Postcard from Laos – Luang Prabang (part 2)

A holy place caught in time warp.

Is it just me or do you think this year has gone by really really fast? It only struck me the other day that we already spent half the year of 2010, but I still feel like I hardly achieve anything this year! I swear my holiday in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos back in August 2009 was only just last week as I still can remember every single detail of my trip vividly, from eating a balut egg in Hoi An to spending a day with the landmine victims in Siem Reap.

When I am just about to get used to travel alone after spending two and a half weeks backpacking in these three countries, my journey has finally come to an end. But there is one last place that I want to visit, a holy city that seems to be caught in a time warp for centuries with its natural beauty encapsulated and preserved has made this place one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

Luang Prabang, the Kingdom of the Divine Buddha, and it is the oldest city in Laos.

After a short flight from Vientiane, I found myself traveled back in time and landed in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, deep in jungle of north central Laos. The city sits right in a valley between Nam Khan river and Mekong river, and is surrounded by dramatic mountains. Make sure you get a good window seat on the plane, as the panoramic view of the valley from the air is spectacularly breathtaking.

Luang Prabang is a small village with population just over 100,000 people. But in contrast, this popular holiday destination has been reported to attract over 300,000 tourists each year and is still increasing. Just like what Anthony Bourdain had said in ‘No Reservation’ TV series while he was travelling in Luang Prabang – there are only two noises you will hear in this city, the shuffling feet of monks while collecting alms, and the continuous clicking noise of cameras. It’s true.

There are around 33 wats (temples) with over 1200 monks living in Luang Prabang. The only food resource the monks received is by collecting alms from the locals every morning. They are only allowed to eat food given to them on the morning of each day, received either from this ceremony or from family. It is a very regimented ritual, with closely observed etiquette and routines.

I am not a typical morning person so waking up at 5am for the morning alms is a struggle. The sky is still dark when I step outside my hostel, the street is empty and the whole village is slowly awakening. The locals emerge from their houses, carrying plastic mats and alms offerings, and start lining them up on one side of the street. Everyone is calm and quiet, softly spoken and no laughing matter, they knelt down on the mat with the food ready and wait for the monks to do the alms-rounds. Tourists are advised not to interfere the ritual and observe from across the street.

The morning alms run along the two main streets in Luang Prabang and starts at 6am sharp. Only a few minutes after, I can just make out a line of monks in striking orange robe about 100 meters down the street is slowly approaching. From my observation, the monks are not allowed to stop and speak to the locals. It is absolute silence but FAST, the bright orange robe shuffling as the monks walk briskly past the locals while they trying to put as much food into their alms bowls as possible.

I follow the monks down the street as they snake around every bends and corners in the village, accepting all various kind of food including home cooked sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, foreign candies and junk food. As I am just standing by the road side observing the whole ritual, an old lady approaches me with a bowl of Chinese cheap candies, and signals me to offer them to the monks. I wasn’t ready to participate as I have no clue with the rules and etiquette, what dos and don’ts. But I thought perhaps she is just being nice so I accept it and hand it out to the monks. It is actually harder than I thought it would be, the monks walk so fast and I am slowly losing my coordination and candies drop on the floor and some monks are missing out because I am simply not fast enough. On the other hand, the lady keeps topping my bowl with more and more candies, and I told her to stop as I am more than happy to just stand back and take photos. Then she even offers to take photo of me in action offering alms to the monks, only then I realised I got snared by these “alms vendors” trying to make money by “offering” the food to me for the monks.

I push the bowl back to her once I know what is going on, and oh boy, she isn’t happy. The only word she can say to me is “money”. I am furious and agitated, I just want to give her some money, shoosh her away and tell her to stop bothering me. But things can’t get worse when I realised I actually have no Lao currency in my wallet as I used the last bit for dinner the night before and all the ATMs were closed. The only money I have left is a few Malaysian Ringgit notes. Oh boy, I upset her even futher by showing her my empty wallet. She cold stares me and points at the high street in Luang Prabang, “ATM”. I have no choice but walk down the high street as she follows me behind like a hungry wolf.

