Doing Nothing in Luang Prabang

3rd February 2014

Luang Prabang is my favourite place to do nothing; this World Heritage town lends itself perfectly to riverside coffees (or cocktails!), writing, reading, sketching – or just soaking up the colonial charm of the wooden houses, leafy gardens and sleepy temples dotted along the narrow peninsular between the Nam Kham and Mekong rivers.

I’ve been returning to Luang Prabang regularly for ten years now – and I’m no less charmed than I was that first time. It’s an even more special experience to share the sights, sounds and tastes and with a WF group – especially since adopting Laos as my home.

Our adventure began with early morning boat trip upstream with an ‘Apocalypse Now’ feel to it; mist lifted from the Mekong as we twisted around rock clusters en route the auspicious Pak Ou caves. We climbed the steps between the two Buddha stuffed caves just as the sun finally lifted enough to reflect off the cliffs opposite. Beneath these cliffs the Ou River finally emptied out into the mighty Mekong. We soaked up the atmosphere as we wandered, with just the flicker of torch light momentarily illuminating the ancient broken Buddhas which had been crammed into the back of the caves.

Back in Luang Prabang we sat on small chairs lunching beside the road, enjoying one of Laos’ culinary pleasures – traditional noodle soup (‘fur’). Introducing people to new food sensations is something I do with enthusiasm; soon we were colouring and seasoning the clear broth with spices and sauces. Adding fresh crunchy vegetables and a twist of lime completed the ceremony – before we enthusiastically slurped on the national dish.

After a little ‘do nothing’ time – which the ladies took as a green light to do business in the town's wonderful craft shops – it was time to enjoy another local experience. So we sat ourselves among locals in a small wooden chamber to enjoy a traditional steam bath. Beneath us a vat of bumbling natural herbs boiled atop a wood fire that sent fragrant steam up through the wooden floor. A massage completed this thoroughly relaxing experience before we tantalized the taste buds again with a traditional Lao platter at Tamarind, the Luang Prabang foodie experience!

The following morning the sun peeped out earlier and caught the gilted Nagas (mythical serpents) that decorated the multi-tiered roof of Wat Xieng Thong, one of the most beautiful temples in Laos. Later we drove out into the surrounding countryside to Kung Si waterfalls, a stunningly beautiful series of cascades and pools, turned a surreal turquoise colour by the calcium carbonate sediments in the water.

After an afternoon break to ‘do nothing’ we regrouped as the sun dipped to listen to the monks chanting hypnotically at Visun temple. Chants turned to beats a little later as we watched the wonderful ‘Ethnik’ fashion show. Slightly shy Lao youths wearing traditional outfits paraded along a catwalk in a tastefully lit tropical garden. A Lao style cook-at-the-table barbeque beside the river capped a splendid day.

The next morning we found time to observe Tak Bat – Buddhist alms collection – before we flew south to the warmth and beauty of Siphan don ‘4000 islands’. In murky winter mist we waited as a procession of saffron wrapped, barefoot monks ceremoniously accepted offerings of rice from the towns ladies, handing out blessings in return.

Despite packing the days with activities and experiences, our early starts had rewarded us with plenty of time for ‘doing nothing’ – just enjoying Luang Prabang at its best.

Mark Steadman

Before he was five Mark's adventurous parents swapped the crowded streets of South London for the sandy beaches of South Australia. By the time he was…

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