The Perfect Mekong Destination for Foodies and History Buffs
Temples and palaces oozing this region's history can be found in this mid-size city, as well as an incredible variety of food unfamiliar to most readers.
This is the latest in our twice-a-month series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World.
They gather en masse on the north end of the slender peninsula where the Nam Khan River joins the far mightier Mekong.
A tourist’s day begins very early in Luang Prabang, a town of 100,000 on the Mekong River in the heart of northern Laos. It is home to no fewer than 200 Buddhist monks, and every day of the week beginning at 5:30 a.m. these holy men and boys put on their orange off-the-shoulder full-length robes to leave their nearby temples, or “wats,”—there are a dozen in easy walking distance—to gather their daily meal of sticky rice from the locals, as well as tourists. This alms-gathering ceremony began in the 14th century, and is such a popular ritual today that most of Luang Prabang’s many boutique hotels, guest houses, and hostels offer a few pennies-worth of pre-prepared rice (for which they charge guests ten dollars). You need to book the day before.
As someone who grew up schooled in another patriarchal religion, I have reservations about these holy men, many of them teenagers who appear to be adolescents. “Ladies not allowed” signs restrict admittance to certain areas of their temples. Female tourists who participate in the alms gathering are instructed to keep their bowed heads below the level of the monks’. And, of course, everyone must remove their shoes to kneel curbside.
I’d observed this religious form of begging in other Southeast Asian cities. Usually, it’s much less theatrical. Young monks with shaved heads go from store to store, sounding a bell, at which the shop’s owner gives them a cup of dry rice. In Luang Prabang, the monks have added an altruistic twist to their mass alms-taking: The town’s poorer families send their children to the ritual, armed with baskets, and the monks share their daily bounty of food with them.
From a respectful distance, I neither removed my shoes nor knelt, and instead enjoyed the orange spectacle of all those robes blowing in the early morning wind as the sun rose over the smoky Luang Prabang Mountain Range. It brought back fond memories of Central Park in February 2005 when Christo and Jeanne-Claude unveiled “The Gates” with its fluttering panels of deep saffron-colored fabric draped over 23 miles of pathways.
Luang Prabang’s alms-gathering is a far shorter spectacle, beginning between Kounxoau and Sisavangvong Roads, the peninsula’s two major arteries, and then scattering out to tiny side streets.
If all that sticky rice makes you hungry, the morning food market begins as early as the alms-gathering. Merchants set up their tents, tables, and blankets only a few blocks south from the monks’ ritual, and the market stays open until ten in the morning. It’s one of the most exotic food markets in the world. The only one I’ve visited to rival it is the one in Fez, Morocco, and this Laotian one is almost as congested and aromatic. Everything from dried river weeds to unskinned dead squirrels is sold here. And yes, fish. Lots of fish.
Whether you’re giving rice to the monks or shopping for your own food, the town at this narrow juncture of its peninsula is only three blocks wide, and most of the buildings are under three stories. It’s why I dub Luang Prabang “Little Kyoto. “ There’s nothing as grand or outlandishly different as that Japanese city’s Fushimi Inari Shrine with its 10,000 vermilion torii gates, depicted in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. The cluster of Buddhist temples in Luang Prabang, however, does recall the extreme concentration of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Kyoto’s historic Gion district.
The oldest of these Laotian temples is the austere Wat Visoun, built in the 16th Century and rebuilt in the late 19th Century, and most distinguished by its large white stupa (a solid structure containing relics). Far more ornate is the Wat Xieng Thong, or Temple of the Golden City, also from the 16th Century. Its central shrine hall, or “sim,” features the underside of nine cascading roofs, stenciled in gold. Buddhists are big on gold. Seen from the outside, the nine roofs sport small pagodas that furl upward to the sky.