But alas, all the shops are still shut at 7am which means there is no access to any ATMs. I strike her nerves thrice by telling her that I can’t get money out and all I could offer is the 20 Malaysian ringgits note in my wallet. Little does she know that RM20 is actually a lot more than the US$2 she initially asked for, but she simply doesn’t trust me and I am sure she must absolutely hates my guts by now. She has no choice in the end and takes my offer and walks away, possibly cursing the jebuz daylight out of me.

The morning alms lasted just over an hour, and all the monks are gathered back at Wat Xieng Thong where it all started. During the alms, I also noticed there are bamboo baskets along the street for ‘giving back’ from the monks to the locals as blessings and also for the starving street kids. As groups of monks are huddled into the back of a truck getting a ride back to their wats, the street kids are already happily tucking in to the food they received from the alms.

Looking at them eating makes me hungry. I bid them farewell and look for a breakfast elsewhere as I have to get ready for my Pak Ou Caves half day tour.

The Pak Ou Caves are 25km from Luang Prabang and only accessible by boat. It takes about 2 hours upstream on the Mekong River with a stopover at a local village in between which I am more looking forward to visit then the caves, as it is famous for its traditional Laos fermented rice wine called Lao-Lao.

Throughout the journey, I have seen the Mekong River in various countries and different parts of towns and the river always look different. Sometimes wider, other time is murkier, and it flows rapidly here in Luang Prabang. Our boat struggles to go against the direction of the river flow, our driver told us it will take 2 hours to get to the caves but only 45 minutes to get back.

I am surprised to find there is another entrance fee at the caves which obviously not included in my tour package. The caves are separated in two parts – Tham Ting (lower cave) is more spectacular between the two with thousands of Buddha statues scattered all over inside the cave, left by the local people and pilgrims. Tham Theung (upper cave) requires a strenuous hike up a fleet of steps to reach the entrance of the cave. I am rather disappointed to find that the cave is absolutely pitch black inside, and a guard is sitting outside who you can hire a torchlight from. I am drenching in sweat, bothered and not ready to pay for more fee, and decide is time for me to head back to the boat.

On the way back, I am mobbed by three tatty kids each holding a bamboo cage, asking me for “Good Luck” with the occasional “I’m hungry”. It’s difficult to just ignore them and keep walking, especially when they looking at me with that pleading eyes and make me feel extremely guilty. So I stop and wondering what they are selling. I have a closer look and only then realised there are actually sparrows inside the cages. The kids are asking for US$1 so that I can release the sparrow in returns of blessings. I give them US$5 and release all three sparrows, it instantly put a smile on their faces. Somehow they still able to pull another cage out from no where and asking for more money. I can never win and those puppy eyes ain’t going to work on me this time and walk off.

The Pak Ou Caves isn’t at all exciting, but it is Ban Xang Hai village that I am more looking forward to. Ban Xang Hai is a little village on the Mekong River not far from the caves, which used to be famous for jars making. These days the jars are imported from elsewhere and the locals are focused on brewing this semi-illicit moonshine made with fermented rice, called Lao-Lao.

The village nowadays is more or less a tourist attraction, stilt houses are turning into souvenir shops selling local crafts and this deadly alcohol. I walk up to a stall and ask for a sample of the Lao-Lao despite it is still 10am in the morning. The lady pours me a tiny cup of lao-lao made with purple rice which gives it the distinctive red hue. I swallow the shot and it burns like petrol fuel from my throat down to the stomach, the initial sweetness on the palate also slowly fading away but leaving a stale rice aftertaste in my mouth. It is not too bad.

The German tourists from my tour saw me having so much fun (not!) are also joining in for some lao-lao bonding session. This time we get to try the pure rice wine, a shot of clear liquid which looks absolutely harmless but I can already sniff out its true colour. I take a deep breath and swallow the shot, let out a resonant and choke a little with alcohol fume hits the nose. I feel like I am drinking a cheap nasty rocket fuel.

