Luang Prabang is famous for its wats which are still in active use. Each morning the monks arise before dawn and head out into the surrounding streets to receive alms from the local population. The locals line the street with rice and other offerings which they place in the monk’s bowls and which constitute the monk’s food for the day. As Luang Prabang is a tourist town, the monk’s procession has also become a major tourist sight.
Whilst we did not want to intrude we were keen to see this, so on our second morning in Luang Prabang we were up really early as we needed to walk a couple of kilometres into the old town. Little did we know we were about to stumble on something a little different. As we left the guesthouse where we were parked, we could hear the chanting from the nearby Wat. We had been able to hear this gently in the distance all night and were intrigued as to what was going on. Our route to town took us past the Wat and when we got to the entrance we could see hundreds of people streaming in carrying offerings. These ranged from simple offerings of sticky rice to more elaborate ones in baskets with rolls of money attached to them. Monks were also arriving both on foot and by tuk tuk. Rather than proceeding into town we decided to follow everyone in to see what was happening. We had stumbled upon the That Luang festival, which is held during the full moon in November.
We found a spot towards the side so that we were well out of the way, where we were befriended by a young monk who helped explain the festival to us. He was keen to practice his English and we were keen to understand what was going on. He explained that instead of the monks filing out of the temples as normal, on this day the monks came to this temple to receive offerings of food and money from local people. It was a spectacular sight and at its peak there were well over a thousand people jammed into the grounds of the Wat. They sat down on mats on the floor until the chief monk made a blessing and then they all lined up to hand over their offerings to place them in the bowls and big bin bags lining a row of tables in the centre.
A lot of the local people were dressed in their finest and as it got light the place was a mass of people and monks. It was lovely to witness such an ancient festival. We could not help but smile though at some of the modern touches. We were not the only ones taking photos, some of the monks were taking them on their smart phones and a lot of the locals had their selfie sticks with them. Clearly it was a big event and it felt a real privilege to be a part of it.
A few days before, we had left Vientiane and started heading North. We stopped to camp by a large lake that had been created by a dam. Here we met Christoph who ran a small guesthouse and a small animal rescue centre. He kindly showed us the monkeys and bear that had been rescued from animal traders. The bear had arrived as a tiny cub and had needed lots of work to look after at first. Whilst it’s never nice to see animals behind bars, it was better than what they could have been subjected to.
The next morning, we were taken to see some of the monkeys that had been relocated onto an island in the lake. We didn’t go onto the island itself as the monkeys are wild but were able to see them from the boat. Christoph still feeds the monkeys on the island even though there is probably enough natural food for them there. He does this for two reasons. Firstly by going to the island each day it signals to the locals that someone is interested in the monkeys and they shouldn’t be poached. Secondly the monkeys can swim and as they are used to humans, they could swim back to the mainland in search of food.
We continued to drive North to the village of Vang Vieng, which up until a couple of years ago was a real drug and drunken hangout on the backpacker trail. Fortunately it’s cleaned itself up as it is in a beautiful setting on the river with karst cliffs behind. We tried to do a hike but the paths kept becoming over grown so we gave up and instead found a beautiful camping spot right on the river just outside of town.
On our short walk we were given a stark reminder of what we had learned in Vientiane about all the unexploded bombs around the country. As we walked there were lots of examples of bomb casings (now safe) been used for things like metal posts. These are becoming increasingly common as we head North.
There are two roads from Van Vieng to Luang Prabang. Route 13 is the original road which twists up and over the mountains. Route 4 is the new route. It is shorter and less twisty but it goes over a mountain range with a pass at 1850m. Although it’s less twisty the road up and down is a long 12 per cent gradient. Having driven far higher in the Andes with few problems, we thought we would take the shorter route. Whilst the road was good it was steep and as we approached the top of the mountain we became enveloped in cloud. Towards the top, the road had deteriorated due to landslides and the tar became sticky mud in places. Just before the very top two small, very overloaded trucks were stuck. Thoughtfully, they had ensured no one else could get through. After persuading one of the drivers to back down a little we engaged 4wd and managed to pass quite easily. They must have unloaded some of their stuff to get up the last bit of the hill, as they whizzed past us a few hours later.
Apart from the obvious tourist delights in Luang Prabang there was another reason we were looking forward to getting there. Gilly’s sister Clare and her boyfriend Noel are travelling around Asia and had arranged to meet us there. It was lovely to see them and catch up on their travels.
We spent our time with them visiting the various Wats and the Royal Palace but Alisha and Lucy weren’t interested in any of this they just wanted to hear Aunty Clare tell them stories. Fortunately they are staying in Luang Prabang longer than us, so if they missed some of the sights on our look around they can always go back to them.
Overall Luang Prabang is a peaceful, pretty town with plenty of places to eat. Whilst there are a lot of tourists it doesn’t seem overrun by them except at the top of the hill for sunset. We headed up there with what seemed like everyone else one evening to enjoy the view.
Whilst in Luang Prabang we also caught up with Robert Dolven who was riding his motorbike around the world. He had passed us just outside Vang Vieng and stopped to say hi. As we were heading the same way he joined us for dinner and a few beers one night and it made for a great evening. There was no way though I was going to be rising with the monks the next morning.
One morning we took a boat across the Mekong and went for a short hike along the river bank. On pulling out the iPad to check the map, I had a quick check of the BBC front page. To my surprise along with the usual stories about Trump and Putin was a picture of Lucy walking up a sand dune in Namibia. BBC Travel had done an interview with us back in Australia about schooling your children while travelling and had just released it on their international website. If you are interested in the article non UK readers can see it at
If you are in the UK try the following link:
After a lovely few days with Clare and Noel it was time for us to move on. We never did see the monks filing out from their Wats to collect alms but the one time we rose early enough we had a memorable early morning with them at their festival.