Why I Love Luang Prabang
I first came to visit Luang Prabang on a short holiday many years ago.
I immediately fell in love with the place and have been coming back each year since then. I feel very fortunate because for the past 5 years I have been actually living and working here for most of that time. The longer I stay the more layers I peel away and the more I learn about the many aspects of Lao culture.
What attracted me to the place?
Luang Prabang is a city in northern Laos, surrounded by mountains and situated at the confluence of the mighty Mekong River and the smaller Nam Khan River.
It was granted World Heritage status in 1995 and is situated on a long peninsula between these two rivers and houses many beautiful old buildings. It is easy to identify the charming old French colonial architecture and the old Chinese houses and shops. It is because the town is heritage-listed that these many old buildings are preserved & protected for future generations to experience.
There are also many magnificent temples where people are welcome to go and listen to the monks and novices chanting in the evenings or just sit quietly and meditate.
Since I’ve been living here, I have found there is an easy-going pace to life and being of mostly flat terrain, it is easy to walk around without the need to ride a motorcycle or drive a car.
No-one here seems to be in a hurry. This can be very appealing to some and drive others crazy. There is no tooting of car horns to hurry people along, no shooing of dogs or people off the road, one simply waits until they move out of the way or detours around them.
I feel very safe walking along the many streets and laneways even at night when all is quiet. There are still many old houses dotted amongst the newer guest houses and bigger hotels, so the locals are often to be seen cooking over their fires, chatting or drinking with friends, washing their bikes or watering their gardens. There always seems to be someone about and someone to greet with a friendly “Saibadee!”
On the peninsula there are many small laneways that join one road with another and these can be a delightful discovery when exploring the town on foot. Here it is possible to find bamboo racks with rice cakes or cassava cakes drying in the sun; women sitting on low stools getting a manicure or pedicure; children playing; dogs sleeping and hidden gardens that can surprise you.
It is not a late-night type of town in the city centre, with many discos and bars, although these can be found on the outskirts of the city.
The pace is set in the early morning with Gongs or drums before sunrise to alert the villagers to tak bat (or alms giving) when all the novices and monks walk barefoot out of their temples to collect food and other offerings from the villagers.
Again at 4pm the drums can be heard to remind villagers to come for daily prayers in the temples each evening. The sight of monks & novices in their orange robes crossing the bamboo bridges that span the Nam Khan or walking down the streets, always catches the eye and provides great material for photographers.
I also love the beauty of the many tropical flowers that bloom according to the season, including the bright sprays of bougainvillea that climb and trail over tall trees or along fences; and orchids of many different colours that surprise you when walking about. The huge ‘flame of the forest’ trees with their red flowers, that dot the foreshores along the Mekong and provide much welcome shade in the hotter weather. All are very pleasing to the eye.
I enjoy the many cafes dotted along the banks of the Mekong river where I can stop and have a drink or dine, while watching the ever flowing Mekong below. It can be very relaxing watching the toing and froing of the many wooden boats and the ferries that work continuously all day long, taking cars, bikes, people across to the other shore.
There is also, nothing more pleasant, than sitting on the terrace, relaxing with a glass of wine in the late afternoon and watching the sunset over the river before it disappears behind the mountains.
After the rainy season, the river can become quite dangerous. It increases several metres in height, is brown and flows very fast covering the many small islands that form in the drier season.
I haven’t mentioned the people living here in Luang Prabang.
The people are friendly and gentle and have great respect for their elders and pay particular attention to following traditional customs. They are mostly Buddhist, but are also animists, believing in the power of spirits of the land and everything upon it. They are not at all aggressive when it comes to selling their wares or offering boat trips or tuk tuk rides to tourists.
The Laos love any excuse for a party and like nothing better than to sit with a group of friends to have a chat, drink Beer Lao, play loud music and dance. Streets and laneways can be blocked off without notice and marquees are erected and tables and chairs laden with food appear. It could be for a wedding, a funeral, a baby party or some other celebration. Often these are accompanied with huge speakers from which loud music blares and karaoke singers can even be heard across the Mekong.
For me, being a teacher and working in a school with young Lao youth, the students are so grateful for help with learning English and are so keen to learn. This makes it a pleasure to teach and to spend time with them. They are mostly quite shy and very polite and respectiful. Most come from extreme poverty and hardships in their lives and have often come from remote provinces, at some distance from Luang Prabang. They have come to study here and get an education in the hope of finding employment in the future.
They are very respectful to their parents and often when they find a job are helping to support families back home with money. When they have time off then they often travel back to their village to help with tasks such as rice planting, harvesting, building, painting etc.
You never know what you might see taking place. Life is full of surprises and that’s another appeal for me. Not knowing what to expect from one day to the next.