Getting up before 6am when you’re on holiday? Nawww.
But hang on, what if you’re staying in a little time capsule of a place, where old spiritual traditions still linger beyond (in spite of?) the wi-fi and the lattes and the souvenir shops. And what if, in order to bear witness to these traditions, you have to haul your carcass from your gigantic squishy mattress while your eyes are still sealed shut? Well then, you do it, don’t you.
Monks and morons
Luang Prabang is famous for the tak bat, the morning alms procession of the monks. Just after dawn breaks the monks walk in line, oldest first, and collect food from almsgivers (generally women) who sit by the roadside patiently awaiting their arrival. Good quality rice is specially prepared for them in the mornings. The ritual makes merit for the almsgivers, and is morning meditation for the monks as well as an opportunity to connect with the laypeople.
I creep up to one of the balconies at Lotus Villa which will give me the perfect vantage point. I need to be silent and get there before the procession comes through as it’s important I don’t make any noise that could disturb them during their meditation. I also need to switch off my camera flash as it would be another rude distraction.
Despite the fact that it’s virtually impossible to miss the guidelines around town about respecting the spiritual nature of the procession – keeping your distance from the monks, not creating a distraction, dressing respectfully and not pushing camera lenses in their faces – there is still a western tourist in the middle of the road pushing a camera lens in their faces.
Lady, you represent every one of us tourists, and with your giant lack of respect you are the reason this ritual might soon be a thing of the past.
The prince forced to watch Frozen one too many times?
Later that morning the gritty grey sky breaks and we head to Thanon Sisavangvong, the Royal Palace Museum to escape the rain. On the way we pass a temple where the meaty hum of monks chanting mingles with the damp air outside.
The palace is markedly understated compared to the flamboyant opulence of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. It has high white ceilings, dark wooden floors, minimal artwork and virtually no shiny things. In a weird kind of way it reminds me of the creaking old rectory where I grew up. It suits the impression I’ve had of Laos so far – ostentatiousness doesn’t seem to feature. Perhaps not surprising given the low levels of wealth and communist rule.
Along the palace corridors are artworks depicting the different stages of the Vessantara Jataka, a folk tale popular in Theravada Buddhism. It captures my interest because basically, there’s this prince Vessantara and he keeps giving away everything, and he gives away this really rare white elephant, and he gets exiled for it. So I’m following this tale picture by picture, wondering what will happen next. And then he gives away his kids. Talk about a twist! I mean it all ends happily, and I get the analogy about selflessness, but I do wonder how well it would go down with Mumsnet…
Doughnut death stare
We poke about the backstreet food market enjoying the sights and sounds, but maybe not so much the smells… there’s some funky business going down in the offal section. A lady frying doughnuts in a wok clearly has a dough-dar and zeroes in on me, smiling as she offers me her sweet sweet wares. I’m being tractor beamed in but as I stomp toward her have a sudden awareness of my belly rippling with each step and decline. She gives a huff and a pout and looks the other way.
From the quiet heights of the Indigo House café we enjoy the views of town, then head off for an explore. We pass stalls flogging smoothies and waterfall tours to the tourists. In front of one of them, two dogs square up to each other, before launching into a barking match. The stallholder leaps up with a bark of his own. The dogs settle instantly, lowering their saggy bellies onto the grainy pavement.
At the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre we examine handmade costumes woven painstakingly by local women. Traditionally girls start learning handicrafts from a young age. Each pattern has its own meaning and is passed down through generations. With an 80% rural population, trading these goods is an important source of income for the people of Laos. The museum has an entire section devoted to the role of females in Laos culture, celebrating their skills and strength. Go there if you find yourself in Luang Prabang.
We do more wandering, into a part of town with less of the colonial grandeur than the section along the Mekong. Its own charm lies in ramshackle wooden houses and lazy dogs. Glossy orb spiders strung on giant webs are screened against the sky.
From here we can climb Mount Phousi from the opposite direction, discovering a Buddhist shrine nestled into a rocky cave. A lizard peeks from a nearby rock, sharing the view of Laos laid out before us.