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Food for thought

by Carla ter Maat on 11 November 2014, 11:11AM

Carla ter Maat finds that Luang Prabang in Laos is a place to feed the soul.

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I had a very clear image in my mind about what Luang Prabang would be like – it was more a premonition than through research, and in fact and I wasn’t far wrong. The sense of calm, serenity and peace, as though I had arrived at a very holy place, pervaded the air, even as I departed the plane.

Luang Prabang (or simply LP to the locals) is situated in the north central part of the country, 300km from the capital Vientiene and only an hour’s flight from Chiang Mai. It considers itself a city but given the population of 50,000 people and the condensed peninsula it occupies between the Mekong River and Nam Khan, it feels more like a small town. LP is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which ensures the hundreds of vibrant Temples, exquisite Monasteries and outstanding French colonial architecture are protected. This also extends to a ban of trucks and buses in the town centre, safeguarding the peaceful ambiance and encourages the majority to take to the foot (with the exception of the indigenous scooters that are a necessary mode of transport in Asia).

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After a fitful night’s sleep (disturbed only by the loud chirping of my resident gecko – he lives outside in the grass roof) I hopped onto one of the free bikes and pedalled the dusty roads into town. LP is an easy place to navigate so with no fear of getting lost; I wrapped my sarong about my shoulders, pulled my newly acquired “genie” trousers down to below the knee and headed for the first of many spectacular temples. Wat Visoun was stunning, Wat Mai enchanting and Wat Xiengthong magnificent – each more spectacular than the previous and dare I say it, even more impressive than many in Thailand. I climbed the many steps (losing count at about 200) to the top of Mount Phousi to be rewarded by expansive views of the town in all its glory and edged on both sides by the mighty rivers.

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Hundreds of Buddhist monks live on the grounds of the temples and monasteries in and around Luang Prabang and it is a humbling site to surreptitiously watch them quietly sitting in prayer or huddling under shady trees together. Women are not permitted to speak or touch the Monks and looking at them, even through the eyes of a camera must be done discreetly, showing utmost respect at all times.
Every morning at sunrise the Monks walk from their designated temples (in some cases several miles from the town) to collect alms from the local people and sincere visitors. It is a wonderful site to behold (yes, I rose at 4.30 in time to be tuk-tuked to the appropriate location to witness and participate in this ceremonious ritual). In spite of the hundreds of people in attendance, there was a total hush in the street, with only the sound of the shuffling bare feet of the Monks as they collected the simple offerings of sticky rice and dried biscuits from the long line of kneeling people, heads bowed and hands extended. I was truly humbled.

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By comparison, the evenings are filled with an explosion of colour, the loud chatter of bartering and smell of exotic food being prepared within the huge Night Market. It’s a feast for every sense and a treat for the pocketbook! Despite the temptation of beautiful handmade blankets and throws at such affordable prices, I confined my purchases to small, light, easy-to-carry things, but indulged heavily in the array of fragrant and appealing dishes on offer from the plethora of street vendors.

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Just inside the Night Market to the left is a rather uninviting alleyway. Once beyond the foreboding entrance, however, the impressive range of dishes and ingredients on offer were incredible. Stall after stall of Mekong River fish, freshly prepared green Papaya Salad (Tam Mak Hoong), bright red Pork Curries, sheets of crispy local seaweed (Khai Phaen), meat laden heavy stews (Laam) and Ping Gai-marinated, grilled chicken (feet included) to tempt the palate (ok, well maybe not the feet). At a very affordable 20,000 kip (£0.80) with a chilled and refreshing can of Laos Beer (£0.35) I enjoyed the most authentic and delicious local dishes on several occasions. It became a social hub for the many visiting nationalities, discussing our day’s adventures, comparing notes and making new friends.

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There are two main excursions available outside of the town to visit the Pak Ou Caves or Kuang Si Waterfall. Both were pleasant enough but I did not feel that either enhanced my visit to Luang Prabang. This is a place to unwind, to soak up the spiritual history and allow yourself to be captivated by the resplendent colours and serenity of the temples and lose yourself in the peacefulness of it all.

It really is food for the soul.


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