Luang Prabang, a Visual Treat

24 02 2009

Luang Prabang, Laos

I can understand why this place is considered the city in Laos. Luang Prabang is such a visual treat with the mixture of French-colonial and traditional Lao buildings. Plus there are tons of things to do in or near town like visiting villages, silk weaving classes, cooking courses, playing with elephants, and visiting waterfalls and caves. Guess which one we chose to do.

Luang Prabang, the lovely city of Laos

Luang Prabang, the lovely city of Laos

With dwindling funds we decided to save some cash and give the cooking knowledge to Gage. He’s the better chef anyway. I’m a recipe girl myself. So we went to Tamarind Restaurant which does an amazing job of serving up traditional Lao meals including an array of tasting trays. We ordered some trays and signed Gage up for the class.

Tasting Trays at Tamarind

Tasting Trays at Tamarind

In the morning Gage was picked up and shuttled off to the local market where the teacher did an awesome job of explaining all of the local specialties on offer, like the various rices, dried buffalo skin, herbs, congealed blood blocks, funky fruits, and the famous aged fish sauces. Not that you will believe this, but a year old batch of rotted fish can not only be consumed, but adds lovely flavor to a meal.

Luang Prabang Market

A Luang Prabang Market

After that it was over to a picturesque farm complete with a pond which provided the fish for that class and was the site of the cooking course. Though insanely fast-paced, Gage and his fellow classmates managed to cook up some delicious stew, an eggplant dipping sauce, chicken stuffed into a lemongrass stalk (you have to see this to believe it), and purple sticky rice with coconut sauce, mango and banana. Two days later he was ready to eat again.

Tamarinds Cooking Course Farm

Tamarind's Cooking Course Farm

We didn’t participate in some of the more wild adventures that Luang Prabang serves up, but that was only because there was plenty to do in town. Just walking around and poking into different shops and cafes could entertain anyone for days. The most obvious attraction within the city are all of the wats and temples. Luang Prabang has over 100 of them, way more than any city we have visited. I think every street has a wat. Every wat probably had it’s own wat. In fact the addresses of most businesses are simply the name of the nearby wat since that will get you close enough to find it. I thought Gage and I were all wat’ed out, that we were immune to their unique Eastern charm, but Luang Prabang’s proved irresistible. We ventured into Wat Xieng Muane and were stunned by the gardens full of bright orange, pink, red, and yellow trees and flowers that grew in amongst giant Buddha statues. They were almost as ornate as the temple itself.

We spent plenty of time in NGO shops like Kopnoi, Ock Pop Tok, and Laha who sell sustainable and fair trade products made by women in poor minority tribes. All of the shops also used part of their space for studios and galleries displaying information about the Lao culture and how the way you spend your money could support the traditional heritage. One of our favorite shops was The Original Mulberry Paper Gallery where a local family makes traditional paper (called saa paper) from mulberry leaves and then converts the paper into lamps, cards, stationary, and decorative paper.

The Original Mulberry Paper Gallery

The Original Mulberry Paper Gallery

The more we learned about what goes into the products and how to distinguish quality handmade items from factory-made the less interesting the night market became. Each night the main street of Sisavangvong is converted into a tourist festival with souvenirs and cheap food. While the vast majority of the goods sold there were obviously made in China, Thailand or Vietnam, it was still pretty amazing just to see the plethora of items that these people faithfully put out and packed away each night. And more amazing than that was the laid back attitude of the sellers. We were hardly ever solicited or pushed to buy anything and bargaining was friendly and without dramatics.

They lay this stuff out every day!

They lay this stuff out perfectly every day!

My favorite experience in Luang Prabang and possibly in all of our travels came from our pseudo last day in town. While Gage was at his cooking class I had stopped into Big Brother Mouse, an NGO bookstore that publishes books to help Lao kids with their reading. They had books for all different levels of reading, some even with English translations, and ranging from 10,000 ($1.20) to 60,000 ($7) kip. They encouraged tourists to buy these books and distribute them to libraries, teachers, and poor children as they traveled. Many children do not have access to a proper education because of poverty or lack of access. Even fewer are ever able to own a book. The English major in me found that horrifying, so I picked out a few books and left a donation.

