Monks in Luang Prabang

Natalie Bannister discovers the charms of Luang Prabang

In Adventure & Discovery, Articles by Natalie Bannister

The elderly ladies cluster around and chant words in a language I cannot understand, taking turns to tie white cotton threads around my wrists, layer upon layer, their soft mantras bestowing me with happiness, prosperity, good health and safe travels. Lao Buddhists believe that humans are made up of 32 organs or entities, each with a spirit or ‘khuan’ to protect them, but these spirits often wander outside the body, causing imbalance of the soul. I’m told that the tying of these threads on my wrists represents the yoking of the 32 spirits to my body, restoring harmony. Through taking part in this ancient Baci ceremony, I’ve just been put back together.

Luang Prabang's Old Town’s streets
are pure romance
The Old Town’s streets are pure romance

It’s one final blessing to take home with me after four beautiful days in Luang Prabang, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of gilded temples and colonial-era splendour in northern Laos. We’ve received many blessings in other forms on this trip – moments and gifts for the soul, from invocations at sunrise by saffron-robed monks and having our heads anointed by gentle giants, to cleansing our bodies in crystal-clear cascades and bathing in the majesty of sunset over the mighty Mekong. Little wonder we’ve fallen in love with Luang Prabang – this place is brimming with a special beauty unlike any other Southeast Asia destination I’ve been to before.

With its mix of Buddhist wonders and well-preserved colonial French Indochina-era villas and shopfronts, Luang Prabang is a pleasure to explore and discover, and you can easily cover it all in just a few days. We begin our trip with a stay at Pullman Luang Prabang, a thoroughly relaxing resort hotel set in countryside a short drive out of town. With its suites and semi-detached villas laid out among landscaped pathways, streams, ponds, pools and paddy fields, in the style of traditional Lao terrace housing, it’s very much about connecting to the natural environment here. The hotel is one of the city’s most socially responsible – they source as much as possible from local and sustainable businesses, from buying fruit and vegetables, herbs and seeds from the NamKhan Project, a nearby eco-farm, and using buffalo milk cheeses and yoghurt from Laos Buffalo Dairy, an Australian-run enterprise that works with people from local villages to provide the families with a regular income stream. And those lush green rice terraces that surround the property? They’re not just for show – the resort has a cooperative of local farmers working the fields in the traditional way using water buffalo, an arrangement that gives them 60 per cent of the harvested rice, with the remaining 40 per cent going to the resort kitchen. Pullman Luang Prabang also donates the unused rice husks to a local elephant sanctuary, which is where we’re headed on our first day.

Elephants at MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary in Luang Prabang
Elephants enjoy a snack at MandaLao

MandaLao Elephant Conservation Camp is home to a small herd of retired and rescued elephants that have spent the majority of their lives in demanding physical labour, from logging to long days of giving rides to tourists. Now rehabilitated, they live a comfortable life free to roam as they would in the wild, and with no chains. Elephants like Mae Tu came to MandaLao from a local riding camp along with her devoted trainer, or ‘mahout’. Gan Siha considers himself her lifelong companion – many of the mahouts here grew up with their elephant and left the logging camps with their charge. Where previously his job was about training and disciplining the elephant, here at MandaLao, the only duties for Gan Siha are simply making sure Mae Tu is fed, healthy and happy. Visitors to MandaLao are welcome to join them elephants’ daily routine, and we are eager to board the rafts that take us across the Nam Khan river to meet them. Feeding time offers up banana bunches and sugar cane, which we pass directly into their trunks, and I relish the chance to escort them through the forest, thanked in return with a kiss of Mae Tu’s trunk on the crown of my head. Blessed, truly, by a gentle giant. 

Back in town, we head out to get a better feel for Luang Prabang. Many of the city’s 34 UNESCO-protected temples (wats) are located within the compact Old Town, and a stroll around this quiet quarter feels like a step back in time. It’s easy enough to take a leisurely self-guided walking tour, or rent a bicycle to get around – many of the local hotels, including our next destination, Sofitel Luang Prabang – offer complimentary pedal power, and with quiet streets to navigate, it’s a delightful way to explore. Located in the peaceful residential area of Ban Mano in a century-old colonial mansion on the grounds of the former French Governor’s residence, Sofitel Luang Prabang is gentrified and sophisticated, and totally charming. It feels like your own private haven of calm and cool, with only 25 all-suite guests rooms within its fortified walls, all with private courtyard and oversized outdoor bathtub (four with their own pool), and lush botanical gardens and serene ponds dotted throughout the property (keep an eye out for the resident rabbits!).

