By Carol Hoyt
I never expected to be kneeling barefoot on a blanket on a sidewalk in Luang Prabang at 6:30am, waiting in anticipation for a traditional morning ritual. We were given instructions to dress appropriately meaning shoulders, chest and legs should be covered. We were to remain silent, make no physical or eye contact, refrain from taking close up photos, and absolutely no flash. There were a few others there already, some with coffee and pastries, the odd vendor selling bananas. It was our privilege to take part in Tak Bat, the monks’ alms procession. We each had a basket with about thirty biscuits to give and then they came, about three hundred barefoot saffron clad monks each carrying a bowl to receive alms. Remaining in our kneeling positions, we simply placed our biscuits into a monk’s bowl, which they would take back to their twelve monasteries for breakfast and lunch. For me, it was a very moving, but solemn procession, and in a true spirit of giving and receiving.
We were a group of seven intrepid travelers on a sixteen day tour of Laos and now in the UNESCO world heritage site of Luang Prabang, population 70,000. The town is in a beautiful mountain setting at the confluence of the Mekong and Nan Khan Rivers. There is a bamboo bridge across the Nan Khan which is lit up at night, and beautiful gardens can be seen on the other side. Luang Prabang is a charming town with many French colonial homes restored, as well as other buildings, housing shops, coffee houses, restaurants and guest homes. There is an abundance of shopping – textiles, books, jewelry, and handcrafts, primarily on one street. Restaurants are plentiful, including on the waterfront, which makes for a pleasant evening meal. I was happy to visit a shop called Big Brother Mouse, selling books for children of all ages. They were available for purchase by travelers and the suggestion was to distribute them to village children. After reading, that child was to share the book with another, thus increasing literacy across the country. In the same vein, we visited the Nat Xieng Mouane, a large monastery with a training centre for young monks where they would learn skills which will be used to maintain temples.
There are sixty-four temples and fifteen hundred monks in Luang Prabang. We saw several including Wat Xieng Thong, the most visited, which dates back to 1559 AD. It is a large complex housing the sim (ordination hall), several stupas and other small buildings. There is a striking Tree of Life on an exterior wall of the sim, and beautiful mosaics depicting local village life throughout the complex. There are many Buddha’s, as in all of the temples we saw. I was struck by the exquisite funeral chariot which had been used to carry ashes of Lao royalty to their final resting place. It was a surprise to me to see an open sided shelter housing two very long boats which could accommodate fifty rowers. These boats symbolize the Buddha calling for rain, and are used in two yearly festivals, Bun Pi Mao (the Lao New Year in April) and Bun Nam (the river festival in October). Visounnarath is known as the watermelon stupa as its shape is similar. It dates back to 1503AD. We first saw a beautiful statue of The Protectress of the Earth, under a large banyon tree. The Buddha here was so large, that the temple was actually built around him. We also saw an example of writing from the 17th century written in a language called Pali.
The Royal Palace Museum is well worth a visit. The Royal Palace was built in 1904, and used as such until 1975 when the Lao monarchy came to an end. It reopened in 1988 as a museum and has many fine paintings, mosaics and various collections.
The morning market was typical of many I have seen, with food both cooked and uncooked. There were live ducks and fish for sale. We saw some very tasty khaokhieb (biscuits with spices) being made as well as tiny pancakes that looked inviting. Something new to me was live caged birds that we could release for a fee. Our guide said they are much like homing pigeons, and will return! There is also a large evening market, with handcrafts for sale.
From Luang Prabang, it is a thirty kilometer drive to Tat Kuang Si (Jungle Park). For the most part, we were on a narrow winding road through some pretty country. It is a mountainous area, with dense forest including lovely looking stands of teak. There were gardens and rice fields, some backpackers, but very little vehicular traffic. We made an unplanned stop at a Mahasat (rebirth of the Buddha) celebration, in a small village. This takes place approximately every three years as there is not enough money for a yearly celebration. The community was most welcoming, both with their smiles and offers of water. Most were wearing red clothing, so it was a colorful event. There were money trees among the Buddha’s and other relics.
We enjoyed two walking tours in The Hmong village of Na Oean and the Khumu village of Thapen on the way to Tat Kuang Si. Thapen seemed much more prosperous with sturdy well built homes, and well fed people. In Thapen, we saw a Buddha being carved from a type of ebony, and another person splitting bamboo to make benches and chairs which were on display. There was a lovely red temple completed in 1910, with a deer and hermit on the left and right side of The Buddha, which represented both in the area. We watched with delight several children frolicking in the local watering hole.
During our ten minute climb in Tat Kuang Si (Jungle Park), we saw lovely waterfalls, children rope jumping and swimming in small pools of water, and a bear enclosure housing Asiatic black bears. Information about the park was plentiful, including a local legend of how the falls were formed – “a wise old man beckoned the waters of Nan Xi by digging deep into the earth. After the waters came to Kuang Si, a beautiful golden deer made its home under a rock that protruded from the falls. So Tat Kuang Si gets its name from “Tat” meaning waterfall, “Kuang” which means deer and “Si” which means “dig”. The sound of the water falling on the rock created a mesmerizing echo that drew people to the waterfall from as far away as China. The rock has since fallen into the base of the falls but many visitors still come to admire this very special place.”
The park is a National protected area and is largely a moist evergreen forest park with migrating birds, snakes, the lesser mouse deer, squirrels, small to medium size cats, butterflies, insects and lizards. To protect the Asiatic black bear of Laos, primarily from poachers, this reserve has been developed, the bears being fed from the proceeds from souvenirs. I especially enjoyed watching the bears foraging for their food, and their interaction with one another.
After the visit to Tat Kuang Si, we stopped at Xang Khong, a village near Luang Prabang, where we saw traditional sa paper being made. Close by was a weaving workshop, with beautiful pieces for sale. For me, Luang Prabang in Laos was a most interesting and charming place to visit.
Travel Information for Laos
-Eldertreks offers a 16 day trip for travelers 50 and over. All meals, accommodations and tour guides are included. They can be reached at 1-800-741-7956 or www.eldertreks.com/brochure.
-A visa is required for entry into Laos. Their requirements can change, so it is important to get current information.
-Shoulders, chest and legs need to be covered when visiting temples and monasteries. Shoes must be removed at the entrance.
-Refer to Foreign Affairs Canada for up-to-date travel advisories.
About the Author Carol Hoyt is a casual registered social worker with Alberta Health Services, after retiring two years ago. She travels extensively, and particularly enjoys learning about different cultures. While at home, spending time with family and baking are priorities.