Buddhist monks with hot crossaints

Luang Prabang always sounded exotic and mystically intriguing. Buddhist Mecca, town of saffron-robed monks and golden temple roofs. We imagined it a little bit shabby, scruffy and worn out. A place where time stopped or had never arrived. What we found instead was way beyond our imagination. Both for good and bad.

As soon as we got off a tuk tuk that brought us from the bus station, we realised that time did not stop in Luang Prabang. Capitalism found it a long time before us. It has become a tourist Mecca rather than a Buddhist one and the streets were filled with ‘falangs’ and their thick wallets rather than monks. Even though it was not as mystic and oriental as we expected, we quickly realised that its popularity had a positive twist to it.

Luang Prabang is a town of chick elegance and immaculate beauty. It has excellent bakeries and restaurants, top class accommodation and spas that we could not afford (or rather didn’t want to spend money on). We tried delicious pastries at Le Banneton and great cappuccino at Joma Cafe. We ate in places ranging from no stars to 5 stars. We started one of our days with local Kao Soy soup from a street stall and ended it with a feast at Tamarind – a top range Lao restaurant. We passed the time slowly from breakfast to fruit shake, then from lunch to afternoon beer and from dinner to a cocktail with newly met friends.

Days went by slowly and deliciously. Luang Prabang was spoiling us and we happily obliged. In other circumstances it would probably seem to us too Western, too polished, too perfect. But right then we didn’t mind. We needed a little bit of Western tampering after two months on rice and noodle soups served on dirty plastic tables along dusty roads.
Another thing that kept us there was culture. All the places in Laos we had seen so far lacked art, literature, cinema, anything. Luang Prabang had L’Estranger bookstore which served excellent variety of teas (we had Mulberry tea for the first time and fell in love with it) and screened alternative cinema movies every night. Movies were screened on magic first floor with comfortable floor mats and cushions and shelves of National Geographic issues dating back to 1974. We sent one whole afternoon there flicking through them, drawing and forgetting about the outside world.

One night we also saw a fashion show in Hive Bar. We didn’t have high expectations about it, but it turned out to be well organised and very interesting. It focused on traditional Lao tribal wear from all around Laos. It was fascinating. The outfits were fantastic. Their precision, colourfulness and creative flair proved how much talent Lao weavers had. They were stylish and sophisticated. It’s a pity that in most parts of the country they have been replaced with tacky modern clothes mass produced in China, which Lao people don’t know how to wear and as a result often look tasteless. Thankfully many Lao women still wear their traditional skirts, but I’m afraid this custom may die out with the new generation who will go for cheap and cool jeans and sneakers.

Despite of its many distractions, Luang Prabang is still a city of temples and we couldn’t cross a street or turn a corner without bumping into a temple we hadn’t seen before. Each and every one of them is magnificent. Richly decorated and atmospheric. Monks lived in most of them and it was easy to find one of them to have a conversation with. One morning we also went to see Morning Alms, Luang Prabang’s traditional custom of food being offered to passing monks. It was a beautiful ceremony of giving and taking, if only intrusive Chinese tourists wouldn’t ruin the atmosphere by pushing forwards and firing flash into monks’ faces. The town was full of posters explaining how to behave during Morning Alms, but they were breaking every single rule there was.

Talking about architecture of Luang Prabang one instantly thinks about its temples. Yet it has much more to offer than that. In the past Luang Prabang was ruled by the French, the British and the Dutch and each of them had left their mark on the architecture of today. Strolling the streets we starred in amazement at French colonial style hotels and Dutch residencies. They were beautifully restored and bathed in soft light of locally produced ceramic lamps. Everything seemed perfect here – homes, little alleys, streets, gardens. We felt like in a town on a French riviera rather than in Laos. Many towns in Europe would wish to look like Luang Prabang. Walking its streets was our favourite pastime. There were caves and waterfalls nearby to explore, but we couldn’t be bothered. We didn’t want to leave the bubble of nonchalant European tranquility.

We were determined to take in as much of Luang Prabang as possible as it won’t stay this way for much longer. It is said that from 2015 there will be a train line running through Luang Prabang from China to Thailand bringing masses of Chinese and Thai tourists on board. I can already imagine the crowds with their fancy zoom lenses and ipads flooding the temples, coffee shops and markets. I’m glad we’re visiting before that comes true.

Being so European, Luang Prabang felt comfortable and motherly. For a brief minute we were even considering staying in there for longer. I found a volunteer position as a graphic designer in a textile design studio supplying Lao silk and cotton wear to boutiques all over the world. The offer was tempting and I’d have had lots of fun for sure. We were not ready to stop just though. We had a strong urge to travel, see more, understand this part of the world better. Besides, stopping in Luang Prabang would be too easy. We’d rather stay for longer in a place where we have more contact with local culture. A remote village in a middle of nowhere would do just fine.

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