I chose Luang Prabang as a destination simply because it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. That was all I needed to know. I admit that I am a UNESCO groupie. The first thing I look for when I travel is the availability of a Toastmasters Club and the second thing is a search to see if there is a UNSECO heritage site nearby.
Laos is a land locked country which shares borders with Cambodia, Thailand, China and Vietnam. Luang Prabang is situated in northern Laos with the Mekong and Nam Khan River meeting near the heart of the city. It was chosen as a UNESCO site because of it’s rich architectural and artistic heritage. Beautiful homes and tree lined streets create an atmosphere that is simply enchanting and rather romantic. My hotel overlooked the Nam Khan River and when I walked three blocks from the hotel I ended up at the Mekong River. I enjoyed walking along the banks of both rivers every morning. There was a plethora of tours and things to do but I wasn’t having it. I wanted to do nothing and doing nothing is what I do best. I was on travel overload and needed a place to chill. I did not want to go to an elephant sanctuary, take a river cruise on the Mekong or take a tuk-tuk to the waterfalls. Every morning I walked and walked and walked until it was time for coffee. Then I would go to my favorite cafe and have coffee and read for the rest of the day. I was in a zen state of mind the entire time in Luang Prabang.
The Royal Palace Museum and Grounds
The Royal Palace Museum was originally the home of the King and Queen of Laos. When the communist took over after the war in 1975 the king and queen and other members of the royal family were sent to re-education camps where they eventually died. In 1995 the building was renovated and converted into a museum.
There are 34 wats (temples) in Luang Prabang that fall under the protection of UNESCO. There is a wonderful Buddhist culture in Luang Prabang.
The majority of buildings in the town center are made of wood and only the temples and some of the two story buildings are made of stone. The traditional houses are made of wood. My hotel was a prime example of traditional Lao architecture. The architecture is another reason for the UNESCO designation. Luang Prabang reminded me of New Orleans and the home where I grew up; a shot-gun house made of wood and of course wooden floors. I felt at home in Luang Prabang. I like quaint small towns and can imagine turning from a city girl to a country girl easily, well, short-term country girl. The houses are gorgeous and the alleyways are just as beautiful and intriguing as the houses.
The Monks and Alms Giving
Alms giving is one of the most sacred Lao traditions. The locals wake up early to prepare food to be given to the monks for their one meal a day. This is done every day. During the ceremony the locals line up along the street and are seated on a small stool or a mat on the ground kneeling. The monks line up and march from the temple to the designated area. It is rude to join the ceremony once it has started. The monks line up and receive food, stopping at each person. Tourists are also allowed to participate in the ceremony as there are usually people who sell food to the tourists, to be given to the monks. I didn’t participate in the alms giving because I wanted to take pictures. I did participate in the ceremony in Thailand.
In Chiang Mai, Thailand I experienced a very different ceremony. There was no line or organization to the process, it was rather random. Once the food was purchased we stood around and waited for a few monks to pass by. When they stopped, we poured water into a small bowl and then gave the monks an offering of food. After receiving the offering they said a prayer. I had no idea what the prayer meant because it was in Thai. In Laos the process is a bit more formal and organized.
I met these young men in a beautiful park that overlooks the junction where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet. The park is a small, lush, green, well manicured park. I was relaxing in the shade taking in the quiet and the occasional sounds of birds reminding me that they also shared this space. I cherish moments like this.
The two young men approached shyly and asked if they could practice English with me. The monks learn English as part of their schooling. Never one to shy away from a cultural exchange of course I said yes. It was an enlightening experience and one of the highlights of my trip that I will treasure. They asked questions about my job, family, travel and of course America. I had a lot of questions about Buddhism and the day to day life of a monk. It was great finally getting an insight into their day to day lives. Now the young man in orange is not really a monk, he is a novice (a monk in training). I think he said a man has to be at least 20 to become a monk. His friend had also been a novice for a while and chose to leave. Young men from the rural communities come to the temple to become novice monks often for the free education and to learn the teachings of Buddha. Most young Laos boys participate at some point in their lives and leave the temple at some point choosing not to become a monk but go on to practice Buddhism. I learned that they eat only one meal a day. Buddhists reject materialism and labor. I think I could become a monk if it weren’t for that darned one meal a day thing!!! We talked for two hours and could have gone on longer but the lunch hour had nearly passed and the young novice had to get to the temple to eat. You can’t miss your only meal of the day!
Hope you enjoyed this entry!