Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Luang Prabang: Not Just A UNESCO Site, But A Whole City!

Prior to our arrival in Luang Prabang, Giorgio was curious as to why we were stopping in this small Laotian city.  Stephanie explained that the riverside town promised to be picturesque and well-preserved, not to mention a UNESCO World Heritage City. 

As we discovered, Luang Prabang certainly is a picturesque locale along the banks of the Mekong.  We stayed in the old part of town, where we ambled along the quiet tree-lined streets and stopped at riverside cafes in front of quaint colonial buildings and Lao wooden houses.

Among other things, Luang Prabang is filled with temples and monasteries.  Not surprisingly, this means that the town is also full of monks.  Devout Buddhists awake early to give alms to the monks in a ceremony called tak bat.  We have seen this alms-giving at other stops on our trip, including in Mandalay; it is really quite moving to watch the local community awake before sunrise to provide food to the monks.

Before arriving in Luang Prabang, we had read a great deal about the local practice of tak bat.  Visitors were initially drawn to watch the ceremony because it presented a unique photo opportunity.  Word has spread and now hordes of tourists line the streets at 6 am every day, not just to take photos, but to give alms themselves.  However, if alms are given incorrectly, it can cause great offense.  Tourists tend to ignore the guidelines and end up being rude and disrespectful without even knowing it.  As one of many signs throughout the city informed us, if you're only interested in getting your picture taken while giving alms to the monks, you probably shouldn’t be doing this at all.

Keeping all of this in mind, we chose not to watch or participate in the daily tak bat.  In Myanmar, we had already found ourselves in the midst of the chaos of cameras, tourists, and monks at a monastery and we didn’t think it was appropriate to participate in another similarly intrusive tourist activity.

Even though we missed out on what could have been a spiritual experience, we still thoroughly explored both the sacred and more secular sites of Luang Prabang.  Climbing Phu Si, a small hill providing magnificent views of the city and rivers from its peak, we stopped to chat with a friendly monk, wondered how a Buddha footprint could be the size of a dinosaur’s, and found a hidden cave full of tiny Buddhas.

At the Royal Palace (now the National Museum), we explored the old imperial residence and followed a series of paintings telling a very confusing and bizarre myth that we think was somehow related to the royal family.  Also on display were several of the gifts given to the nation by foreign dignitaries over the years.  While we found the Japanese hand painted vases to be the prettiest gifts, the American gifts were also quite interesting; US astronauts allegedly took a small Lao flag to the moon and back, presenting it the Lao people on a plaque.  Behind the palace, we toured the royal garage, which featured some very old Lincoln town cars (also primarily gifts from the US) and Citroens.

Wandering the streets of the pristine old city, we also stumbled upon plenty of good food and drink.  Much like Madagascar, Laos boasts some excellent French food, one of the few (or perhaps only?) positive remnants of colonialism.  We were more than happy to eat as many freshly-baked croissants as possible and dine on a meal of escargots, local steak, and Bordeaux.  (Steph, in particular, was happy for the change from Beerlao to wine.)  We also tasted some of the best Laotian cuisine we have encountered thus far.

Even the streets and sites without the UNESCO stamp of approval were pretty amazing.  One day, we rented a motor-scooter for the day to visit Tat Kuang Si, a waterfall about 30 km outside the city.  Giorgio was once again our expert driver, narrowly avoiding both trucks and potholes along the way.

Before we reached the waterfall, we stopped to meet the park’s resident bears. PSA: In addition to killing rhinos for their horns and deforesting Malagasy rosewood forests, the Chinese also keep bears in tiny cages to harvestbile for use in traditional medicines.  Who knew? 

At any rate, the bears at Tat Kuang Si have all been rescued and are now living out their days with plenty of space, toys, and food.  Although they weren’t quite as large as any of their relatives in the US, they were still pretty cute to watch (from a safe distance) as they roamed the grounds.

After the bears' sanctuary, a series of light blue pools led up to the main event: Tat Kuang Si.  The pools, many of which were full of swimmers, were beautiful in and of themselves, but the waterfall may have been the best yet in Laos.

Steph spotted a sign with an arrow pointing to the top, so we set off up the path.  After a hazardously slippery hike, which turned into more of a mountain climbing expedition, we were staring straight over the edge, holding on to a simple bamboo fence for support.  At least it was safer than the Devil’s Pool!

Last, but certainly not least, Giorgio hit the big 3-0 during our stay in Luang Prabang.  Although the city’s 11:30 pm curfew (and Gio’s sudden old age) prevented us from completing an epic Lao pub-crawl, we did raise a glass (or two) in celebration.


PS: Giorgio has determined that his birthday is not complete until he receives birthday wishes from at least one of his parents – so we are still celebrating!

Update: His mother claims there is a happy birthday voicemail waiting for him to listen once we regain phone service next week.

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