Luang Prabang in Laos has lots to offer, from spectacular scenery to temples, elephant camp and more, writes Maizurah Ariff
LAOS only opened up to tourism in 1989, which saw the influx of tourism-related investments like hotels — big brands or one-of-a-kind boutique types, restaurants and more systematic and organised tours.
There are more people too — Laotians, foreign expatriates and tourists, but Laos remains calm and peaceful.
The only setback of this “foreign invasion” is the preference for US dollars. In fact, tourists can easily use the currency even on the streets.
WORLD HERITAGE SITE
Luang Prabang is the ancient capital of Luang Prabang Province in northern Laos, sitting at the meeting point of Nam Khan and Mekong rivers at 700m above sea level. Surrounded by mountain-topped temples, the ancient city was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1995. This means tourists have a rich heritage to explore, from glistening temples to French architecture. The French influence here is also what makes the town fun.
The city offers some of the finest foods and accommodation. For Muslim travellers, there are two halal-certified restaurants —Chennai Restaurant and Nisha Restaurant.
TOUCH OF CULTURE
The “Baci” ceremony is performed during special occasions such as birthdays, marriage or to welcome guests.
A tray laden with floral decorations and local treats is prepared. There is also chanting of mantras.
Once the chanting is completed, cotton threads are tied around the participants’ wrists as they receive personal blessings. The threads, which should be worn for at least three days, should be untied rather than cut off.
One of the most sacred ceremonies is the Alms Giving Ceremony or Sai Bat, which takes place at dawn. Long lines of orange-robed monks will leave the temples and walk barefoot along the streets to collect alms from the devotees. You can participate or simply watch this spiritual ceremony. Dress modestly and appropriately for the occasion . Be respectful towards the monks and the ceremony itself.
Complete the cultural journey in Luang Prabang by visiting its local markets. Check out the Talad Tha Hua May morning market. But the night markets are bigger and offer more choices.
BEYOND THE CITY LIMIT
Temples, temples and temples. As Luang Prabang is surrounded by mountains topped with temples, a visit to the city without checking out one of its wats is almost a sin.
There’s a temple for every occasion. Among them Wat Mai (former temple for the royal family), Wat Xien Thong (considered one of the most beautifully structured temples in Luang Prabang), Wat Manorom (famous for housing one of Laos’s oldest Buddha statues) and Wat Visounarath (the oldest temple which was once home to the Prabang Buddha).
Again, there’s a list of do’s and don’ts to be observed while visiting the temples. Do dress decently, respect the monks and novices etc.
CAVES OF HUNDREDS BUDDHA
One of the most unique attractions has to be the Pak Ou caves, a pair of century-old cave temples (Tham Theung and Tham ting) that is home to hundreds of Buddha statues. But what makes it even more interesting is the 90-minute cruise along the Mekong River, where you get to witness the daily lives of the locals who live near the riverbanks.
The cruise also includes a stopover at the Ban Xan Hai village, which is renowned for the production of rice wine and rice whisky, Lao Lao.
EAST MEETS WEST
As Luang Prabang is also one of the weaving centres in Laos, you should check out the Ock Pop Tock (or east meets west) Living Crafts Centre.
Founded 17 years ago, the centre employs traditional weavers across Laos as their artisans. The centre also organises weaving workshops and seminars.
Luang Prabang is also known as Lane Xang, which means Land of a Million Elephants. And the best place for an up-close and personal experience with this gentle giant is the Luang Prabang Elephant camp. This visit allows you to watch, feed and bathe with the mammal. An amazing experience.
WATERFALLS, MOUNTAIN AND SUNSET
The peak of Mount Phousi is the perfect spot to watch the sun set.
Another sight to behold is Kuang Si Waterfall, 29km south of Luang Prabang. The three-tier waterfall is a favourite site for tourists visiting the city as it’s also the home to a bear sanctuary at the base of the waterfall.