We only spent three days in Laos, but three days was enough to know. I can usually tell instantly if a place will be memorable. Laos was special; it has the magic.
Chiang Mai had the magic. Cambodia too. And the magic was there on the trek in Nepal (though it left abruptly after I got altitude sickness.) It’s not to say that the other places we have visited aren’t amazing or worth visiting; it’s just that some places are extra special. The magic is that wonder, contentment, the reminder of why we travel and seek new places. It’s the place where you wish to return, or perhaps retire in. Laos is that kind of place.
We only visited Luang Prabang, in the northern part of the country. It was very lush, and though it was warm, it was nowhere near as hot as Vietnam. The Mekong river weaves around the city and it seemed we were always near it. Like Vietnam, it is a former French colony, but it seems to have retained a bit more of the charm. (It has also retained a knack for pastries.) The streets are clear of vendors and impeccably clean; the architecture makes you thing you are in a European village. In fact, I wonder if one of the reasons we enjoyed Laos so much is that we had put it in direct contrast with Vietnam. Hanoi was hot, crowded, and loud. Luang Prabang had a breeze, empty streets, and quiet monks shuffling through glittering wats.
Luang Prabang is famous for its wats, Buddhist temples, that are on almost every street. The courtyards are open to visitors, and you can wander into the gardens at any time. However, some of the more famous wats require an entrance fee and enforce a dress code for respect. Shoulders covered, legs covered, and closed toe shoes were required at Wat Xiang Thong, one of the most ornate wats in the city. I love the roofs of the wats; how is it that a building can be graceful?
We woke early one morning to witness Tak Bat, the monks’ call to alms. At around 5:40 am drums start pounding throughout the city, then the orange robed monks exit the wats in a single file line and walk through the neighborhood. Each monk has his own alms bowl into which the local penitent place balls of sticky rice. The monks return to their wats to eat the rice for breakfast and begin their day. Though early, it is beautiful to witness this scene at the start of your day.
Luang Prabang had the most pleasant night market I’ve ever seen. Most street markets are crowded with people, there’s always shouting, and the merchandise is generally in a heap that you need to dig through. Luang Prabang’s market was orderly with goods placed in perfectly straight lines and excellent lighting. Both Vietnam and Laos had excellent textiles- silks, handwoven scarves and table runners, cloth children’s books and colorful bags. Especially since we have been in Korea, I generally decorate my home with items from our travels. I was delighted with the quality and prices at the night market and stocked up on gifts and decor.
Luang Prabang is not a city to visit if you are looking to stay out late and party- especially since drums will wake you before 6 am. Luang Prabang is a place to go to relax, to breathe fresh air and witness stunning sunsets, to wander and sit by the river. It’s my kind of place.