It is hard not to feel gratitude daily in Laos’ Luang Prabang. I found it such a peaceful place where every moment and experience was a true blessing.
Laos is a country that remains lost in time, retraining many traditions that seem to have disappeared in a frenzy of development elsewhere in the region. Here you will discover a country untainted by mass tourism, an Asia in slow motion.
I only had a short time to explore this city and I was delighted to learn of its rich heritage that is today restored while holding its charm from yesteryear.
In a whirlwind visit I learnt Laos is known as The Land of a Million Elephants as I was off to see some for myself. Mandalao is non-riding elephant experience focused on education and animal welfare. Here you can spend time with some of Laos’ rescued elephants who are there to be rehabilitated and released back into the wild. If this is not possible, they have come to live out the rest of their days in what is dubbed the “happy elephant retirement village”. The conservation tours allow visitors to get up close and personal with elephants while learning the importance of their conservation.
Traditional handicrafts and how they are made was next on my agenda, visiting Ock Pok Tok. Founded on the principles of fair trade and sustainable business practices, visitors can take a free guided tour, stroll through the gardens (where you’ll find the natural materials for dyes) or come to the Living Crafts Centre to watch the 28 master weavers on their looms. If you have time, you can even participate in a class or two and make your very own gift.
Never one to pass up the opportunity to discover a waterfall, I visited Kuang Si Falls. The 3-tiered falls lead to a 50-metre drop into shallow pools, before flowing downstream. The pools make great swimming holes and I was happy for the relief from the humidity that clung to me in the heat of the day. There are trails leading to the top of Kuang Si Falls, where you can see the stream feeding into the falls.
I tasted Buffalo ice-cream (coconut flavour of course), at Laos Buffalo Dairy. I was interested to discover it is a socially-responsible enterprise consisting of a commercial dairy and production facility to make products such as yogurt, cheese and ice cream for local and overseas customers. For a bit of fun, you get a hands-on experience by visiting the farm, feeding the animals and even washing the buffalo.
The food in Laos was incredible. Full of flavour and unique to the region. I was surprised to take a liking to River Weed – literally from the river, it is dried and baked with flavours. This made for a tasty snack in between tiny teapot cocktails served up at the 3Nagas during an authentic dinner and show.
Looking back on the history of Laos, it broke my heart to discover its dark past at the UXO Laos Visitor Center. The place is a memorial and informative centre that features information about what was called the forgotten war. Starting 1964, Lao PDR was the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. More than 580,000 bombing missions were conducted over Laos where over 2 million tons of ordnance were dropped between 1964 and 1973. Approximately 25% of villages in Laos are contaminated with Unexploded Ordnance (UXO). The numbers are devastating.
It made me feel blessed to be in a country and around people who had endured so much yet still held such peace in their hearts. It was most humbling to then be involved with some Laotian traditions.
Hundreds of saffron-robed monks glide through the streets every morning in a call to alms, one of the region’s iconic images.
A tradition that dates back to the 14th century, the alms giving ceremony takes place daily as the sun rises, beginning on the main street of Luang Prabang before spreading out to all the side streets. Buddhist monks depart from temples in this UNESCO-listed town to gather their daily meal from locals whom wake early to prepare the food and wait quietly by the roadside to give their gifts.
Travellers to the area can also take part in the ceremony. I sat patiently waiting with my basket, contemplating what this simple meal of sticky rice meant to the monks and as they lined up to collect their share, I felt daily gratitude for being invited to take part in this age-old tradition.
In a heart-warming turn of events, I also bore witness to monks returning the favour and sharing some of their alms with children on the street so that they can take food back to their family.
This warming of the soul through simple gestures carries over to another ceremony specific to Laos, the Baci Ceremony. Practiced for hundreds of years, the ceremony involves the tying of white cotton strings around person’s wrists during a prayer saying or well-wishing for the person that the ceremony is intended for. The term commonly used for this is “Sou Khuan” which means “spirit enhancing or spirit calling”.
The people of Lao believe that a human being is a union of thirty-two organs, each has a spirit or Khuan (Lao word for spirit) to protect them. I am told that these spirits often wander outside the body causing unbalance of the soul.
I sat on a mat in the fitting surrounds of the Sofitel Luang Prabang. Originally built as a French Governor’s residence in 1900s, the property is located in a quiet residential quarter and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Next to me is a colourful delight, a handmade marigold pyramid centrepiece known as a Pha Khuan. In front of me is an elderly man known as the Mor Phon (wisher or master of ceremony usually a respected and knowledgeable person in the community) and a number of older women. To begin, I am handed a glass shot of Lao whisky and the prayers are said.
This was shortly followed by the tying of white string around my wrist by the older women as they murmured words of prayer to invite good wishes. This can also include quoting from Lao poetry and proverbs. The tying of the white string represents tying of the 32 spirits to the body putting them back in harmony as well as bringing good luck and prosperity.
With my wristed adorned with white strings, we all gather around the Pha Khuan and lay our hands palms down on its edge as the prayer continues with “Hai Kuard Nnee, Dee Kuard Kao” meaning “bad is swept out, good is wept in”.
The white strings tied around my wrists remained weeks after the ceremony as I was told to wait until they fall off as cutting the strings means the good wishes might be severed. I was too believing to remove them, and they were a warming reminder of my time in the lovely Laos.
If you want to read more about my adventures in Laos, please see the below published articles. While I was hosted by Accor and Scoot, they have not approved nor edited any of these articles and all words are my own.
Where Wild Things Roam – Laos looking after its elephants