Among the most touching travel experience I have had so far, I particularly cherish my first time in Luang Prabang & the alms-giving ceremony in Huay Xai.
Laos is a genuine and authentic country whose history, culture, and tradition live and breathe in unison. A country that moves and makes you think and leaves its mark.
I decided to visit it following the suggestion of a Swiss traveler with whom I shared a day trip by train between Bangkok and Chiang Mai in January 2010. He had just been in Laos and was so deeply touched by that country to make me decide in a few minutes it would be my next stage.
Therefore, the year after, I started to organize my solo independent trip, as always getting inspired by other travel diaries, online guides, and history books. The trip cost me about 700 € (flights, accommodation, meals, and excursions included), and I combined it with Cambodia and yet another stop in Chiang Rai, where I left my heart.
On 16th January 2011, I then boarded an Egyptair flight from Malpensa to Bangkok via Cairo. A good company that I have already chosen several times for the excellent value for money.
After two weeks in Cambodia, on January 31th I landed in Luang Prabang with a Vietnam Air flight from Siem Reap. The company is excellent, but certainly not cheap! (253 € one-way flight). From above, I started to see the mountains surrounding the city and the Mekong. I was over the moon!
Staying in Luang Prabang
I arrived at the airport and took a tuk-tuk to the Thongbay Guesthouse ($ 34 per night), where I had booked via email months in advance to be sure to get one of the few bungalows with a private terrace overlooking the river. The facilities are very nice and the staff really friendly. I immediately felt at home. The view from my terrace then is Asia … highly ordered gardens made on the banks, a small temple in teak, and the monks that come down on the bank to wash and play with each other. I was left to enjoy the peace and the atmosphere up to the evening.
My sleep was interrupted only by the Buddhist gong that resonates at 4 am and then again at dawn … Upon awakening; I was served breakfast on my terrace: scrambled eggs, French toast, lemon juice, and real tea. The joys of travel 😉
After the first day of relaxation and reflection after Cambodia, I finally started to walk downtown.
Luang Prabang is a small town where silence, cleanliness, and teak dominate. Certainly much poorer than other cities of the former Indo-China, but more orderly and quiet. In the morning, the city center is occupied by the market, colorful and with hygienic conditions not really following EEC 😀 There you can find anything, skewers mouse included.
I kept wandering aimlessly for hours, until early afternoon, at the arrival of a couple of friends from Paris.
I left them just enough time to put down their backpacks, and we left together toward the center to visit the Wat Phu Si temple and other “minor” temples in town.
More than in other Buddhist countries, the temples here are places where spirituality is contagious and makes you lose track of time … in Laotian temples, the soul comes out, and waves and feelings are more than skin deep. Then, when the old wooden walls act as a sounding board to the chanting of monks who repeat their mantra in endless sequences, tears emerge and bathe the smile … and I can not describe with words the emotion that clouded me and still does, even now, as I unsuccessfully try to tell you about it…
In the evening, before going back to our bungalow, we did not miss one hour of foot massage. On the riverside, the offer is varied. During the stay, we tried several massage centers, and I must say that the technique is not as good as the Thai one, but a foot massage never hurts 😉 In 2011 the cost was between 2 and $ 4 depending on the beauty of the chairs.
After another great breakfast on the terrace, watching the monks doing their laundry, we went back to see the daily market altogether, visit the beautiful National Museum ($ 1, including photo exhibitions of the moment) and other temples. The sole criterion of our itinerary, our feeling. We have focused on temples and courtyards; we followed streets rather than others only based on what inspired us, and it was so relaxing. To let go and get carried away … one of the aspects I prefer of my trips.
In the afternoon, we continued our walk to explore the city, and we bought anything buyable in the craft village “on the other side,” much more interesting and cheaper than the central market.
In the evening, we had a great dinner on the hotel’s veranda, where we tasted the traditional dishes and drunk rivers of local beer playing cards for hours.
