We arrived in Luang Prabang on Friday and we're having trouble leaving. It's a beautiful mix of French colonial architecture and Laos art and culture. The people are shy yet friendly and the coffee is strong (finally no more Nescafe!).
The first morning,we stepped over sleeping bodies (two staff were sleeping the Guest house floor in mosquito nets) and left our guest house at 5:15AM to watch the alms giving ceremony. This is a daily tradition whereby buddhists give food to monks from a nearby temple. There are over 45 temples in Luang Prabang so this is a big deal for the city. We watched a very small procession in front of our guesthouse and then a bigger one at around 6:30 AM on the main street. The alms basket of each barefoot, orange clad monk, receives a ball of sticky rice from the right hand of all the villagers and tourists that kneel beside the road. The idea is that the monks receive sustenance and the townspeople gain merit which helps toward their karmic balance.
We didn't buy any sticky rice baskets as it seemed to be more something for observing respectfully rather than participating. I was most impressed by how calm and impassive the monks were as they passed by the people. There was no real acknowledgement needed. Most of the monks were quite young and I noticed that at the end of the procession a line of young children with plastic bags had formed in a kneeling line. As the monks passed to go back towards the temple, many of them reached into their urns and threw some rice into the youngsters bags. It was the monks turn to provide sustenance to the poor.
The following day felt a little like Christmas- we were going to ride elephants! We hooked up with a German owned company that aimed to help preserve and care for older elephants in the area by having them work with the tourists. Most of these elephants worked in logging at one point and came to the camp with their original Mahout. "Mahout" is the term for elephant riders and it is a really special thing in Laos. Elephants live about the same time as humans so normally an elephant and a Mahout will start working together around 15 years old and they will be together for their whole life. You can really see the bond that these people have with their elephants. The elephant camp had 9 female elephants between 36 and 65 years old. In essence, it was a little like early retirement for these animals as they were able to earn their 100-200kg of food that they consume daily by taking light rides in the jungle with tourists. The rest of their day is spent bathing in the river, eating, resting and eating again. Our Mahout was a very happy fellow who had been with Mae Bo (the elephant) for 20 years. He kept asking us if we were happy and telling us how happy Mae Bo and he were that we were there. It was quite endearing and I sure was happy to be riding with an elephant so it wasn't even annoying! Peng let us ride on the neck of Mae Bo about 5 minutes into the ride and it was pretty incredible. You just had to nudge her ears and she'd trundle along. I was scared at first, but I was rather in love as well.
Due to the French influence (or the fact that they conquered Laos a number of years ago), Luang Prabang is known to have fine French food. After eating BBQ in the market for $2 for the past two nights, we decided to splurge a little and sit down for a nice meal at L'elephant- well named. Mark had a prix fixe French menu with Laos infused flavours. Pumpkin soup with coconut and Lime kaffir and pan friend dory with pasta. I, on the other hand, opted for the Laos prix fixe menu. I thought it would be a good opportunity to try some of the food in the market that I didn't dare taste without knowing what it was. It turns out, the meal was enough for 2-3 people so Mark and I both got a very good idea of typical and well prepared food from Laos. On the menu:
Lemon Grass soup with beef cubes
Chicken basil salad
Steamed fish in a lotus leaf
Pork and herb skewer
Fried pork in a lemon grass leaf
Dried seaweed with sesame seeds
A condiment of spicy chili and dried buffalo skin
Ginger ice cream with Fresh Fruit
We rolled out of there, but it was delicious and only came to $60 with some very cold and tasty white wine. A recommendation for sure! We finished the night off with Sophie (2nd cousin from England) and her boyfriend Drew with drinks at a cafe called Cafe des Arts. It was such a nice surprise to meet up with them a share some stories. They recommended a few good places in Vientiane and Cambodia as well as a good herbal sauna in Luang Prabang. I think we're going to check that out tonight. They have three more weeks of travels left and it looks like they are heading more North. They seem like seasoned travellers and are looking for some good treks and local experiences. We'll see if they make it out of Luang Prabang in short time.
Off to Vientiane tomorrow- 10 hour bus trip!