I never had a desire to go to Southeast Asia. I dreamed of going to Africa years before I ever stepped foot on the continent. Even a year before setting out on my around the world trip, Southeast Asia had never crossed my mind- I was leaning towards South America or Australia/New Zealand for this part of the trip. I don’t watch TV very often (I have a hard time convincing myself that it’s a good use of time unless I’m multi-tasking), but will sometimes put it on in the background while I’m busy doing something else. I had it turned to the Travel Channel, as Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations was on. He was off to Laos this time, a country I had barely heard of, let alone knew anything about. I found myself listening, then glancing, and finally shoving everything else aside, fixated on the images on the screen. From the romantic air of the alms ceremony in Luang Prabang to the charming riverside villages, I knew I was going to Laos.
Sometimes you have this feeling before you ever arrive somewhere that you’re going to like it. And occasionally that feeling is wrong and you feel disappointed, but usually my intuition doesn’t disappoint. It was the number one place I wanted to see in Southeast Asia and so far, my favorite on the mainland. We arrived in the former capital Luang Prabang knowing that it was quite a bit more touristed than our last stop in Muang Ngoi Neua. However, it was low season so we didn’t find it to be very crowded.
We stayed four nights in Luang Prabang but met a couple that spent ten nights there. The city is alluring with its old French villas alongside Buddhist wats and temples. Sandwiched between two rivers, it feels like a small European coastal town, awakening the senses around every corner.
Hmong Night Market
We visited the Hmong Night Market every day that we were in Luang Prabang. It doesn’t matter if you’re not going to buy any souvenirs- the amorous glow from the strung lights, the women fluttering silk scarves as you pass, and the colors bouncing off of the paper lanterns and woven textiles will keep you coming back. There are also food stalls set up buffet style where you pay 10000 kip ($1.25) for a plate. There are maybe 10 different dishes laid out and you pick and choose what you’d like. The vegetarian cuisine was excellent. The Hmong Night Market is also where I picked up Big Brother Mouse books to hand out to kids. They have a couple of stalls set up in the market, and I highly recommend checking them out if you’re ever in Luang Prabang.
Tad Sae Waterfall
A 15km bike ride through the surrounding hills of Luang Prabang to a cascading waterfall where you can go swimming sounded enchanting. I was already under Luang Prabang’s spell, and this just added to the romantic charm I was experiencing. We got our bikes and set off; it was a bit uphill at first but nothing too tough. The scenery was beautiful, and I was enjoying the ride. It slowly got steeper, and I realized that my bike was stuck in the highest gear. I could barely pedal. My friend manually changed my gear for me but it wouldn’t stay. I was struggling on the steeper hills and finally had to plop down in the grass and give my legs a rest. It was an unlucky day for me, and I had failed to check the gears before we set off. At kilometer 10 I think I was ready to turn around; at least then I could enjoy the downhill ride. Around kilometer 12 we suddenly hit a steep downhill. It was amazing and I was cruising along happily for the first time in a while. But it kept going and going, and it hit me that this was what I had to conquer going back. It would be impossible for me to do so with my gears stuck so I knew where this was headed.
We finally made it to a lot where we paid to park our bikes, then took a boat upriver to Tad Sae Waterfall. It was not your typical waterfall, and the cascades created several large swimming pools. The water was freezing but after sweating on a hot, miserable bike ride, there were no complaints here. I took a dip and tried to forget about my crappy bike waiting for me back at the car park.
The falls were beautiful (except for the poor, chained elephants at the entrance). We took a boat back to the other side, grabbed our bikes, and pedaled to the main road. From there, we tried to hitchhike with no luck so I had a restaurant call one of their friends who had a truck. We paid more than we should have but were so relieved at that point to have transport back for us and our bikes that we didn’t care.
Ban Xang Village
I had heard that Ban Xang was known for its silk and handmade papers. Enticed to see it, even if I wasn’t going to buy anything, we grabbed a tuk-tuk and headed out there. There was only one other tourist in the village while we were there. Other than that, we bounced from shop to shop on our own. I was perfectly happy drooling over scarves I couldn’t afford and flipping through the elephant dung paper just to look. But of course things are never that simple, and I came across a wood carving shop. A wood carving shop of only Buddhas. I have a weakness for woodcarvings; I think it’s a time consuming and dying art that produces beautiful pieces. It just so happens that the previous night I had strolled into a high-end wood gallery in Luang Prabang. I found these Buddha heads carved from striated ebony that blew me away. I had never seen ebony look this way before and I really wanted a Buddha carving. The price of these? A little over $600. Yikes! I spent another 30 minutes in that shop, even though I knew I could never afford anything. I went on and on about those Buddha heads the following day and just how stunning I thought they were.
When I walked into this wood carving shop in the village, I started to look around, and I saw it- there on the top shelf, were Buddha heads carved from the same striated ebony. Excitement and anxiety hit me all at once. I had no idea how expensive they would be but I think I would have paid $100 for one. These looked exactly the same except that they were only half carved (the heads were flat on the back so only the face and front half of the head were carved) and they didn’t have a shiny seal on them like the other gallery. I admired them and studied meticulously. I brought potential ones out into the daylight to look at them further. After some easy negotiations, I got it for….. $20! It may have been one of the happiest days of my life. A bit dramatic, I know, for a carved piece of wood but I loved it. Ironically, it was the cheapest Buddha carving in the shop, as many were smaller but with more detail. I ended up also buying a bigger piece with the rough bark on one side and a full Buddha carved into the natural piece of wood on the other. Not wanting to go overboard, I made myself stop there. I envisioned them in the house that I don’t have, and when I realized that I was daydreaming and actually had nowhere to put them, I knew my purchases at this shop were done! (I’d also like to remind you that I carried those heavy things around for over a month, because I needed special permission to mail Buddhas out of Thailand and had to wait until Malaysia to mail them home).
I found Luang Prabang to be an absolute delight. The many Buddhist temples dotting the old city, the French architecture, and the shopping made it a great place to linger a bit longer. So thank you Anthony Bourdain. If I ever meet you, drinks are on me!