On our departure from the city of Luang Prabang, right in the northern heart of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, we were left somewhat speechless.
I wondered why my daughter and I were in the back of the hotel car, wiping tears away. I came to realize that it had a little bit of everything to do with coming home to Australia. Was it that I had found my ideal holiday or resting spot in this complicated world?
Centuries ago, the kingdom that made up much of modern-day Laos was called Lan Xang. The “Land of a Million Elephants”
Located high up in the mountains, Luang Prabang certainly resonates peace, stress-free experiences, and authentic hospitality. Even the deep green colours of the lush forests, the rugged terrain, creeks, and farming communities are in a category of their own.
A town with deep-rooted Buddhist and royal traditions, with unique charm and atmosphere, it is no wonder Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its vibrant culture, combined with well-preserved temples and colonial architecture mirrors its timeless atmosphere underpinned by the mighty magnificence of the Mekong river.
Luang Prabang was a random choice for this holiday destination. Its innocent survival from the American war however, was a miraculous feat. Laos, snuggled in between Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and China, was the most heavily bombed country in that region between 1964 and 1972.
Many may say when you experience one Asian country you have seen them all. This could not be further from the truth with Laos.
Burasari Heritage Hotel
Our home for 8 nights was the Burasari Heritage Hotel. Situated right on the Nam Khan River, the 19-room hotel is in the heart of the old town. Its stylish accommodation is inspired by traditional Lao heritage with a French colonial touch. Each room has a terrace that overlooks the river, and it is only steps away from the town’s temples, sidewalk cafes and restaurants.
The Burasari Heritage General Manager, Pragash Muthusamy pinpoints why guests leave singing the praises of their hospitality team. Pragash puts it down to empowering them to go the extra mile so that everyone is welcomed and learns the cultural ways that are unique to this country. The hotel team acts with great respect towards visitors to their country and to their peers. Very few have ever ventured outside of town, so there is a very special peaceful ambience of care and concern, respect and assistance. Tipping doesn’t even enter the dialogue here in Luang Prabang.
The joy of visiting this town lies in observing its simple day-to-day. The early morning lines of saffron-robed monks collecting their alms, the shady alleyways lined with quaint historic houses and the simplicity of watching the Mekong’s busy boats all while sipping on a Lao coffee.
Travel Indochina offers a good selection of half day and full day tours. All are covered with safe private transport, driver and English-speaking guides, always on time, and ready to show you their world as they know it.
The selection of tours floating along the Mekong river are not to be missed. The sunset tour is perfectly timed so that you watch the sun retreating behind the mountains. Longer trips can take you to the mysterious Cave of 1,000 Buddhas at Pak Ou. All allow you to soak up the riverside village scenery and local fisherman against the stunning backdrop of the surrounding mountains. A small rural house that seems so far away from the rest of the world perfectly illustrates how remote this magical place really is.
The fascination of Luang Prabang doesn’t stop there… Kuang Si Falls is the most famous and spectacular waterfall in Laos. The falls cascade over three levels and start in the shallow pools atop a steep hillside with the main waterfall a 60-metre drop. Just 30 kilometres from town and on your way to the falls, The Ock Pop Tok Weaving Centre is where you can witness the traditional Lao weaving practices, and how important the textile industry is to the Laotian culture.
Underpinning any holiday is good food. In Luang Prabang, we found so many shop front places for coffee and sweets, to family cafes always busy from sunrise to sunset who welcome anyone in need of a solid meal. There were plenty of restaurants all offering traditional specials around the clock. All dishes were made fresh-to-order and ‘spice tasty’’. We never came across a dud over the 9 days we were there.
Better still, we tasted ingredients we didn’t even know existed. Climbing wattle was used in curries, omelettes and stir fries. ‘Midnight Horror’’ and ‘wild’ betel leaves were bitter greens eaten raw.
Most meals consist of soup, grilled meat, a sauce, greens and a stew. Sticky rice is a staple and eaten with your hands. We were told they eat more sticky rice than any other part of the world – as it is the essence of Laos cuisine. We quickly found our favourites – chunky pork sausage, Laotian beef jerky, pickled fish roe and pickled cabbage with pickled pork ears. Needless to say even though we had brought with us a few packets of tablets for stomach upsets none were needed.
Once home, the following few weeks were spent using the various spices and herbs that we were able to bring back into the country, but I don’t think we’ll conquer making the sticky rice quite like the Laos do.
During our stay, I didn’t see one post card or tourism T-shirt for sale. That in itself speaks volumes. The Lao people are up to speed on the environmental state of banning plastics, and endorse recycling. At every opportunity with foreigners, they want to learn and speak English. China is building a fast train track through their town, mountains, and rivers to allow easier access to other parts of the world. The doors to Laos are opening up. By 2022 they will no longer be as isolated.
But I do hope that the special essence that I personally found, to this country, will remain.