Luang Prabang: A Lullaby with a Heart for Adventure

Luang Prabang is a bit like a lullaby that plays softy in the background but somehow finds its way into your soul without you realizing.

It is an unassuming little town; lying on a peninsula in north central Laos where the Nam Khan river meets the mighty Mekong, the days are whiled away strolling temple lined streets, sipping local Lao Arabica coffee with sweet milk, and people watching on the riverside.
Kingkitsarath Road, Luang Prabang, Laos

Though independent since 1945, Laos still retains the architecture, and flair, of its French annex in the 1700’s, and Luang Prabang, now a UNESCO world heritage site, is the perfect example of lazy riverside lounging fused with that old-fashioned French charm.

Children playing at a Wat, Luang Prabang, Laos

Colonial style houses blend seamlessly with gilded temples; classic Mercedes sedans and gaudy tuk tuks line the street. Children giggle on loud motorbikes, cats howl outside windows, roosters crow across the river and street vendors blast the latest tracks.

Mercedes, Luang Prabang, LaosIn the surrounding hills, caves, dreamlike waterfalls, and endless hikes offer opportunities for adventure. The bush-surrounded Mekong tempts with elephant-back treks like those of famous explorers from the 1800’s.Kungsi Waterfalls, Luang Prabang, LaosAs darkness falls, a sea of red and blue tents covers the main street; the night market spills out into alleyways with arts and crafts, bracelets, and BeerLao tees. At the ends, vendors with baguettes and fruit shakes, coconut milk balls and spring rolls hand out identical menus with big smiles. Hand-painted paper lanterns hang every few steps.

Towards Khem Khong Street, Luang Prabang, LaosThere is color everywhere; the streets are infused with warmth and romance, and you can’t help but fall in love.

Yourlocalkat, the explorer. Nam Khon, Laos

Because that is what Luang Prabang is: quiet, unassuming, with a heart for adventure, a chance to explore, and a charm that will make you want to stay forever.

Circle of Rice: Alms Giving in Luang Prabang, Laos

I’ve seen the photos – the saffron snake of monks lining the streets with shiny metallic bowls hanging from their shoulders: alms-giving was an experience that the temple-filled Luang Prabang in Laos was known for, and it was definitely on my list of things to witness while I was there.

Saffron Snake Alms, Luang Prabang, Laos

Alms-giving is the act of giving food (or money) to the poor. Since monks try to abstain from ‘desiring,’ they are not allowed to cook for themselves and depend on the generosity of others instead, making rounds each morning accepting, but never begging for, whatever food the local people have to offer.

What I didn’t realize is what a HUGE tourist attraction this actually was.

Sticky rice baskets, Luang Prabang, LaosIt is 6am, still dark, but there is traffic: tour vans full of people wanting to catch a glimpse of the alms rounds line the streets.

Tour groups gather in the intersections; a guide explains some basic do’s and don’ts.

“Do put fresh sticky rice in the bowl. Don’t put money in with the sticky rice. And don’t use flash in their faces – this isn’t a show.”

But it is a show.

Alms tourist attraction, Luang Prabang, Laos

A shallow drum sounds. The tour groups take their assigned places on rolled out carpets that line the sidewalks; baskets full of sticky rice in front. The poor kids punctuate the spaces between the tour groups, empty plastic shopping crates in hand.

The first orange blurs appear in the distance.

“Respect the monks. Respect the culture. Respect the country.” The tour guide says.

But cameras are already going off like a zoo at feeding time.

Alms-giving assembly line, Luang Prabang, LaosThe monks walk single file, bowls outstretched like in a cafeteria line: the tourists give food to the monks, but the monks give their excess to the poor kids. Rice in, rice out.

Boy Begging for Alms, Luang Prabang, Laos_1000px

It is like a circle of life that sustains the community, sustains the tradition: the poor sell rice to the tourists who give it to the monks who give it to the poor. The whole thing seems contrived but at least the tourism weaves some money back to the locals.

Monk Back of the Line, Luang Prabang, LaosThe saffron snake continues. Cameras flash in monk faces.

Monks take photos of monks giving alms to monks.

It is bizarre, beautiful and awful simultaneously.

And like a syndicated television show, in a half an hour, it is over.

Baskets of Offerings, Luang Prabang, Laos