Working monasteries surround most of these temples. Many monasteries I’ve visited in Southeast Asia are essentially museums. In Luang Prabang, they are anything but. Wat trips here invariably include sights of the monks eating, working, cleaning, and sleeping in adjacent buildings. This exploration of monastery life is best observed by climbing Mount Phousi, a 328-foot-high hill with almost as many steps as feet to get you to the summit. It’s a popular tourist spot to view the sunset over the Mekong, but more intriguing are the many monks who live around its base on the north side of the hill.
Mount Phousi is topped by a gilded stupa and the small Wat Chom Si. But don’t make the mistake I did on my first visit—and walk down the way you came. There’s a “back” staircase that snakes down the opposite side of the hill, overlooking the Nam Khan River. It’s here that you meet up with the Seven Buddahs, one for each day of the week. At points, the stairway’s bannister turns into a colorfully decorated serpent, and farther down the hill are a number of small buildings where the monks live and work. These men are incredibly impervious to being watched by tourists, and go about their daily life seemingly undisturbed. Then again, I never carry a camera when I travel.
Back in front of Phousi Hill and across Sisavangvong Road, the large formal park there is home to the Royal Palace Museum and the Haw Pha Bang, or Royal Temple. The latter houses the country’s most sacred Buddha image, in this case, a small standing Buddha. It’s Khmer in origin (today’s Cambodia, with legend dating it back as far as the 1st Century) and made from an alloy of bronze, silver, and gold. The very ornate and equally gold Haw Pha Bang looks ancient, but its construction began 1963 and was completed in 2006.
Likewise, the Royal Palace is no antique. Built in 1904 during the French colonial era, the erstwhile home of King Sisavang Vong and his family mixes traditional Lao motifs and French Beaux arts styles. The guards here strictly enforce dress codes that do not allow the exposure of human knee caps. I didn’t understand the reverence, since it is the current communist government that overthrew a dynasty which had endured 600 years, and sent the royal family off to re-education camps. The museum brochure claims that the palace remains as it was in 1975 when King Savang Vatthana and his family were carted away. The bedrooms and dining room could belong to any grand European residence.
More unique is the reception room with its extremely romantic murals depicting Laotian village life, from morning to night, in the early 20th Century. The murals were painted so that the sunlight through the windows hits the corresponding time of day depicted on the walls.
Much more fantastical is the throne room. Its walls appear to be covered in rubies. That illusion is created through glass mosaics and well-applied red paint, but awesome just the same. A whimsical touch is the throne itself, shaped like a howdah, the riding seat placed on the back of an elephant. In past centuries, the kings used this particular howdah to travel Laos.
As evil colonialists go, the French did it with more style than most. My trip to Luang Prabang brought back pleasant memories of Algiers and Saigon, but on a far less grand scale. Several outdoor restaurants line both the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, with some along the Mekong serviced by boutique hotels and guest houses, where you can also eat on the veranda. I dined at the Tamarind Restaurant in front of the Nam Khan to sample dishes like Khai Pen (dried river vegetable snacks), Jeow Bong (spicy sweet chili paste with buffalo skin), and for dessert, Mak Fahk Sangkhanya (coconut custard steamed in pumpkin).
The food at the Maison Dalabua, the French boutique hotel where I stayed, was also deliciously different. I ate Yam Mak Pee (banana blossom mixed with shredded chicken and Lao herbs) and Kao Pa (fish salad mixed with shallots, lemongrass, coriander and mint leaves), and for dessert, Sangkhaya Makpao (steamed coconut creamed, crème brûlée style). The Maison’s Manda de Laos restaurant is a wood house set at the end of a long board walk that traverses a large lily pond surrounded by palm trees. Except for the palms, it reminded me of the far eastern section of Fire Island Pines right before that town’s “boulevard” board walk ends (also over a pond) and the Judy Garland Memorial Park begins.
