car out to the Kuang Si waterfall, about an hour’s drive from the main town. The hotel manager gave us great advice to set off early – around 8am – to avoid the crowds. This early start allowed us to enjoy an uninterrupted view of the waterfall before the busloads of tours arrived. After a short trek up to the top of the waterfall, we treated ourselves to a dip in one of the swimming pools below. The vibrant turquoise-coloured water was cool and refreshing – just what we needed after our hike.

Walking back through the sunbear sanctuary, we learnt about the plight of these fascinating creatures. These small bears (also native to Malaysian jungles) had been rescued from all over Asia, where they were kept in small cages and had their bile extracted for use in Chinese medicine. There is a donation box where you can contribute to their upkeep and help the charity rescue more bears from this fate.

Back in town, we spent the evening on a sunset cruise along the breathtakingly beautiful Mekong River, which was kindly offered for free by our hotel. The boat motored gently up the river against the current and the hotel staff handed out beers and wine. They then cut the engine and we floated back down the river in blissful silence. The view of the surrounding hills in the distance was awe-inspiring. We floated past fishermen and in the distance, could hear chanting from a local village. With beer in hand and the gentle lapping of the river, I was definitely starting to relax.

DEALING WITH THE PAST
On advice from friends back home, we took our free bikes from the hotel and cycled about 15 minutes out of town to the small UXO (unexploded ordinance) museum – the UXO Laos centre. Laos is the most heavily-bombed country per capita in history, with over two million tons of ordinance dropped between 1964 and 1973.

The local people are still living with the consequences of this and around a quarter of the villages in Laos are contaminated with UXOs. This has really hindered how people farm the land as many areas are out of bounds. They also tend to farm shallower in the soil, which can affect crops and, in turn, lead to a lack of food for villagers.

It was hard to read the accounts from local people who had been injured, but it was also heartening to see the great work that the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme is doing. With help from the UN and donations from other countries, they are training local people to survey the area for unexploded bombs and to destroy them in a controlled manner.

CRAFTS AND COMMUNITY
One of the most surprising things about this UNESCO heritage town is the amount of high-end shops that line the streets, particularly towards the end of the peninsular. With their designer goods and plush interiors, many of these boutiques would not look out of place on the Kings Road in Chelsea. I found out that the majority are owned by expats who have set up shop after visiting and falling in love with the place.

One English woman has collaborated with local villagers to sell handcrafted scarves, placemats and other home furnishings. Her beautiful boutique shop, Ock Pop Tok, was situated just down the road from our hotel. Here, you could sign up for various craft classes, including natural dyeing and weaving using a traditional loom. All classes are taught by local artisans and the aim is to keep these long-running traditions going while allowing the local women to earn a good wage.

Our favourite spa was owned by an Australian man and many of the restaurants and coffee shops appeared to have foreign owners. The expat community here seems to fit in well and they are providing good opportunities for local people to work and continue their livelihoods. One evening, we walked by a mini street party being held down one of the little alleyways off the main road. A mixture of expats and locals were drinking together and chatting animatedly while music blared out of a stereo.

There is a strict curfew enforced here and most restaurants and bars close well before the allocated time of 11.30pm. This was not a problem for me as I was happy to go to bed early in order to get up and explore the next day. It is also in keeping with the daily routine of the resident monks living in the surrounding temples. Every day they wake at sunrise and walk through the town for the alms giving ceremony (where locals offer up food donations to the monks).

By the end of our four days here, we had truly fallen for Luang Prabang’s charm. The highlight of Laos itself, though, has to be the people and their cheery demeanour in the face of some difficult times. Despite having to deal with the fallout from various wars and living on very little, the people here seemed to be happy.

On our last evening, as we rode our bikes along the riverside, I witnessed the untold joy on a group of young boys’ faces as they cycled past us. I put my head down and peddled harder, pretending to race them; they took much glee in whizzing right past me and off into the distance.

 

Laos may be landlocked, but it isn’t without its water fascinations. Here are five to check out.

Kuang Si Waterfall
Not far from Luang Prabang, this dreamy cascade needs to be seen to be believed and plunges down a series of limestone verges.

Tad Sae
Another watery Luang Prabang outpost, its gentle turquoise waters can be experienced from forest trails or milky pools.

Tad Fane
Easily accessible from the town of Paksong, these dramatic twin falls drop into a 100m gorge from the heavily forested Bolaven Plateau.

Khone Pha Pheng
Located in an area aptly known as Si Phan Don or 4,000 Islands, the rush of the mighty Mekong through multiple drops creates a thunderously dramatic backdrop, particularly after the seasonal rains.

Nam Tok Katamtok
Hard to get to and relatively free from tourist activity, the 100m drop that the Huay Katam river makes can be viewed from beside a highway.

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