During my bi-annual trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia, I took a 5 day detour to Luang Prubang, Laos. Luang Prabang is located in Northern Laos and sits on the banks of the Mekong River.
It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for good reason. Much of its French Colonial roots are still visible in the country, including its architecture and food. Though quaint and charming, it is still one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. Laos is known as the “The Land of a Million Bombs”. More bombs were dropped on this tiny country during the Vietnam War, than the total of bombs dropped during all of World War II. Sadly, most of the victims of these unexploded bombs are children. About one third of the land in Laos is still contaminated with these unexploded bombs. Therefore, many of the night markets sell items made from the metal of the bombs.
My first morning in Luang Prabang was an early one. At 5:30 am, local monks from all of the surrounding temples descend on the town to gather alms. Gathering alms means that each monk carries a small wooden bowl around his neck, and passes by locals lined up on the streets. Each person gives the monk a small donation of food. The monks then take this food back to the temple where it is combined and distributed to feed the entire temple. I will never forget the site I witnessed that morning. I arose at 5:00 am and waited on the street. I was about 20 minutes into my wait on a hot and steamy morning; the haze and moisture hung heavy over the city. Nevertheless, hundreds of monks came out of what seemed like nowhere and from all different directions. They lined up in single file, and descended on the town. It was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop. At this moment, I felt like I was in a National Geographic episode. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience, one which I will never forget.
Laos is also home to many hill tribes including the Yaun, Hmong, Lahu and Akha. Each tribe arrives at the town every evening for the night market. Many of these tribes are known for their different kinds of handcrafts. Most handicrafts include weaving with hand spun cotton, natural dyes like indigo, and intricate embroideries. Each tribe also wears a very distinctive “costume” (although most traditional dress is disappearing in favor of western style clothing). I was lucky enough to come across a Hmong women selling beautiful clutches made out of authentic Hmong costumes.
The workmanship that goes into these handcafts are amazing. I couldn’t pass up the scarves, bags and table runners which were made from hand spun cotton ,and dyed in the traditional blue and white indigo. A day trip down the Mekong, on a long boat, brought me to a unique weaving village that also happens to specialize in Cobra whiskey. I purchased many beautiful scarves for the store, but passed on the Cobra whiskey.
Last but not least, a trip to Luang Prabang would not be complete without a visit to the Pak Ou Caves. These limestone caves are one of the most respected holy sites in Laos. The site contains over 4,000 miniature Budhhas figures that date back thousands of years.
It’s a 2 hour boat ride up the Mekong, but it is worth it. This is an incredible expedition, one that results in stunning home made goods and astonishing memories.