The lady offers us a bottle to take home for 2000 kip (AUD$0.30). We all decide to get one bottle each, and get the price down to 1500kip (AUD$0.20). It is dirt cheap and I was actually really looking forward to bring it back to Australia, purely for tormenting friends at dinner parties. Unfortunately when I get back to the hotel and noticed the alcohol is sipping out through the cork. Sadly I have to let it go and give it to the hostel owner when I check out.

The half day tour finishes around 2pm and I am absolutely starving. All I want is to find a shelter to get out of the sun, a cold drink, and a nice traditional Lao meal. But trying to decide which restaurant to go to can be quite challenging especially when I am also getting impatient. I come across Tamnak Lao Restaurant not far from my hotel that offers a traditional Luang Prabang cuisine set menu at a whopping 120,000 kip (AUD1$16.90) per person. The menu does look good, and I am hungry, so I decide to give it a try despite is more than what I am willing to pay.

For drink, the iced “dog” tea has caught my eyes. On the menu it quotes, “named after the dog on the tin, drunk by the Lao during the how wet season, very refreshing”. The iced ‘dog’ tea is a refreshing mix of orange-flavoured tea with lime juice, but I am more excited to see the color of the drink is in striking bloody red hue.

When the set menu arrives, it is actually a lot bigger than I’d have imagined. All dishes are served together, neatly arranged inside a large straw-woven tray. The sticky rice is traditionally served inside a small bamboo basket but when I open it to discover it is actually purple sticky rice inside which supposedly more common in Luang Prabang. This is my first time having purple sticky rice, the texture is very similar to the normal white rice, a little firmer with a subtle nutty flavour.

I fell in love with Laos pork sausage since I first had it at I-san city (is now closed down) in Sydney. The Luang Prabang pork sausage (Sai Kok) is packed with coarsely chopped fatty pork inside, fragrant with lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves, served with a fiery chili dipping sauce and a few cucumber slice for the cooling relief.

You can’t go to Laos without trying the national dish – Laap (pronounced as Larp), means ‘ground meat’. Lao Laap is a versatile national dish, it can be made with either beef, chicken, pork, cow intestine or like what I have, fish. The Lao fish laap is a refreshing salad with fish fillets finely minced then tossed together with chopped lemongrass, fresh mint and chilli padi in a sweet and salty fish sauce dressing. The dish is actually quite hot despite its innocent shades of green but I’m totally addicted to it and keep going back for more.

I’ve been told the seaweed dish is a local specialty and you can only find it in Luang Prabang. The seaweed is actually riverweed from the Mekong River, which had been sprinkled with sesame seeds and slivers of tomato, dried then deep fried. A little bit like Japanese nori, the riverweed is a lot thicker which gives a much crunchier satisfaction, and less salty than the normal seaweed. It is a great snack in between dishes to have a break from all the spicy dishes.

I seriously think the set menu is more than enough to feed two person. I am struggling to finish the set menu despite I try so hard to avoid filling up too quickly with the purple sticky rice. Sadly I could only managed to eat half of most dishes, as I still need to leave some space for dessert.

The banana caramel upside down cake is possibly not a dessert that you would normally find in the traditional Lao cuisine, but their excellent baking skills inherited from the French during the colony period is something I truly admire. The cake is moist and dense, while the banana is sweet and caramelised with toffee flavour. It is a little rich especially when I am eating it outdoor under the 40C heat. How I wish there is a scoop of vanilla ice cream with the cake.

The meal is excellent and worth every penny in my opinion despite it is a little on the expensive side. By the time I finish my meal, the temperature outside is unbearably hot for me to take a stroll with full stomach. Best to leave the sightseeing till later when the temperature drops a little.

Mount Phu Si (Phousi) is a hill right at the centre of the old town of Luang Prabang. It is bordered on one side by the Mekong River and on the other side by the Khan River. The summit of Mount Phousi offers a panoramic view of the entire town from above but also a prime spot to view the spectacular sunset. When I reach the base of Wat Chom Si on top of the hill, it is already crowded with locals and tourists waiting for the sun to set. The scenery during sunset is truly magical, and I would encourage you to pay a visit to Mount Phousi to catch the sunset as well, if ever you should come to Luang Prabang.

