Staying in Luang Prabang for a week gave us an opportunity to watch the daily routine of a few hundred monks living in the city and to explore the town’s cultural scene. Apart from the fascinating rituals and traditions, Luang Prabang has lots to offer in terms of affordable treats and unusual cultural events .
Every evening around 6 pm we could hear chanting coming from all the temples simultaneously. Only once did we dare to get a better look at the daily ceremonies, encouraged by other foreigners watching, filming and taking photos as discreetly as possible.
At some temples, there were only a few adult monks present and plenty of boy novices, in others also some lay women were joining in the chanting. The little boys looked quite distracted and fidgety. I bet they’d have preferred to play football instead.
Alms- giving ceremony
The most famous and memorable ceremony that can be witnessed in Luang Prabang is the alms giving. Every morning at dawn, around 200 monks from 34 temples leave in a single file barefoot, carrying just large metal bowls. They walk down the main road and side streets for a few hours, collecting the alms from the local lay people and quite a few tourists.
Traditionally, the families wake up very early to cook the sticky rice which would then be put in a large wicker basket, rolled by hand into small balls and distributed to all monks passing by. This still happens but mostly in the backstreets. Women and men of all ages step out of the house with their little stools, wearing their best clothes (women Lao skirts, men a Lao scarf across the chest).
Kids are present, too. Some help the adults in distribution, others have the baskets of their own and collect the alms from the monks (who share sweets with them).
Just after the last monk passes by, the locals wrap up their stools and baskets heading home or to the temple.
The ceremony on the main streets looks very different. Street vendors sell sticky rice to be given to the monks and hordes of tourist snap the photos, though usually keeping a respectful distance of the street width. Some participate in the distribution as well (which should be performed only by Buddhists).
I must admit the presence of tourists does change the atmosphere of the whole event quite a bit, stripping it of its gravity and sanctity. This being said, it’s hard to resist the temptation to witness this amazing event. I had seen monks begging for alms in the villages and towns of Thailand before but never more than a dozen at a time. The sight of a never-ending file of monks of all ages is absolutely unique.
Luang Prabang, despite its small size, has its own tiny theatre and a cinema hall. We tried not to have too high expectations of the ‘5 star storytelling theatre’, Garavek performed by a young storyteller and an old musician playing a kind of bamboo flute on a tiny stage.
The sound of the keena instrument was quite pleasant though rather monotonous. The ancient looking man played it only when prompted by the storyteller and for the rest of the time looked like he was going to fall asleep. The young man spoke perfect English but used such a weird intonation that I couldn’t get important parts of almost every story.
The stories themselves were mostly short explanations of the origin of a particular place or its name. Both Sayak and me struggled to follow the logic in the plot. Altogether, it wasn’t a disaster but when I compare the £4.50 we paid there to £2 we paid for a water puppet theatre in Hanoi it definitely wasn’t a good value for money.
Passing by one of the streets we saw an A-frame advertising a free screening of a movie ‘Chang’, one of the first documentaries in the history of cinema, filmed in Lao jungle in 1925. The film’s soundtrack of the traditional folk Lao music was recorded a few years back in Luang Prabang.
We were intrigued by the description so we decided to turn up at the posh hotel for the screening, ready to pay the hefty price for the obligatory drinks. We didn’t regret despite the fact the cheapest ‘set’ of water and popcorn cost 30 000 kip.
Despite its age, the movie is not only watchable but truly engaging. It offers a fascinating glimpse into village life in Laos a century ago. I wished that somebody warned me about how disturbing it was, though. There were numerous scenes of animal cruelty -just thinking of how some of the scenes must have been filmed made me cringe.
Last but not least, being a massage therapist myself, I could not miss trying out the Lao massage. Being on a budget, I chose the cheapest option available – a mere 40 000 kip per session.
Just like with Thai massage, it was done on a mattress spread on the floor with no oils applied. The moves somewhat resembled Thai massage but were more repetitive and less precise. There was also quite a lot of clapping and beating involved. My massage wasn’t painful at all and was performed in an absolute silence (no chatting or calling involved) though judging from forums many people have less luck with that.
As for the venue and the service, I wasn’t expecting spa experience for this price so I didn’t feel disappointed. The massage parlour was smack in the middle of the old town. It was a large room filled with at least 20 narrow mattresses. Sheets hanging from a line offered privacy to a man who was receiving an oil treatment. The musky smell from the mattress would suggest that the sheets hadn’t been changed for a while but as I was fully dressed, that didn’t bother me.
How to get to Luang Prabang?
Luang Prabang has an airport but the flights are sparse and expensive. The non-recommended Lao airlines offer direct flights to capital Vientiane and Pakse in the south. There are also international flights to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Siem Reap and Singapore.
Due to the dam on the Nam Ou river you can no longer travel by boat from Nong Khiaw, unless you hire a private boat combined with a taxi which would take you around the dam which would be expensive and rather pointless.
It is still possible to get to Luang Prabang by river from Huay Xai on the Thai border. The noisy and dangerous speedboat would take only 6 hours, the cruise- 2 days with a stopover in Pakbeng.
Luang Prabang has a multitude of bus connections with the entire country and abroad. I wouldn’t recommend a non-stop journey by VIP bus or minivan to the neighbouring countries: it is simply too long. The journey to Thai border would take 12-15 hours. The journey to Vietnamese border in Dien Bien Phu would take 24 hours.
There are 3 bus stations in Luang Prabang: northern (for northern destinations), southern (for southern) and minivan station (for both north and south destinations) located just next to the southern termiinal. A tuk-tuk to any of them, would cost you 10-15 000 kip.
Some of the destinations served by the northern terminal are: Nong Khiaw (3h), Oudomxai (3-5h), Luang Namtha (10h), Phonsali (12-14h). The southern one serves: Vang Vieng (6-7h), Vientiane (8h) and Phonsavan (10h).
Luang Prabang prices [in Laotian kip as of August 2018]:
130 000 minivan Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang
105 000 minivan Luang Prabang to Phonsavan
50 000- 55 000 cheapest double room with a shared bathroom
50 000 story-telling theatre show
40 000 bus Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw
40 000 cheapest Lao massage
30 000 drink+popcorn set required for watching ‘Chang’ movie
25 000 dinner at a cheap restaurant
10-15 000 tuk-tuk from the bus station to the city centre
15 000-18 000 simple meal at a cheap eatery
15 000 entrance to the National Museum
10-20 000 entrance to the wats
10 000 smoothie at the night market
5 000 portion of sticky rice
5 000 ferry to the other side of Mekong
2 000 portion of spiced noodles from a street stall