The Buddha Caves or Pak Ou Cave is such a popular half-day trip from Luang Prabang that there’s a traffic jam of boats at the dock in front of them. After leaving China, the Laotian people discovered the caves in the 8th Century, my guide tells me, and turned them into temples in the 16th Century. The two caves now house more than 2,500 and 1,500 Buddhas, respectively, most of them very small and undistinguished. I didn’t count the Buddhas. Not to be disrespectful, but the cave interiors look like someone had emptied the contents of a Luang Prabang trinket shop here, and this is what dropped out. Far more impressive is the view from the caves across the Mekong River, where the cliff rivals the spectacle of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
Highly recommended is the one- or two-day boat trip up the Mekong to the town of Houayxay, near the Thailand border. There are a variety of boats that make the 200-mile trip. Fastest is the aptly named Speed Boat ($49). It holds about a dozen people and takes seven hours (six hours going down stream) with a stop halfway in the village of Pak Beng for lunch. However, a very knowledgeable guide cautioned me, “First hour fun, the others not so much.” It’s a rough ride due to the speed and the Mekong’s turbulent rapids, swells and whirlpools.
More leisurely is the Ferry or Slow Boat ($29), which takes two days (12 to 14 hours), with a stop in Pak Beng for the night.
I took the more luxurious trip offered by Luang Say Cruises. They have their own lodge just outside Pak Beng, and the cabins there on stilts halfway up the jungle hillside are fit for the Fantasy Suite episode of The Bachelor. Luang Say’s major competitor is the Shompoo Cruises. Their flat-bottom boats (similar to the public Ferry or Slow Boat) accommodate up to 50 people. Drinks and lunch are served onboard.
Luang Say Cruises stops at small villages along the way. My favorite is Ban Houy Phalam, populated by the Khmu or Middle Mountain people. They’re farmers, and since they have nothing to sell to tourists, the people here paid little attention to us. The Khmu practice animism; they’re believers of spirits. It’s one of the few places where I saw little girls out in public en masse, along with the little boys. The only difference: at the beach, the girls wore Frozen and Pokemon T-shirts over shorts. The boys were stark naked, and loving it.
Take away the motors on the ferries and boats and the trip up the Mekong is a trip back in time. Along the river, villagers beat the pampas grass to create brooms, unattended bamboo fishing poles stick out of the volcanic rock at every bend in the river, and everywhere people are panning for gold. Laos has banned the industrialized gold extraction from motorized boats that dirties the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. Just south of Pak Beng, elephants sometimes join water buffalo and goats along the river – if you’re lucky enough to see them in the Elephant Nature Park.
I did the Mekong during the winter (dry season). Since the Luang Say’s small boats put you right at water level, the sharp volcanic rock whizzing by on both sides makes for a thrilling ride. During the summer or wet season, the water is at least 35-feet higher, and the upside would be a much lusher surrounding jungle. In January when I traveled, the teak, tamarind, and mahogany groves were stripped of leaves. At the height of the monsoon, Luang Say and Shompoo Cruises don’t make the trip.
The Mekong is not plastic-free, but better than most rivers I’ve seen in Southeast Asia. Actually, some of the plastic seen here serves a purpose. Used plastic bottles are tied together to keep the many fishing nets afloat.
I was happy to have the guides from Luang Say Cruises walk me through immigration at the border of Laos and Thailand. Prior to my trip I’d attempted to get a Laotian visa, but the government didn’t provide it in time. Getting that visa in Laos is easy, but not much English is spoken on either side of the border. Also, the crossing reminded me of going from Israel to Jordan across the Allenby Bridge. You don’t walk across, but take a bus. Neither immigration experience was complicated, in retrospect. But facing all that paperwork, the bus, and the bridge for the very first time – it’s daunting.
The Chiang Rai Airport in Thailand is 90 minutes away.
A seven-hour boat ride followed by a 90-minute taxi/van ride to the airport might stress out even the most jaded tourist. Fortunately, the small Chiang Rai Airport is surrounded by a number of mountain resorts. For two nights, I stayed at an eco-friendly farm, the Phu Chaisai Mountain Resort. It’s suitable for the Final Rose episode of The Bachelor.