The awakening was a bit forced … first by the sound of the gong and then the din of firecrackers for Chinese New Year Eve, all between 4 and 5 am!
After breakfast, we headed downtown, this time using the free hotel shuttle, to buy the last things necessary for the three days of hiking tour, buy tickets for the boat to Pakbeng, and find a tuk-tuk for Kuang Si waterfalls (50000 Kip each). In short, a morning of “different” shopping.
The road to the falls is stunning and highly ordered through villages and emerald green rice fields.
At the entrance of the park’s impossible not to take pictures of the bears snoozing in hammocks or on the swings. They are beautiful!
The slope to the source is steep and slippery, but many manage to do it in thongs … obviously, my athletic side isn’t good enough.
The pools are beautiful and come with strings/vines to jump into the water (!) and changing rooms. Spending the afternoon between dips and laughter was great fun, a kind of regression to childhood 🙂
Back to Luang Prabang, we stopped at the night market (which deserves!) for other gifts and souvenirs … then massage and dinner at the hotel.
The next day we had to wake up early to leave for our three-day hiking tour to discover the tribal villages of Laos, but that’s another story …
Cruising up the Mekong from Laos to Thailand
Returned from the trek, we spent our first day in the “modern” world on board the slow-boat to Pakbeng (25000 kips each), a teak boat very rough and noisy.
I recommend you to be ready on the dock at least one hour before the departure to occupy the seats in the bow. I also recommend heavy socks and sweatshirts for the first morning hours!
The trip takes about eight hours, and the scenery is spectacular and very varied.
Even passengers were varied and colorful 😉 We chatted, even with gestures, played cards, checkers and sang traditional songs and country music!
Sailing along the Mekong is really worthwhile!
We arrived in Pakbeng in time for sunset. The Pakbeng Lodge ($ 118 suite, breakfast included), on the cliff, is beautiful, and my suite, even more, the shower water pressure is excellent and the water warm. Details that you appreciate, especially when you are coming from days in the mountains …
The view you can enjoy from the terrace is priceless, but Europeans run the hotel, and you can notice it. I found dinner mediocre and adapted to Western tastes ($ 8 each), and whenever it happens, the flavors are affected.
The next day, another wake-up call at dawn to board the boat to Huay Xai (25000 Kip each). This stage lasted about eight hours too, and once again, we froze on board! Same passengers with some added local and same atmosphere of the festival.
Once docked in Huay Xai, we were greeted by a steep slope, and to climb it with backpacks on our shoulders needed some momentum, and especially the determination not to stop halfway … who does it is lost 😀
We obviously stopped in the first guesthouse at the top of the hill! Extremely basic, but my body refused to make one more step to find a place to sleep … (75000 Kip).
We left the backpacks in the room and immediately went out for a walk in the village and have a drink. I recommend the Beer Bar on the main street because it is very nice and the cocktails are excellent (2500 Kip each). We stopped to greet Dan, a Sino-Laotian, a very eccentric musician we met on the boat while we were there. We drank and then had dinner together (120,000 Kip), passing such a beautiful evening between a chat and the other. A very nice person, which I am still in contact with.
The alms-giving ceremony in Huay Xai
For our last day in Laos, I had everybody waking up at 5:00 to attend the alms ceremony, which did not start until 6:30/6:45 … I do not think my friends have forgiven me yet, but what can I do if the enthusiasm makes me jump up out of bed?
The parade of monks, mostly young boys, is touching and the song of thanksgiving offered to those who are in front of them every time they get the food is really moving. I get goosebumps just writing it today.
Crossing the Mekong Laos – Thailand border
After the ceremony, we returned to the guesthouse to retrieve our backpacks and have breakfast, always with Dan, and then we headed to the customs to take the ferry to the other bank (10,000 kips each), Chiang Khong, in Thailand.
Laos is a very moving country! It is probably one of the poorest I have visited and one of the most dignified, inhabited by great people who made us feel welcome, offering their help, smiles, and even their meals (!).
I hope to be back soon, also to visit the south of the country.