I‘ve already written about the day Luang Prabang cast a spell on me but now it’s time to write about monks, wats, shopping, eating and sweating, in other words, things to do in the former royal capital of Laos. Although Luang Prabang essentially becomes a ghost town after 11 p.m. (when everything closes), that doesn’t mean there isn’t lots to do during the day. I wasn’t really up to checking must-see’s off a list but I did manage to visit Luang Prabang my way and this is what I was up to.
01. Alms-Giving Ceremony (Tak Bat)
Tak Bat literally translates from Lao as “giving food to Buddhist monks”. Every morning at sunrise, barefoot monks draped in their crimson robes form a line and proceed in walking in meditative silence in the streets of the historical center of Luang Prabang. Each monk carries his own alms bowl ready to receive small portions of sticky rice from almsgivers. This procession is a sacred ritual highly revered by Buddhists but foreigners can also participate in the alms-giving ceremony.
I had read several accounts about tourists being disrespectful/unpleasant during the ceremony; to avoid being one of these obnoxious tourists, make sure to follow a few guidelines. As a personal observation, I did notice a few monks looking disgruntled, irritated and grumpy (except for some of the younger novice monks who seemed amused at being photographed by strangers). This could’ve been their natural state (perhaps I wrongfully interpreted their solemness) or a possible explanation might be that they didn’t appreciate being turned into a tourist attraction and understandably so.
For guidelines and more information: Tak Bat: Lao Monks’ Morning Alms-Giving in Luang Prabang
While the purpose of the ceremony is to give food to the monks, I noticed that older monks themselves gave food items in return to young almsgivers. Some of the disgruntled, irritated, grumpy (solemn?) monks carelessly
threw dropped the food (packaged noodles) in the hands of the kneeling almsgivers – often landing unceremoniously (how ironic) on the ground. I thought this was odd given the sacred nature of the ceremony but, again, were the monks irritated by all the unwanted attention?
I did wake up early but not at sunrise so by the time I got to the ceremony many of the monks (and crowds?) had already dispersed. After it was over, I was underwhelmed. Maybe the atmosphere would’ve been different at sunrise. Or maybe not. I kind of felt guilty for being one of the tourists who treated this sacred ceremony as an ‘attraction’ when it really shouldn’t be. I think I might have better recognized the full worth if I would’ve just randomly come across an alms-giving ceremony – one that isn’t listed in all the guide books.
This ceremony also takes place in other Buddhist countries such as Thailand and Myanmar so I’m not sure why Tak Bat has become such a popular tourist attraction in Luang Prabang. Maybe it’s because of the large amount of wats which equals to a lot of monks in such a small vicinity or maybe the town itself is so captivating it just adds to the novelty of it all. (Also, the fact that Luang Prabang was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site certainly contributed to the influx of curious travelers).
Luang Prabang is famous for having many wats – about 33 of them scattered all around the historical town. I didn’t really feel like visiting all of them (or that many) so I basically just walked around not knowing where they were exactly. When I did come across a wat, I wandered around the grounds and took my time snapping pictures of the gold and saffron embellished exterior and of the blackened stupas.
If you’re looking for a detailed guide to wats in Luang Prabang, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for random pictures of some of the wats then scroll on, my friend, scroll on!
Laos has a rich heritage of hand-woven textiles and other handmade items which can be purchased at one of the many shops in Luang Prabang. Garments made with locally-produced silk in every color of the rainbow and other handicrafts such as rice baskets can be found all over town. Keep in mind that prices in Luang Prabang (actually I found this to be the case in general in Laos), can be quite expensive in well-appointed shops but deals can be had at the night market.
Located on Sisavangvong Road, the night market with rows and rows of stalls (you can’t miss it) buzzes with activity as of 5 p.m. until around 11 p.m.. Many of the vendors come from hill-tribe communities to sell their handmade wares. Some of the stuff is traditional and genuine (like clothing from the H’mong tribeswomen) and some of it (like cheap jewelry) clearly comes from China. Nonetheless, there’s plenty to spend your kips on (haggling is expected, so is being polite). I did enjoy browsing in the market but I found the items to be redundant and many of them seemed to be mass-produced (but that’s just my personal dislike).
Special mention: Ock Pop Tok, located about 2 km from the center of Luang Prabang, is an award-winning socially-conscious shop where you’ll find gorgeous textiles (with high price tags). You can also enjoy a meal in the convivial coffee shop set in a lush tropical garden facing the Mekong River.
