I am an impromptu traveller following my heart rather than my head, and that’s how I arrive in the former kingdom of Laos one fine morning. The Lao airliner lands with a loud thump on a long airstrip at Luang Prabang International Airport. Outside, the sun is shining bright and I am greeted by the sight of a fluttering red flags, which I later observe are plastered all over the town. After the traffic and chaos of Bangkok, Luang Prabang seems like a quiet oasis, a town lost in time.
I hop into a tuk-tuk, the preferred choice of transportation to travel to the centre of the town. The driver drives with mad frenzy using creative manoeuvres to avoid the bumps on the road, which were the size of craters. We are zipping across many bridges over the Nam Khan river which is flowing fast and eddying across rapids in its path. After, settling in my wooden room with a small balcony overlooking the mighty river Mekong, I come to the realisation that Luang Prabang is one of the rare Asian cities still holding on to its inherent character in a modern world. My reverie is broken as a young woman wearing the traditional silk dress glides into the room with a robust cup of Laotian coffee and a toothy smile.
Darkness has engulfed the sky studded with stars and the air is scented with incense and spice, which further adds to the mystic charm of the place. Nightfall beckons and I am itching to explore Laos, the fabled 14th century city, which has acquired a status of UNSECO world heritage site. I like to walk aimlessly and drift with the crowd and thats how I find myself at the Night Market. Every South East Asian city boasts of a night market. It’s an essential tourist trap selling cheap version of the same-old T-shirts and souvenirs in Bangkok, Cambodia and now Laos.
The night market in Luang Prabang is throbbing. The dimly lit stalls, happy children lurking behind their mothers, monks mingling with tourists and Hmong tribeswomen selling handmade goods add to the bustle. Walking past the stalls, I notice there are no pushy vendors, only smiling faces and a friendly vibe. Suicidal motorcycle drivers, shrill hornblaring buses are yet to infect the streets of Luang Prabang.
I hire a bicycle from my guest house and decided to conquer the wonders of Luang Prabang. The single main road is flanked by beautiful houses, whose architecture blends the best of French and Laotian style. Wat Xieng Thong rises on the banks of the Mekong, the temple is called the acme of classical Lao architecture, which flourished under royal patronage until 1975. It’s an impressive site, with walls plastered with colourful mosaic frescoes depicting varied scenes of the village life and royal court.
After drifting through many of the city’s 58 temples and paying my respect to innumerable glided golden Buddhas in various postures, it is time for gastronomy. Almost all my meals in Laos start and end with the famous Beer Lao. Lao people love to drink, yes, they drink Beer Lao in litres especially women who can hold their alcohol much better than Lao men. A small dingy bylane not far from the palace, is the most inviting street in Laos, full of vendors selling assortment of local food and cheap drinks.
I make my way to a table perched in one corner of the street, and soon it is overflowing with local people. I tuck into bamboo shoot rolls with sweet chilli sauce, raw papaya salad, tofu sprinkled with ginger and fried rice, while my neighbours slurp on noodle soup with oodles of chillies with serious dedication. This side alley was my haunt for quick snacks and budget lunches during my stay in the city.
I am peddling the rickety bicycle with all my might so as not to miss my reservation at the speciality Lao food restaurant Tamarind, which is a treat for food lovers. I munch on banana flower salad, followed by the delicious betel leaf soup, sticky rice flavoured with pungent fish paste, riverweed sauteed with sesame seeds and steamed pork stuffed with local herbs, a meal fit for gods. In Luang Prabang, I saw, I ate, I conquered every restaurant and street vendor I came across.
“One never runs of out of things to do in Laos, you just run out of time,” mutters the boatmen ferrying me in a longtail boat across the swirling waters of the Mekong and the Nam Ou to see the Pak Ou caves. Less than an hour from the main city, the caves are an opportunity to see the countryside, wooden stilt houses, monks carrying colourful parasols and village women gossiping. Every time, I pass someone, I am greeted with a smile and a sabaidee. No one bothers me with nosey queries like, ‘ Where are you from?’ ‘No boyfriend?’ I think, Laos is kind to single female travellers. Back to Pak Ou – the stretch of the river is amazing, gliding past limestone cliffs and terraced rice fields, the more adventurous can canoe their way to the caves. Laos is dotted with options for cave expeditions from Kong Lor Caves, one of the longest caves in Laos, to the small cave temple of Xiangmen.
In the evenings, I wander across the Rue Sakkarine, beneath scented frangipani trees, to the bar-cum-restaurant to spend an evening with a friend from Paris, Nithakhong Somsanith, erstwhile Lao prince, an ace embroider and now working to revive the lost arts of Laos. We share a light moment under a starry night with gentle breeze of the Mekong ruffling my hair. He says “It will be hard for you to leave Luang Prabang.” Into the third week of my stay I could not argue with that.
Next day, I decide to ride a bicycle to Kuangsi waterfall. The ride is spectacular and good way to encounter some of the local ethnic minorities, which make up almost half the population of Laos. The stepped waterfall glimmers as it flows down. It is a massive limestone formation interrupted by many tiers of alluring natural water pools. There are no tourists except some Lao school girls giggling and posing for pictures. I decide on a quick swim in the fresh water with many small fish nibbling on my toes. This is my Eden moment, with amazing water, fluttering butterflies and beautiful morning light filtering through the trees.
With my Indiana Jones attitude, I decide to go for a hike, the trail is quite steep and slippery, roughly a mile long to the top of the falls and I spend my afternoon floating in a small lagoon of crystal clear water. Not a bad life. They call their nation, ‘simply beautiful’ and my heart agrees as I am swept away by the landlocked nation’s majesty and beauty. I spend my last morning in Luang Prabang, sipping on a strong cup of Laotian coffee and later climbing the 329 red brick steps of Mount Phousi, gasping for air. The view of mist-shrouded mountains and the Mekong are glorious and I know it is a start of a long love affair.
There are several flights from New Delhi to Luang Prabang. A good option is Thai Airways, which takes 11 hours to reach Luang Prabang.
WHAT TO SEE
Kuang Si Falls, Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, Golden City Temple, Elephant Village Sanctuary, Mount Phousi, Royal Palace Museum, Tad Sae Waterfall, Whisky Village
Posted by Debangana Sen
Debangana’s love for travel goes beyond her usual poring over the wallpapers of Ireland. When not doing that, she’s busy planning her next trip.