Luang Prabang, Laos
We stepped off the Mekong river cruise in the old Laotian capital city of Luang Prabang. This is a great city for many reasons - they whole downtown is a UNESCO protected area and as such even as places and refurbished and the city updates to the expectations of the modern world, it maintains its peaceful old world vibe. There are more restaurants along the main street through town then there were 10 years ago, the amount of guest houses seems to have more then doubled. The night market has quadrupled in size, or at least it feels that way, but even with the changes the whole place is a sleepy relaxing break from wherever people come from, and we can easily understand how the "no real schedule" backpackers sometimes end up spending a week or more here.
As I said, the town is great - it's relatively small - and packet with more Buddhist Wat's then you would want to cover in a single day. But it really is everything else that draws people in, if you arrived here not knowing of all the possible day trips it'd take less then 10 minutes for you to get an idea about what Luang Prabang has to offer.
The travel agencies here are more numerous then neighborhood bars in Chicago, every street, every corner, guesthouse, hotel, tuk-tuk driver, and a few of the restaurants can organize tours for you. The only one's that I would avoid are the few that are still offering tours where you can ride elephants - it's become fairly standard in the Eco-tourism world, or if you just care about animals, to avoid these types of tours. Same as not giving money to begging kids or buying the bracelets they are selling, that's not helping them - it's better to give money to a local charity, library, or to provide them with toothbrushes. Those are the changes that we've seen that are definite improvements from the last time we were here, I don't recall seeing a single begging/selling child this time in LP, when back in 2008 they were roaming up the street in the evenings in packs.
Okay, so that's a really brief cover of general information about the general area. But what did we do? The waterfalls, the caves, the trips to the elephant sanctuaries, visits to one of the many still small native villages within the overall UNESCO site?
No, none of that, we did the lazy relaxing, the slow strolls through town, the simple visits of only a Wat or two per day. We considered Luang Prabang's biggest tourist attraction, the morning giving of alms to the monks, but since they do this at sunrise we deemed sleep more important. There are monks of all ages always wondering around this town, and at almost every Wat there are signs explaining how to be respectful when watching that alms giving process - Stay away from the monks with your camera, don't flash in their face, don't buy donations from the street vendors who will overcharge you for rice, be respectful. Common sense stuff really, but some people when traveling do seem to forget that others require their own personal space as well. And given that we had read it was an issue with it becoming too big of a tourist attraction last time we were here and skipped it then, we felt that the best way to continue to give them the respect they deserve was to stay in bed.
It turns out that five days of no plans, a nice guest house that provides a very filling breakfast every morning, and just wandering the streets is a perfect way to see this city. Especially if you've already been and visited some of the caves, villages, and waterfalls that are all an easy day trip.
The days went by too quick, and then it seemed like as soon as we had checked in we were checking out and heading to our next city. That's quite sad actually, as I had wanted to take advantage of the free bikes that the villa provided so that we could have just spent a day pedaling around and maybe heading a little further downstream on the Mekong and enjoying a picnic along the riverbank.
I guess that leaves us with a reason to return...