Featured Writer: Merima Baralic de Ramirez
Sitting at the back of an old van, you are in for a long ride. It takes almost 12 hours from the Vientiane, the capital city, to the next destination in North Laos, but you are not tired. On the contrary! You don’t feel the bumps on the road or the sharp curves through the tiny villages in the middle of these pristine mountains along the way.
You are preoccupied by the exquisite scenery – stretches of large stones and never-ending hills covered with palm trees, the tiny palm-leaf huts, red earth covering the feet of children playing on the streets and colours, lots of exquisite and vivid colours.
Every once in a while an occasional snake or a cow crosses the road. You see a banana-selling stand on the side of the road and pass many schools where children play freely in huge open-air school playgrounds.
You are hypnotised by the serenity and calmness of The Kingdom of Laos, one of the most magical countries in Asia.
Despite tourism picking up and becoming an upcoming hotspot for European travelers, Laos is still fairly bound to its traditions not allowing the flowing tourists to disrupt the way of life. With behaviour instruction posters and tips on how to communicate with the Lao people, it seems very foreign and distant to the western world yet it remains intriguing and attracts millions of tourists each year.
One place in particular is a spot you don’t want to miss if you visit the Kingdom of a Million Elephants – Luang Prabang. They call it the “Jewel of Indochina”.
It is a city trapped in time where the day starts at sunrise with the morning alms and offerings to the hundreds of monks who inhabit this precious 15-century city.
This city, flooded with tourists and agencies, tiny souvenir shops and massage/beauty parlours may come across as ‘nothing different’ from any other city in the region but when you realise how much history, charisma and charm this city has you instantly want to stay longer.
Each day ends with the opening of the buzzing night market covering several streets filled with crafts, art and silk in every shape and form.
Luang Prabang was the capital of Laos in the 14th century. The city was known as Muang Sawa but changed its name soon after Cambodian officials sent the great (Luang) gold Buddha (the Prabang) as a gift to the people of the city. The Prabang is the symbol of the city today and sits in the National Museum which used to be the King’s palace.
Luang Prabang is the point on the map, where the great brown Mekong River (flowing South) and the green Mae Kok River (flowing East) meet.
The exact point is a whirlpool not far away from the centre of the city where both the green and the brown river meet and build an incredible playground for the children (who otherwise cannot swim in either of the rivers due to the strong currents). This is exactly where the UNESCO Heritage and Natural Site statue sits, in the shade of the palm trees, overlooking the merging of the two rivers.
Not far away from this location is the mini port where visitors rent long boats to take them for an incredible journey up the river towards some of the most amazing Buddha statue filled caves in Asia. This may as well be the most vivid memory of the trip: a 4 hour trip up and down the river, listening to the sound of the boat engine slowly making its way through the brown-yellow water flowing all the way from China. Due to the fact that February was dry season, several islands had emerged from the river and you could see the people watering rice on the river banks and fishing close to these islands.
Only the experienced can fish and sail through these rivers. The river seemed to be the only wild thing in the whole of Laos.
As we made our way to the caves, children are tugging at our clothes, selling tiny birds in small cages. One dollar, one dollar! They shout at us. The guide explains it is a tradition to release birds for good fortune and the children seemed to have picked up well on the tradition. We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting rice whiskey villages and drinking the traditional dark Lao beer by the river side in the cool February breeze.
We finish our boat trip and want more. The guide smiles at us and points us to an enormous golden roof-like structure peeking through a jungle of palm tree leafs. The shine of the building in the afternoon sun was surreal. It is the biggest, most beautiful Buddhist temple I have ever seen.
Built in the 16th century for the King himself, Wat Xieng Thong is certainly the most exquisite building of them all. Decorated with coloured glass and gold, it was built in the traditional Luang Prabang style which means low, wide and dark from the outside decorated with many details on the outer as well an inner part of the walls.
Its roof stretches rather low and is decorated with many images and Mother Earth sculptures. About 50 monks and students live in this temple. It is a complex of several buildings where Monks eat, sleep and pray. Once you enter the temple you are blown away by the massive golden sculptures of Buddha, shining down towards the entrance, sitting in various postures, spreading harmony and calmness all over the space expelling all negativity.
You cannot help but close your eyes and let you mind be at peace.
There over 30 temples like this in Luang Prabang and you can see all of them from the hill top (Mount Phousi) overlooking the rivers, the town and beyond. It is a common spot for both locals and tourists to watch the sunset from.
They call Laos one of the poorest countries in the region and I call it one of the richest countries I’ve ever seen, flooded with culture and traditions, history and customs. It could surely be called a natural haven for the westerners.
Maintaining its tranquillity in every palm tree, every long boat and every silk scarf selling corner shop, Laos is most certainly the ideal get away from the bustling world.
Read more from this author at: http://itraveliam.com/