Escape to Luang Prabang, Laos

A city underestimated by most, yet it offers untouched nature and uncomplicated travel

Photo by author

I almost canceled this trip, but it turns out to be such a pleasant surprise.

Luang Prabang is a city underestimated by most. It is not a city you would immediately consider for a vacation if you compare its neighbors; Bangkok, Chiang Mai, or Hanoi.

But since then, I would think of Luang Prabang as a hideaway from all the loud neon lights and white noises of a city. This beautiful quaint city of Laos charms its visitors with plenty of nature and its simplicity of life.

The city’s population is under 500,000. It is located in the northern part of Laos, with the Mekong river providing a beautiful backdrop.

Instead of huge digital signboards, you will find temples and monasteries scattered around, open to visitors to rest their tired feet or take shelter from the afternoon sun.

This city is simple. It has only four main roads. Whichever way you choose to walk, you are bound to come back to one of its main streets. Each direction will lead you to exciting heritage treasures. (Otherwise, a short expansive tuk-tuk ride will get you back to your starting point)

The city is void of malls, tall buildings, big cars, or loud honks. The local folks move around in bikes and tuk-tuk. The atmosphere is rustic, soft, and muted. You could almost hear the melodic, soothing Buddhist chants streaming along with the river breeze if you are mindful.

Like most Buddhist cities, the orange robe monks grace the streets with humbleness, bowing as you pass them.

My walking guide for that morning used to be a monk. While you will not find many locals speaking English, he has somewhat conquered the language by attending a Buddhist monastery as a monk.

As he shared the daily rituals, I remembered his intentions of being a monk were different than what we might have expected. It caught me by surprise.

“I did not plan to be a monk. I had to because I want to learn English and Math. It was only given to some privileged people and taught to monks.” he said eloquently.

It was his only avenue for food and education. He left the monastery a few years after to be a tourist guide.

We spent a good part of the day walking around the city with short temple stops. Luang Prabang earns its UNESCO badge by preserving the heritage buildings.

The walk ended with a part of me wondered if the UNESCO classification deprived Luang Prabang of modernization, especially in education?

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River Mekong

While Paris has its Seine River, Luang Prabang has the Mekong River. It is the world’s 12th longest river and the seventh longest in Asia. It passes through Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, China, and Laos.

Photo by author

This murky brownish river is a source of life for the people of Luang Prabang. You will find temples along its riverbank, paddy and vegetable fields terraced along its side. Riverside hotels, cafes, and restaurants have sprouted to support tourism along this important riverbank.

The locals depend on this river as its primary source of income. This river carries the much-needed nutrients for the rice fields, which contributes at least 51% of Laos GDP.

If you want a taste of life in Luang Prabang, a stroll along a river will give you a landscape similar to a painting of a lively Laotian village.

Otherwise, you could simply lie back and hop on the famous relaxing sunset cruise.

Mekong River —Photos by author

Natural Dye and Empowering Women

I was not planning on pounding turmeric on vacation. But this delightful surprise came at a silk dyeing workshop along the Mekong riverbank. The workshop offers you a firsthand experience of the process of dyeing using ingredients from nature.

It started with a short brief on silkworms’ production, then an introduction to the heritage of various Laotian textiles covering motifs and weaving patterns.

Motifs weaved by the tribes are symbolic. They will tell you the ethnic groups, marital status, region, and function of the textiles. There are about 160 tribes in Laos, each with its beautiful collection of fabrics. Most of which can be seen at the museum.

The dyeing process started with a spade. You will be asked to dig for fresh turmeric in the vicinity.

Once you have collected enough turmeric, it will be added into a pestle and mortar pounding.

As I pounded the turmeric, the pungent smell soon filled the small hut as the breeze blew gently from the river.

It was a good day indeed to be dyeing silk cloth.

Silk Dyeing Workshop — Photos by author

I added the turmeric, tamarind leaves, and limestone into the boiling pot.

The water soon turned into a murky yellow. It was ready to dye my small face towel.

I repeat the same process for the scarf, except this time, the water was cold, and we replaced the turmeric with fermented leaves, ash water, white alcohol, lime, and mud.

Yes, mud! Who knew that this mixture would give an indigo color. One of the prettiest colors for the Laotion crafts.

Silk Threads —Photo by author

The workshop took place at OCK POP TOK. They are an organization that operates on a fair trade platform, supporting women by creating and promoting economic opportunity for them.

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Home with RICE

Laos cuisine is influenced by Thai, Vietnamese, French flavors. You will find a similar beef baguette sandwich here and in Hanoi.

What stood out the most for me was the Laotian rice, also known as Khao Niao to the locals. It’s sticky when cooked and often served in bamboo baskets with plenty to go around!

Image by Faris Mohammed on Unsplash

I love the soft, smooth, sticky texture. Its aroma smells like fresh earthy rain with a hint of jasmine. My friends know that I can’t resist good rice. The Asian in me felt so at home when I have this rice bowl in front of me.

I felt so blessed with this simple dish. It went well with a minced pork and lime dish there.

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Check out Marcus Franke below for more on Luang Prabang. His article prompted me to share my memories.

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Ching Ching

I am a Malaysian discovering ways to write about my life and my encounters with people. Nature is my inspiration.