Sofitel Luang Prabang
Sofitel Luang Prabang

Each room lends a touch of old-world nostalgia with traditional textiles and a four-poster bed draped with fine muslin cloth. There’s also a central swimming pool with sun beds and lounges that offer cool respite and the perfect perch for a cocktail on a balmy afternoon after a day of shopping and sightseeing. The mansion’s colonial charms have been beautifully restored by Sofitel, with a refined sensibility and a nod to Laos culture. The reception area alone includes two wooden houses at either side that were transported here from the North to create a beautiful Laotian-style courtyard (which is the scene of our Baci ceremony later on).

Morning is where the magic is in Luang Prabang, and on our third day we wake at the crack of dawn. Local tour experts Trails of Indochina are picking us up from the hotel, and we’re heading out on to the streets to take part in the daily ritual of tak bat, the almsgiving ceremony that takes place at sunrise every day. Hundreds of monks leave their respective temples to traverse the streets in long, straight lines, bare foot and carrying large, heavy alms bowls over one shoulder, to receive offerings of sticky rice from the local Buddhist population. The main street of town is often overcrowded with tourists vying for a kerbside spot – wholly removed from any level of serenity – so we’re heading instead to a quiet residential street where a row of low red stools has been set up in anticipation of our arrival. Our guide takes us through the proper motions – we must stay seated and below the monks at all times as a sign of respect. And then there’s the art of pinching the perfect golfball-sized amount of warm, sticky rice from our bamboo baskets, rolling it in our fingers to form a ball, ready to drop into each monk’s bowl as they pass. It’s a surprisingly fast process – the monks pause for mere seconds to receive their offering and quietly chant in unison outside each home in thanks – and before we know it they’re a blur of orange beacons on the horizon. Blessed by monks at hyper-speed.

Nam Khan bamboo
bridge is rebuilt each year after heavy rainfall in Luang Prabang
Nam Khan bamboo bridge is rebuilt each year after heavy rainfall

We carry on afterwards for a sunrise stroll and cross the rickety old Nam Khan bamboo bridge (it’s washed away each year in the rainy season when the river floods, only to be rebuilt), to sit and watch the old town come to life. We find the perfect perch, coffee and croissant in hand, at Saffron Coffee’s Espresso, Brew Bar and Roastery, which is housed in a restored wooden terrace. There’s plenty of reasons to stay around town, but you can’t miss the chance to take the short drive out to see one of the prettiest cascades in all of Southeast Asia, Kuang Si Waterfall. We dive in to one of the three turquoise swimming holes and float around for a good hour in the cool water, which is so refreshing on a hot and humid day, before heading to a far more secret gem, Carpe Diem. Tucked away in a lush green pocket a few minutes’ walk down the road from the falls, this Swiss-owned restaurant is a must – the food is great, but the scene is even better, with a river rushing through and views of the local village, where kids swim and play in quiet lagoons.

The Kuang Si Waterfall offers a refreshing place to swim

Our last day in Luang Prabang is sleepy and quiet, much like the Old Town itself, and the afternoon ends where the city’s life starts: on the mighty Mekong. Sofitel Luang Prabang has arranged the perfect experience to end our stay, with an afternoon cruise aboard the luxurious Mekong Kingdoms river boat, and we putt gently and slowly downriver, passing fisherman in canoesand temples hidden in the jungle as the sun melts into the magnificent river.

Later that evening, we make our way to 3 Nagas in the Old Quarter, a series of heritage-listed houses that have been reimagined as a boutique hotel by MGallery by Sofitel. Dining under the stars in the hotel’s Khamboua Garden, we feast on Laotian favourites, like spicy and sour Mekong River fish soup, mhok het (steamed mushrooms and Lao herbs wrapped in banana leaves), and richly spiced curries – all washed down with whisky cocktails, folk music and dancing.

Boutique hotel 3 Nagas is set in colonial-era houses in Luang Prabang
Boutique hotel 3 Nagas is set in colonial-era houses

Four nights in Luang Prabang was perfection – but I could definitely stay longer. The elders at the Baci ceremony told us to keep the threads on our wrists for at least three days to ensure the blessings settled in, and as we queue to catch our flight the next day, I’m relieved to see they’re hanging on strong. Weeks later the sacred threads are still around my wrists, frayed and looking a little worse for wear, but I’m in no rush to untie them. I’m bound to the many blessings I received in Laos’ most enchanting city.

The Details:

WEBSITES TO KNOW
all.accor.com; pullman-luangprabang.com; sofitel-luangprabang.com; mandalaotours.com; trailsofindochina.com; mekongkingdoms.com; 3-nagas.com

GETTING THERE
Scoot operates direct flights from Singapore to Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Laos three times per week, with easy connections to most major cities in Australia. flyscoot.com

The writer travelled as a guest of Accor and Scoot Airlines