Connect the dots

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sleeping Beauty

Vat at the Royal Palace

A small, somnolent and sanctified Manhattan island.  -Norman Lewis, 1957.

Lower your pulse, and definitely get the New York out of you. Remember? You're in Laos, a country that is pervasively Theraveda Buddhist and therefore a peaceful hum sets the tone for all things. (Raising your voice doesn't get you anywhere here other than making yourself and the other person lose face.) At the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers lies Luang Prabang - a tiny peninsula, the first royal capital of the Laos kingdom (1353) and a city dripping with character. The French even fondly referred to her as la belle endormie or sleeping beauty.

Then set out on a bicycle to weave around the many orange draped monks walking around, visit simple low-roofed temples, gawk at the gracious colonial architecture, shop for ethnic handicrafts, get a cheap spa treatment, eat like a gastronome, pretend that the villa turned boutique hotel that you're staying in is your palace or just sit by one of the two rivers to gaze at the gorgeous mountains and green that surrounds the city. You thought you would stop here for a only a few days? Forget it, you're staying longer than you thought. In fact, after you leave, you might even come back sooner than you planned.

This is how you'll be spending your time in this UNESCO World Heritage Site treasure and one of the most atmospheric and charming cities in Laos (if not all of Southeast Asia):

1. What? Another Vat? 
With over 30 temples and monasteries, you're bound to find yourself wandering in one to check out what exemplifies Lao temple architecture. Climb to That Chomsi, the highest point for city views and stroll into it's oldest one at Vat Xieng Thong for whimsical mosaics.

Vat Xieng Thong

Vat Pahowak

2. Fritjes mit Stoofvlees, Cote D'Agneau Provencal, Bulgogi, and Laap. If you were planning on losing weight, this is not the place to start. The French left the legacy of fantastically baked baguettes and places like L'Elephant dish up tasty Gallic fare. Hey, there's even a Belgian restaurant, The House, where we stopped in for some beer, fries and beef stew. Then there's Lao cuisine, not just delicious but fun to cook (see my Laap It Up post). Cheap Lao food can be found all along the Mekong and the Night Market BBQ has some great deals. There's food from all parts of the globe and nearly everywhere it's done well. Wash it all down with award-winning Beer Lao.

Night market BBQ

Night market rice cakes for dessert
3. 90 minute aromatherapy oil massage, herbal steam, and river weed body scrub for $17. Need I say more? You'll be returning for seconds or thirds.

House of L'Hibiscus Spa

Feel like a lemongrass dumpling after a steam at Lotus Lao Spa

4. Tribal knowledge. Get schooled on four ethnic minorities (there are over 160!) you'll encounter on a trek or day trip in the north at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre.

Traditional Akha baby hat

5. Get crafty. If you'd like to take home some of that Hmong embroidery, silver jewelry, a traditional Lao skirt or some silk scarves as souvenirs, the Night Market is the place to shop. Every night, the main street is filled with local crafts that go directly to the makers. If you're not up for shopping at night, head to the local Dara market for some fabrics that they'll sew into traditional or more Western styles. Don't forget to bargain hard. It's all part of the game.

Mrs Bouavanh Sioudomphan's Antique Shop at the Dara Market, Stall C11

Indigo, ikat lowland Lao sinh at Ock Pop Tok
6. Look at my crib. Okay, I could live in that house. You'll be saying that more than a few times. Many traditional Lao homes sit in harmony with residences from French Indochina. Reasonably priced boutique hotels that were once villas will leave you well rested for that next massage or bike ride.

Our grand suite at Villa Nagara.

7. Sticky rice offerings. If you're willing to get up at 5:30am then you'll be able to view in person, the iconic pictures of hundreds of monks receiving daily alms. For $3, you can participate by giving your share of sticky rice to the monks queued along the main street. Girls, don't forget proper etiquette by getting on your hands and knees when you're passing the rice.

8. Speak English and buy some books. Drop into Big Brother Mouse and help a local improve his or her English. Many teens and young Lao are eager to pick up some slang. Try translating "shooting the shit" for a 14 year old girl. Nothing like learning proper American English. Then when you're done, promote literacy by buying books that are written in Lao/English, authored and illustrated by young Laos and distribute in a rural village or just take some home, they make a great souvenir. You can also spend time in the local library reading Dr. Seuss to the kids and snacking on some delicious frozen yogurt.

9. Meditate, empty your mind and just stare. Two rivers surround the main town, mountains rise in the immediate distance and green, green, green all around. Don't forget to stop and enjoy the breathtaking scenery.

Nam Khan River

Mekong River

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