Monday, February 20, 2012
Everybody loves Laos. I have read innumerable travel blogs extolling the country, its people, and its culture. So after visiting Siem Reap last week, I continued my Southeast Asia travels with a stop in Luang Prabang, Laos’ northern gem.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is famous for its beautiful Buddhist temples and monasteries. It is also known for its laid-back ambiance, welcoming locals, and abundance of markets, restaurants, bars, and shops.
Laos was the 84th country on my 90 under 30 Travel Project. I arrived on a flight from Cambodia excited to explore it, but wondering if the city would live up to the hype. I couldn’t wait to find out.
My accommodation, the Kiridara, was a 24-room boutique hotel that had offered to host me during my stay in Laos. It was located just five minutes from the airport, and upon arrival I found myself in a tranquil haven with beautiful peaked roofs on a hill overlooking Mount Phou Si.
The hotel had a gorgeous swimming pool, a restaurant where I ate great breakfasts every morning, a fitness center, and a spa with spacious treatment rooms. Speaking of rooms, my room was large with high ceilings, a big bed, a desk, a flat screen TV, wardrobes, a bathroom, and a terrace overlooking the pool. It would have been nice if the bed had been covered with a mosquito net, but other than that I loved it.
After setting my bags down, I took one of the hotel’s complimentary tuk tuks into the city. Five minutes later I was at the night market, which immediately became one of my favorite places in Luang Prabang. Two long rows of colorful mats stretched out under tents for several blocks, and everything from brilliant silk scarves to large paper umbrellas was laid out on top of them.
But the market wasn’t the only place to shop in Luang Prabang. The main street, which was one of three running along the peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, was packed with boutiques. I explored the locally made goods at Ma Te Sai, the beautiful carved wooden bowls at Caruso Lao, the clothing at Satri Lounge and Anakha as I made my way down the road each day.
Walking around helped me work up an appetite, which I sated with trips to several restaurants in Luang Prabang. The first was a mediocre meal at Blue Lagoon, a restaurant that came highly recommended but was deeply disappointing. Thankfully it was redeemed by a lunch that was offered to me on the expansive grounds of the Amantaka hotel. I enjoyed a traditional meal of spicy bamboo salad that was a bit hot for my weak taste buds, excellent red curry with chicken, and a rich mango and lime tart.
I didn’t just eat at restaurants, though. On my second night in Luang Prabang, I stumbled upon a narrow passage that was a foodie extension of the night market. On one side were huge tables with all kinds of noodles, rice, vegetables, and meats, and on the other were picnic tables. I took a plate, piled it with food, and paid less US$1.25 for what was a very good dinner.
Food and shopping covered, I focused on the cultural elements of the city. Temples and monasteries were dotted throughout Luang Prabang, their gilded rooftops adorned with dragons and their interiors rife with statues of the Buddha.
My favorite of the temples was one high up on Mount Phou Si. In fact, it wasn’t just one temple; the whole hillside was covered in golden statues, rock caves with shrines, and footpaths lined on either side by the silver scales of mythical beasts.
Back down on the ground, I woke up early one morning to see the daily procession of monks in their bright saffron robes collecting alms from people lining the street.
Most of the people giving rice and other food to the monks were tourists, which I found a bit strange, but there were a few locals in the mix as well. As the orange robes and yellow sashes made their way down the street, the monks also doled out some of their food to small children.
After getting my spiritual and cultural fix in Luang Prabang, I focused on my physical needs. Or wants, rather. One afternoon while I was reading by the pool at my hotel, I was offered a complimentary mini massage by one of the staff therapists. It was incredibly relaxing, and the perfect poolside treat.
The following day I was invited to the spa at the Amantaka for a relaxing Lao massage. My therapist worked out all of the tension in my shoulders that had accumulated while carrying my heavy bag around town. The treatment was followed by a relaxing cup of tea and a plate of fresh fruit in a secluded garden terrace outside of the room.
Between the peaceful and relaxing ambiance of the city, the vibrancy of the markets, the splendor of the golden temples, and the gentle flow of the Mekong, I wanted to stay in Luang Prabang forever. Having arrived skeptical that the city could be as mythical and inspiring as I had read, I left firmly in the ranks of those that love it. The next stop on my Southeast Asia travels was Bangkok, a busy city a world away from the peaceful haven of Luang Prabang, but one that made me appreciate Laos all the more.