Big Brother Mouse Bookstore

Big Brother Mouse Bookstore

Being lazy about packing, Gage and I missed the 8:00 bus and strolled into the station at about 8:30. The next bus was leaving at 11:00, so we bought our tickets and commandeered a couple of benches. A family of two parents and four children were waiting for the same bus. The kids were in old, stained clothes, and were pretty dirty, but had big smiles and a happy greeting for us every time we walked by. Gage gave the kids a few candies that we had and after that they basically adopted us, deciding that our bench was the best place to play and therefore creating a pretty funny show for us. When we picked up our books to read, they respectfully played elsewhere. These were good kids. At 11:00 we boarded the bus and I pulled out one of the alphabet books and gave it to the oldest girl. The reaction I got was unlike any I would have seen at home. She bowed to me and said thank you, then she and her two brothers crowded onto two seats as they read the book together and giggled at the pictures. She said thank you to me about seven more times after that, obviously wanting to say more, but knowing that I didn’t speak her language.

My view of her from my seat.

My view of her from my seat.

When 11:30 rolled around and the bus hadn’t moved, I walked up to the ticket window and discovered that the bus was being delayed until 2pm. Keeping a smile on my face, I asked if we could take the morning bus the next day, which the ticket girl got permission for. We grabbed our bags, called our guesthouse to say we were coming back, and headed for a tuk tuk. As we walked away we heard some knocking and turned around to see all of the kids waving to us with big smiles on their face. Bus delay or no, that was the best bus ride I never had.

For more pictures from Luang Prabang, click here.

Suggestions:

  • The Original Mulberry Paper Gallery can be found on Sisavangvong across from Wat Sop Sickharam. The shop owner speaks excellent English. Aside from gorgeous paper lamps and the most unique paper you’ll ever find, he sells paintings, antiques, and adorable novelty items made from coconut shells. All of the lamps can be folded down flat for easy shipping or storage in your carry-on.
  • If you are spending any time in villages outside of the main cities, be sure to pick up some kids books at Big Brother Mouse. They have offices in Luang Prabang and Vientiane. If you don’t feel comfortable distributing the books yourself, leave a donation at the office and they will use the money to get books where they are needed.
  • A huge number of inexpensive guesthouses can be found around Joma Bakery, so if you take a taxi from the bus station, just ask to go to Joma, then walk around the small streets behind their building and you’re bound to find something.
  • Definitely have at least one meal at Tamarind. Their tasting trays are all around 30,000 kip and they have some unique teas and juices. You can also buy food gift packs with recipes to take back home. The cooking course is $25 and goes from 9am – 3pm. A large chunk of Tamarind‘s proceeds go back into the community, so eat a lot and know you’re doing a good thing.
  • If you like photography and want to support some up and coming artists, stop by My Library next to Tamarind. This free library offers internet access and learning resources to local kids and they have a great display of amateur photography on sale from about $25 per picture.
  • For some fair trade shopping stop into Kopnoi, Ock Pop Tok, and LahaSinh . Kopnoi has a small outlet on the main street, but a much larger store and gallery near L’Etranger Books & Tea. Ock Pop Tok also has an outlet on the main drag, with it main store located near Monument Books. Ock also offers weaving classes of different length including one where you can dye and weave you own silk scarf. Laha Sinh has it’s main store near the Wat Phousi entrance on Sisavangvong with a nice photo gallery upstairs.
  • L’Etranger Books & Tea puts a lot of their proceeds back into the local community. You can buy, sell, trade, or rent used books. They have a cafe upstairs that shows movies every night at 7pm.
  • Just about all of the food in Laos has MSG, so if you’re sensitive to it make sure you ask if they can make food without it before you take a table. All food can be made without it, it’s just about whether or not the staff can understand you.
  • As a general rule, cheap riverside food can be found on the north side of town and expensive riverside food can be found on the south side of town. Either comes with a great view, so it’s just about how fancy you want to be.
  • For 5000 kip per plate you can eat at one of the vegetarian stalls near the night market. Get there about 6pm to get a chair. There are two streets off of the night market that have them and all are the same price.
  • If you walk east through the night market, about half a block after the market ends on the south side of the street you will find the German Ice Cream Shop which serves yummy ice cream sundaes and unique flavors from 8000 kip per scoop to 30,000 kip for a sundae. Beer ice cream anyone?
  • The best internet cafe is probably the Thanaboun Guesthouse across the street from Pizza Luang Prabang. It has new fast computers and wifi in an air-conditioned environment for 6000 kip per hour. Just go after lunch so that you miss the crowds and clogged bandwidth.
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One response

25 02 2009
Kathy

Beautiful, beautiful everything! Brought tears to my eyes.

Love,
Kathy

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