A perfect location for spiritual contemplation and gourmet delights.
Luang Prabang is a place where time runs slowly, where the whiff of fragrant freshly baked flakey French croissants merge with the scent of incense and the tantilizing gourmet spices of the French-Laotian cuisine. A place where body and mind truly reunites. Encircled by hazy green mountains, Luang Prabang is located on a peninsula between Nam Khan and the grand Mekong River. Now is the time to discover the splendor of Luang Prabang, before it is too late: in a few years a new high speed train will connect from mainland China, adding large volumes of loud tourists to a spiritual sanctuary. A city so pervaded by an intangible charm and spiritual calm could change very rapidly.
Luang Prabang was an ancient Royal capital and is still the main center for Buddhist learning in Laos. The more than 33 wats (monasteries) are worth exploring, all displaying the unique Laotian gold temple roof embellishments, gold stenciling, and wood carvings. Doors and windows are decorated and hand carved with tales of life: heaven and hell. Since 1995 Luang Prabang was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, meaning no cars and trucks are allowed: this place is so peaceful and such a delight, with a strong spiritual ambiance. The city is best explored by foot as treasures abound around each corner – or negotiate a ride on one of the local colorful local Tuk-Tuks, a motor bike rickshaw, the only mode of transportation admitted in the old quarters – or take a day off relaxing your feet on a river cruise on the Mekong River aboard one of the old charming long wooden junket boats to the Buddha Caves and a hilltribe whisky village.
Glistening Buddhist architecture merges with Colonial French into a magical and alluring dreamy visual and auditory sensation. Not to mention the scent sensations: flaky French patisseries and spicy Laotian dishes fused with French cuisine. I wish I had taken the time to take a cooking class in one of the restaurant kitchens along the river.
French colonial villas house the majority of the guesthouses, small cozy hotels and Indo-French fusion cafes and restaurants and artisans. The friendly multi-ethnic Laotian people and nearby colorful Hmong hill tribes captivate even the most jaded traveler.
Color ornamentation and tantalizing scents are the first of Luang Prabang’s virtues greeting travelers. Frangipani and magnolia trees with their heady perfume and vibrant flowers, the vibrant saffron colored robes of hundreds of young monks and novices walking with their colorful rice umbrellas are mesmerizing. Roosters awaken the city prior to dawn, getting the Laotians ready for giving alms to the silent 6:00 AM progression of monks and novices through town. The gonging of nearby temple drums add a sacred balming layer to your busy minds. I wonder what all the roosters in their woven baskets are really used for, except as alarm clocks? I may not want to know…
The town is a juxtaposition of faded French colonial villas, old traditional Laos homes creaking on stilts, interspersed by spiritual architectural treasures. Patisseries makes the nostrils vibrate and yearn. Tranquility and charm are the key words.
French Indochina culinary fusion deserves explorations: try grilled marinated buffalo in coffee grain sauce at 3 Nagas or the amazing grilled red pepper and tomato soup layered with pepper and spring onions at Jarvos for a lazy lunch on the street porch, squandering a few lazy hours on a very hot afternoon. Street food offerings are abundant, especially during the daily night market: try thin crepes, grilled corn on the cub, grilled unmentionables, or grilled bananas delicately wrapped in banana leaves.
The gonging of giant drums sounding from neighboring wats signal a balming spiritual retreat for a stressed traveler, urging you to stop and inhale with all your senses.
One of my favorite places for lunch and contemplation was an outdoor restaurant at the tip of the peninsula, with a view of the suspended bamboo bridge and the 2 joining rivers.
Take time for long boat cruises along the muddy Mekong River to visit hill tribes and/or the Oak Ou Buddha karst caves which are depositories for thousands of Buddha figures. This experience is truly overwhelming and worth a half day trip. Hundreds of steps lead up the journey to the 2 levels of Buddha filled karst caves. Once inside you cannot help but wanting to capture the experience, over and over. It truly leaves a spiritual impact on your soul.
Luang Prabang is indeed a very special place worth exploring. I left part of my heart and soul in Luang Prabang. Devote some days to just unwind and indulge: surrounded in frangipani scents, incense, excellent spicy French inspired Laotian kitchen and French bakeries, and do indulge the fifth sense by trying Laotian massages. This is one of those places in the world that gets under your skin. In a good way.
Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen