Believe me, it was totally unexpected. I knew Luang Prabang is a touristic city, the most visited in the country. I had heard that there were no locals, that it was not real Laos. I even felt a bit sad when I arrived, missing the small villages I had visited in the north. I thought it would not be special, so I was surprised that I liked it as much as the north, even though in a different way, for different reasons.
At first sight, it is just another touristic town but, as you get to know it, as you go deep inside, discover it layer by layer… not only is a beautiful town but also very interesting, historical and cultural.
Layer 1: the touristic side
Of course, the first impression was not good. I had not seen so many tourists since Bangkok, as well as guesthouses, restaurants, tour operators, massage centers and souvenir shops. The night market, organized all along the main street in the evening, was purely for the tourists: all kinds of nice handicraft, things that I have never seen Lao people using.
The Lao New Year is in April, but being a touristic place I thought there might be a 2015 New Year celebration, so I planned to be there on the 31st. As expected, there was a celebration organized. Surprisingly, there were more locals than foreigners, and most of the show was in Lao with only some parts translated to English. So, maybe it was not only for tourists after all…
Layer 2: the temples
Luang Prabang was the old capital of Laos. In the old days, it had a different name and was renamed later on after the Prabang Buddha. This Buddha, the first in Laos, came from Angkor when the Theravada Buddhism started expanding from Cambodia to Laos. A lot of temples were constructed for people to study, and these temples are nowadays the major attraction of the town.
There are about 20 temples in Luang Prabang. I visited as many as I could and, of course, I do not know anymore which picture is from which temple. There are a few, the biggest ones, that have an entry fee (and are very crowded), but most of them are free (and usually empty).
Layer 3: the town itself
The center – and historical part – of Luang Prabang is settled between two rivers: the Mekong and the Nam Khan. The heritage of the French colonial time can be seen in the architecture of most buildings and small streets. It is true that most of the colonial-style houses are now guesthouses, and that most lao live in the other parts of the city. But still, the lao lifestyle is there.
There is a primary school and a library in the main street. There are chilis and “rice cookies” drying under the sun in front of the temples. There is a market with vegetables, meat and fish (to sell the fish fresh, they have a tank with the fish alive, and only a couple of fish outside the water). On both riverbanks there are growing fields as in the villages in the north.
Crossing the rivers (both the Mekong and Nam Khan) there are villages (or districts of Luang Prabang) that look exactly as the lao countryside.
Layer 4: the people
The best of Luang Prabang was the people. Not only they are as kind and smiling as in other parts of Laos, it was there that I had the best opportunity to talk to locals. At first I thought that all lao lived outside the center, but then I realized that I was wrong. There were locals living there, many of them, and they spoke English: the novices and monks. I met a novice one day that I got lost. We started talking because he wanted to practice English, we became friends and met a couple of times during my stay.
There is also a place called Big Brother Mouse that organizes English conversation exchanges between locals and tourists. For locals it is a way to practice and improve their English. For travelers, it is a good opportunity to meet locals and learn about Laos. Since most of the attendants are novices, it is also a chance to learn about buddhism and the life in the temples.
From what I understood, not all temples function exactly in the same way or schedule, but I got a general idea. They wake up very early, around 3:30 – 4:00 am. They study and clean up the temple (or meditate). At 6:00 am they go to collect alms, the food they will eat during the day. They have breakfast around 7:00 and lunch at 11:30, but no dinner, even though they can take drinks. In the evening they do one hour of chanting (or half hour of chanting, half hour meditation), around 5:30 to 6:30. They go to sleep at 9:00 or 10:00pm.
Novices live and study in the temple grounds for several years (5 – 7). They have classes from Monday to Friday and study around 10-13 subjects, including mathematics, physics, history, English and others. Some of them want to become monks, but others are there to get a good education and go to university later. They seem happy with their live and like their lifestyle.
Definetely, Luang Prabang is much more then just ‘another touristic town’. It is a beautiful and special place.
GOOD TO KNOW
- Royal Palace + Haw Prabang: 30000 kips
- Other temples: 10000 to 20000 kips
- Big Brother Mouse: it is not only an English conversation exchange, is a project that aims to spread interest in books and provide them to all Lao children. The English conversations take place every day from 9:00 to 11:00 and from 17:00 to 19:00.
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