Plenty of Water in the Dry Season
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage listed site, but that does not mean just seriously cultured travellers should go there
Laos is one of those countries not many people can locate mentally on a map. Can you? The inland country is squeezed between Vietnam to the North and along the East, Cambodia – shares a small border to the South –, Thailand along the West as well as Myammar and China along the North West. Name of the capital anyone? Vientiane. You knew it? Fine, this one is harder, name of the old royal capital? Luang Prabang. That was our destination for 6 days last Easter.
The small town nestled between the Mekong and Nan Khan rivers celebrated Songkram – new year – on the 14th–16th April. The festival has a deep religious meaning for Buddhists; so many religious offerings, processions and other ceremonies take place here.
We arrived there from Hong Kong via Bangkok as there are no direct flights from Chek Lap Kok airport to Luang Prabang. We were picked up and taken to Mouang Luang Hotel. The building looks magnificent from the outside; inspired by traditional Laos architecture the structure really impressed us upon arrival.
But this was really an unpretentious hotel: the interior, the rooms and the facilities were clean, spacious and had good air-con – an essential to survive when one is not used to that kind of dry and hot weather. The hotel wasn’t hyper luxurious or ultrachic; the garden has a swimming pool and there were lots of trees to provide perfect shade to laze around. The charming and extremely helpful manageress gave us some basic information about the town and we left.
It was almost midday and off we went merrily walking under the sun equipped with long sleeve linen shirts, sunblock, sunglasses and hats. Well, we should have carried an iceberg with us to try to remain cool. We almost melted. After wandering along the main street for one hour we returned to our refuge and decided to splurge in the pool and lounge under the trees until the sun went down a bit.
Our second attempt to explore the town was more successful. Still, we felt lucky we had six days there, so we could take it easy and avoid the sun at its worst. Luang Prabang has over thirty Buddhist temples but we did not intend to see every single one of them. We selected the most important and interesting ones and decided to take the time to enjoy visiting those select few. I am one of those people who prefers to be left hungry for more than have an overdose of hurried visits to the hundreds of places recommended by travel guides. Having travelled around Asia quite a bit in the last year and a half we really preferred to cut down the amount of sites we visit and carefully select the images we want to keep in our memory.
The town was apparently full of visitors, but it did not feel overcrowded. The limited accommodation of hotels and guesthouses allowed us to stroll among the locals. We could visit the lively night market on the main street without being pushed around, and enjoy the curious looks and smiles children – and adults alike- gave us when we saluted “sabbai dee.”
Once the festival started on the 14th of April, people from the surrounding villages came to town and things got more fun. On the first day, I got up at 5:45 to be able to see the Alms Giving Ceremony. People were sitting on the ground along the main streets with bowls of rice. Handfuls of rice were offered to the monks who approached them in lines carrying shiny metal bowls. Unfortunately, the holiday season brings along flocks of vendors who want to put up their little stalls and profit from the relative avalanche of potential customers who visit the location during those days. As a result, many motorcycles come and go among the monks, pilgrims who visit the temples and the rest of the people around. Pedestrians find themselves in a difficult situation trying to stay alert and survive while enjoying the interesting street ceremony.
After the formal religious parade the water battle started. People were equipped with buckets, hosepipes, cups, water guns and they would target absolutely everyone; from old grannies to young children –usually the most enthusiastic fighters. The origin of this battle has religious roots. Water is for Buddhists, a symbol of purity and to this day is still perfumed with flowers and sprinkled over the monks and other people to wish them good luck during the processions. But the street combat is less delicate and much livelier. During the three days of the festivities I had to be careful with the cameras. I saw more than one foreigner getting angry at children because they had dampened they expensive cameras and I didn’t want to spoil the fun of the community nor get upset because of an accident.
In the afternoon the fiesta was relocated on the sandy riverbank across the Mekong. We took a long narrow boat to cross over there and started walking among the crowd. For a few moments we were spotlessly clean and surrounded by people drenched in water and with flour and paint all over their faces and bodies. Only three minutes later we looked just like them and taking revenge with our water guns and some flour a young girl gave me. Later on that evening we walked into the lobby of our hotel and despite our messy aspect were greeted by the staff, “You are very lucky, you are very wet!”
In the evening the main street becomes an animated market where women sell lots of handmade textiles, some old, some new, all colourful. The small restaurants offer a variety of food you could find Lao cuisine –with tasty Mekong fish and also a kind of acidic noodles that I did not like- but there were also many French delicacies. The heritage of the old colonial power could be seen in the presence of baguettes and in many other recipes like crepes. The food was good but the natural fruit juices and milkshakes were superb, I could have lived on them for the week.
The following day we went to see the Royal Chapel, one of the most magnificent temples in the town. The rich and profuse decorations were coloured in gold, black and red. The colourful mirror mosaics were astonishing. People were going in and out of the temples with offerings and they were also getting ready for the procession in the early afternoon. We strolled around the well-kept colonial part of town and decided to have lunch on the veranda at the elegant Villa Santi hotel. We couldn’t have founda better place if we tried. We were about to start our meal when the procession began just below our balcony. It was the perfect place to see it and take photos -it was safe and dry. The colourful parade started with the formal monks, some authorities, the ‘queens and kings’, the ‘devils’, and then the informal groups of teenagers, followed by what looked like a bunch of drag queens and clusters of visitors who joined in and followed the carnival.
After three days of ceremonies, street parades, and water battles, the town was quiet once again and all the visitors disappeared. We finally saw Luang Prabang as it is for 362 days per year: a calm and beautiful Lao town where life goes at a tranquil pace. Not an impressive monumental city, but rather a cosy town where it’s a pleasure to get lost for a few days and slowly discover its charm.
Written by Rita Slva