Bonus: I’m a fan of street art but there isn’t any in Luang Prabang so I was very excited to come across this colorful, abstract mural on the way to Ock Pop Tok!
If, like me, you rather purchase directly from artisans then cross the bamboo bridge (there’s a minimal fee) to the small villages on the other side of the Nam Kham river where you’ll find a fair amount of workshops. From cards made with elephant dung to traditional mulberry paper products to gorgeous linen & silk scarves, you’ll surely be enticed both by the items available and the villages themselves.
Not into shopping? Then the Phosi Market, the biggest in Luang Prabang, is the place to be to take in a more bona fide atmosphere. The market offers lots of fresh produce but also cosmetics, wildly embellished shoes, quirky knitted hats as well as every other item imaginable. It’s a great place to engage with the locals without feeling pressured into buying anything.
Luang Prabang offers a wide range of restaurants with diversified menus. You can indulge in French delicacies in one of the many restaurants along the riverside or on Sisavangvong Road or you can sink your teeth into a cheesy Italian pizza. As in the rest of Laos, you won’t find any American fast food restaurants (this is a good thing) but there are plenty of other options including quaint coffee shops complete with French pastries, steaming coffees and soothing teas.
But if you want a true taste of Lao cuisine (minus the rodents and insects), the night food market is the place to be. Branching out where Sisavangvong Road meets Settathilat Road, dozens of stalls offer local dishes made up of fish, chicken or other meats grilled right in front of your eyes. You can also choose from a variety of ready-made salads or heaps of chopped up vegetables to make your own. I usually opted for the $1 (10,000 kips) all-you-can-fit-in-your-plate vegetarian buffet owned by a lovely couple. Everything was made fresh daily – and everything was really good!
While traveling in Laos it’s hard to ignore the remnants of the French colonization that began in the late 19th century but the most time-honored influence would have to be the baguette (French bread). At the busiest corner (where tourists hang out) in historical Luang Prabang, a line of food stalls advertising their menus on banners have taken up permanent residence.
For the small sum of 15,000 kips (about $1.80 USD) you can savor hot, freshly-delivered baguettes made with your choice of ingredients (the avocado/chicken was my favorite). The entrepreneurial women working behind each counter will surely call you to try one of their tasty smoothies or to sip a Lao coffee while sitting at one of the picnic tables.
After stuffing yourself with copious amounts of food, you might justifiably gain a few pounds. That’s where saunas come in. There are certainly a few saunas around Luang Prabang but every day I walked by a dreary-looking one on the way to my guesthouse (it was right next door). Each time I passed by the dimly-lit sign beckoned me to go in. Truthfully, I wasn’t positive it was a legitimate sauna but I decided to check it out anyways.
I walked in the dark front yard and was greeted by a man who then silently lead me to the house where a whole family was cleaning up after dinner (some were still licking their fingers). A pudgy, apron-attired woman approached me and nodded in affirmation when I asked her if I could use the sauna. Still doubtful this was a legitimate establishment, I reluctantly followed her up the stairs to the side of the house.
The woman handed me a towel and wrap-around cloth and left. There were two other local girls which helped ease my suspicions. I changed into my bikini behind a flimsy curtain and then headed to the sauna (there were two – one for men, one for women). It was very small and made of wood, the inside was pitch black.
I carefully maneuvered my way in the darkness until I felt a wobbly bench to sit on. The heat was so intense I immediately started sweating (I realize this is the whole point of a sauna but I didn’t expect as much from this place). After a few minutes, (it’s not recommended to stay longer), the other girls kindly motioned me to where the shower was so that I could refresh under a cold stream of water. I continued this charade for about 45 minutes and it felt so good – this sauna was the real deal after all!
And, guess what? It only cost 15,000 kips including unlimited tea!
What I Didn’t Do in Luang Prabang
I didn’t want to ‘splurge’ on the 30,000 kip (about $3.65 USD) entrance fee so I skipped visiting the interior of the Royal Palace (including a theater, a museum and a temple). Access to the exterior grounds was free so I, of course, took advantage of that! Haw Pha Bang is the royal temple built as a shrine to house the country’s most sacred Buddha image. It’s topped with a stunning multi-tiered roof and its golden exterior glitters prettily in the sun. Well-worth a few pics!
Climbing Mount Phosi to see panoramic views of Luang Prabang is probably the most popular tourist attraction but, again (I realize how
frugal cheap I sound), I didn’t think the 20,000 kip entrance fee was worth it (I could get a full meal for that price!).
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Any other suggestions on what to see/do in Luang Prabang? Share them in the comments below!