In planning our time in Southeast Asia after India, we pre-booked one flight from India to Thailand, then another flight from Cambodia to Bali (with a stopover in Singapore) six weeks later. This gave us some room for spontaneity in planning how to spend those six weeks. Laos, which borders Thailand to the east, is a country that we ping-ponged on and off the table before finally deciding to spend a few days in the northern-Laotian city of Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang was recommended to us by some fellow travelers, and I had recently read Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed, which is partially set there. I am so thankful for those random chats with strangers and for Liz Gilbert's relationship memoir for pointing us toward some gorgeous sun-soaked days spent among French architecture and golden Buddhas.
Luang Prabang is incredibly charming: a sea of peaked rooftops in reddish hues, craft markets, and gilded shrines, all bisected by the tranquil Mekong River. The town is decidedly sleepy. An 18-year-old British gap-year adventurer who we would later meet in Cambodia called Luang Prabang "a bit too dear" for his party-seeking taste, but we found plenty to do and see during our stay. After moving through so many Thai cities in just two weeks, the molasses pace of life in sunny Luang Prabang sounded, and was in fact, delicious (literally and figuratively).
I certainly do not condone colonialism for many obvious reasons, but the French influences on Laotian cuisine (crusty bread!, sandwiches!, donuts!) were very exciting after several weeks of rice-based and/or unleavened forms of carbs. There were even a few swanky riverside French-style bistros, though we preferred the street food in the night markets, and delicious (and cheap!) outdoor restaurants serving Laotian hot pot meals. During the hot days, I was obsessed with the lemon/ginger/mint smoothies freshly blended by curbside vendors. We extended our stay from three to five days, and I would have been happy to stay longer (although that would have meant shortening our subsequent travels in Vietnam, which far exceeded our expectations as well....there are just too many places to see in this crazy beautiful world!).
On a side note, at right about this point in our "honeymoon" (roughly four months in), I really started to let go of "real life." Though I continued (and continue) to feel incredibly privileged to be on such a long trip, I began to shed my feelings of guilt and my anxiety about the past and future, and began to just bask in the present moment. Thus, the slowdown in blog entries (or the slow, multi-entry processing of our weeks in India), and the fact that I am just now finally picking up the thread weeks after arriving back home in San Francisco. After spending our first month back in "real life" (job applications, possible career pivots, the anxiety of interviewing, etc.), belatedly picking up this travel blog where I left off is a welcome reminder to keep noticing the sun on the horizon....my "real life" is in California, after all.
Food and mental health benefits aside, Luang Prabang has a fascinating history, and is a Unesco world heritage site. We visited the Royal Palace Museum, which primarily chronicles the life and reign of the country's most recent monarchs: King Sisavang Vong, who ruled the Kingdom of Luang Prabang and later the Kingdom of Laos until 1959, then the reign of his son Savang Vatthana until 1975. In 1975, Laos's capitol was moved to the city of Vientiane, and the monarchy was replaced by the Lao People's Democratic Republic (a one-party socialist government). It was fascinating to see the very recent relics of a monarchy: a garage filled with imported luxury cars, a gifted moon rock from the U.S. government, and the royals' generally gilded and brocaded lifestyle compared to the dusty poverty outside the palace gates....an old story that isn't very old.
Though Laos is a poor country, there is a wealth of spirituality in Luang Prabang, where it is difficult to walk half a block without seeing a Buddhist temple or cluster of tangerine-robed monks. Many tourists visiting Luang Prabang wake before sunrise to make offerings of sticky rice during a daily alms giving ceremony in which the town's entire population of monks forms a procession through the center of town. There is some controversy surrounding the integration of commercial tourism into this centuries-old ritual, and since I'm not a morning person, we opted to visit temples during the golden afternoon hours instead. We climbed pathways lined with stone dragons and reclining Buddhas to the shrine atop Mt. Phousi in the town's center, and explored the temple complexes of Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai Suwannapumaram, and several others. I particularly enjoyed hanging out with the friendly temple cats.
More highlights include a lazy boat ride on the Mekong River, a trip to the cascading Kuang Si Falls (which included a beautiful hike), a sunset yoga class on a platform overlooking the Mekong, and shopping in Luang Prabang's extensive night market. If I had to choose a city in Southeast Asia in which to live for an extended period of time, Luang Prabang would be high on my list. I hope to visit again someday.