By the time I climb back down to the base of the hill, the local night market has already come alive. Most of the vendors are Hmong Hill tribe people of Luang Prabang, selling some of the most exquisite craft work I’ve ever seen. I’ve even put down a US$20 deposit for a hand made quilt cover that took 3 months to finish. In the end I chicken out and didn’t go back to pick up the quilt cover the following day, because it is simply too heavy for me to bring it home, and the old lady was also asking for a hefty price of US$160 for it which I am not ready to pay such large amount of money. I do regret now that I didn’t buy it though. But I did picked up a few t-shirts from the market as my clean clothes are running low towards the end of my trip before heading for dinner.

While walking along the high street, I find it disconcerting that the most popular restaurant in Luang Prabang is the pizza place which are packed with tourists having burgers and pizzas. I am in no hurry to visit this restaurant and keep walking until I stumble upon Tum Tum Bamboo, a restaurant that is highly recommended in the Lonely Planet travel guide. But only find out that it is actually a sister restaurant to the original Tum Tum Cheng, which is a lot further down the street.

The restaurant is modern and cosy, the whole room is glowing in the holy orange hue, just like the colour of the Monk’s robe. There are not many customers in the restaurant for being a weeknight and low season for tourists. The waiter is friendly and able to speak English very well makes ordering food a lot easier.

Since I already had a big lunch, this time I only managed to order a three course meal of entree, main and dessert. I’ve done a little research before arriving in Luang Prabang as they have their own local specialties here that I would love to try. The riverweed for instance, and beef jerky is another. The Luang Prabang beef jerky is dried and deep fried, is a famous beer snack to go with toasted peanuts, fried lemongrass and a fiery hot chilli paste. I am usually not into beef jerky but this is deliciously addictive. It is very tough at first but it will get softer and hotter as I keep chewing it along with the crispy fried lemongrass. Perfect appetizer while waiting for main to come.

The Tod Pa Hang is a traditional Luang Prabang dish that is usually served to the royal family. There are dried fish cutlets lightly battered then deep fried, wok tossed with snake beans, galangal, green chilles, kaffir lime leaves and lemon grass. Again, it looks totally harmless until I have my first bite of the green chilli. I guess there is a reason why they quoted (hot & spicy) on the menu.

For dessert, there is nothing that really tickle my fancy except this Banana soup and boy oh boy, it is one of the best dessert I’ve had in Laos. I can instantly smell the strong aroma of coconut milk and caramel when it arrives at the table. The bowl of bright yellow creamy soup can easily be mistaken as a pumpkin soup, but it is much sweeter and richer than that. It is served hot with banana chunks boiled in the thick coconut milk caramel until soft and mushy, soaking up all the sweetness. It is seriously rich, just like drinking concentrated caramel sauce but I am not complaining and savour every last mouthful of the soup.

When I was perusing the menu, I noticed they do also run cooking classes at the original restaurant at 150,000kip (AUD$21) per person. My dinner comes to around 85,000kip (AUD$12) and I also ask the waiter to sign me up for the cooking class held on the following morning. I am actually very excited about it as I’ve been impressed by Lao cuisine and haven’t had one bad meal since I arrived.

The humidity at night doesn’t seem to change as the air is still just as heavy as this morning. I feel tired and sleepy from the weather and the food, not to mention I’ve been awake since 5am for the morning alms. I call it an early night and head back to hotel and very much looking forward to my cooking class on my last day in Luang Prabang.

Until next time…

Tam Nak Lao restaurant
(also known as Three Elephant cafe, opposite Villa Santi)
Sakkarine Road,
Ban Watsene,
Luang Prabang, LAOS.

Tum Tum Bamboo
Th Sisavangvong,
Old Town, Luang Prabang
Lao PDR