After the final packets of biscuits and dollops of sticky rice had been dropped into the monks’ pots during Luang Prabang’s daily alms giving ceremony, I followed the saffron robed procession through the rear gate of Wat Xieng Thong. A bold sun rode majestically into a robin’s egg sky, igniting the gilt facade of the chariot house on one side of the courtyard. On the other side, sparks burst from a colored glass mosaic tree of life that adorned an entire wall of one of the temples. Squinting in the dazzling light I wandered around Wat Xieng Thong, the Temple of the Golden City, reputedly the most beautiful temple in Laos.
The monks vanished into their quarters and alms givers melted back into their hotels and houses, leaving me mostly alone. I fought the temptation to go back to the Luang Say Residence and slide beneath the silky duvet on my enormous four-poster bed for a few more hours of delicious sleep, deciding instead to make the most of the morning light by touring some of the city’s historic temples.
According to legend, the Buddha smiled when he rested for a day at the sire of present day Luang Prabang, prophesying that it would become a rich and powerful capital city. The prophesy came true; for hundreds of years Luang Prabang served as both the capital of the powerful kingdom of Lan Xang, whose wealth and influence can be attributed to its location at a crossroads on the Silk Route, and the center of Buddhism in the region. The city lost its capital designation in the 15th century but remained the seat of the royal family until the communists took over in 1975 and dissolved the monarchy, and is still considered to be the spiritual and artistic center of Laos. More than 30 of the town’s original 60+ temples have been preserved and are scattered across the narrow peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers that forms the heart of the city. Reflecting diverse architectural influences that range from an era when neighboring Thailand invaded to the French occupation in the 19th and 20th centuries, most are easily seen on a walking tour around neighborhoods where traditional Lao huts stand shoulder to shoulder with stately French colonial mansions. In addition to Wat Xieng Thong (above) the more spectacular temples in this UNESCO World Heritage town include the following:
Wat Visounnarath (also known as Wat Visoun or Wat Wisunarat)
The deceptively simple exterior of the sim (chapel) did not prepare me for the collection of centuries-old bronze and gilded Buddha statues house inside, all clustered around a behemoth gold Buddha that smiles benignly down on visitors. Built in the earliest Lao architectural style, Wat Visoun is the oldest functioning wat in Luang Prabang and is unique for the sloping front roof that covers the entrance. However it is most famous for its lotus stupa, which Lao people call Makmo or watermelon stupa due to its rounded dome, the only one of its kind in Laos.
Wat Souvanna Khiri
Near the end of the peninsula, where the Nam Khan River makes a sharp bend before entering the Mekong, I wandered into Wat Souvanna Khiri, the Monastery of the Golden Mountain. Interesting for its melange of architecture, which combines an early Lao style sim and outbuildings with French colonial mansions that are used as residences for the monks, the real fascination at this temple was a note tacked on the wall about chanting ceremonies with the monks, held every afternoon at 5:30 p.m. I returned later that same day and sat cross legged at the back of the tiny chapel, letting the soothing drone of the chants wash over my body and settle my mind. Read More
In the grainy gray light just before dawn I stole from my suite at the Luang Say Residence and walked the silent streets of Luang Prabang to witness Binthabhat, the daily practice of giving alms to monks in Luang Prabang, Laos. I was conflicted over this event. As a photographer I desperately wanted to take photos of the spiritual procession but as a Buddhist I wanted to show my respect for the sangha, the community of ordained monks. I compromised, shoving my camera into my backpack with a commitment that I wouldn’t take a single photo until I had first participated in the alms-giving ceremony, believed by Theravadan Buddhists to be a means of earning merit that may lead to a better next life or lessen the number of times they must be reincarnated before achieving nirvana.
My peaceful morning was shattered as I approached the edge of the historic district. Women rushed into a wooden shack lit by a single flickering bulb, loaded wicker baskets with sticky rice and spring rolls and bustled back out, carrying the food on long bamboo sticks hefted across their shoulders. One of them locked and loaded on me like a heat-seeking missile. Before I knew what was happening, she had spread a woven mat on the sidewalk, shoved me into a kneeling position, and slapped a basket of food in front of me. I looked up just in time to see the first procession of monks emerge from the gloom like a ghost ship on foggy seas. “How much?” I asked anxiously. “30,000 Kip,” she said curtly. (about $4 U.S.) There was no time to negotiate; the monks were steps away, already sweeping aside the shiny silver lids of their alms pots in preparation for receiving my donation.
Being careful not to touch their pots, I carefully dropped a scoop of sticky rice and spring roll into each as the monks glided past and effortlessly melted back into the gloom. Just as I was about to run out of food my eagle-eye vendor so artfully deposited a second basket at my knees that I didn’t miss a single pot. When the last saffron robed Read More
The white yacht that had so majestically delivered me from northern Thailand into Laos pulled into Luang Prabang on day two and was immediately assaulted by a pack of urchins who crawled through the windows and battled over our luggage. My instincts were not fast enough; before I knew it a disheveled boy barely larger than my bag was clambering up the steep stairs with my duffel in tow. Though I tried to keep him in my sights, the uneven concrete steps demanded my attention and he soon scampered out of view, leaving me to wonder if I would ever see my luggage again. Under a blistering afternoon sun I scaled the stairway, wishing that my sadness over leaving the boat could be erased as easily as I swept away the sweat stinging my eyes. The Luang Say Cruise had ended too soon; nothing would have pleased me more than to stay on that lovely boat, sailing down the Mekong River forever.
Fortunately, my gloom was short lived. Like balm for a bee sting, representatives of the Luang Say Residence met me at the top of the staircase with a bottle of icy water and a chilled, lemongrass-scented towel. I hopped into the waiting van, where my luggage had magically been deposited, and slapped the towel on the back of my neck. Our ten minute ride to the newest luxury resort in Luang Prabang provided a tantalizing glimpse of traditional Lao wooden houses, French colonial buildings, and exquisite ancient temples that promised this ancient spiritual center would be fascinating. By the time we pulled into the sweeping circular entryway of the resort, any remaining disappointment over leaving the cruise had vanished.
Following a refreshing glass of lemongrass tea and a brief check-in procedure, I was escorted through gardens planted with exotic grasses and palms to one of the Pioneer Suites, a detached two-story building that housed four units, two on the ground level and two on the second floor. Though pleasant looking, the simple exterior of the Pioneer Suites belied their luxury; I stepped across the threshold and beheld a four-poster king size bed draped in soft mosquito netting; sitting area with sofa and coffee table; private balcony; writing desk; large flat screen TV; mini bar; wardrobe with in-room safe, bathrobe and slippers; and huge marbled bathroom with his and hers sinks, closet toilet, spacious shower with rain head, custom toiletries, and hair dryer. Read More
Nearly a year in the making, the new photo ebook “Around the World with 40 Lonely Planet Bloggers” is finally a reality. As one of the 40 bloggers featured in the book I am happy to be able to offer my readers a free copy.
New readers can receive the ebook by subscribing to receive an email each time I publish an article on Hole In The Donut. Simply fill out the form in the right-hand sidebar and click on the “subscribe” button. A follow-up email will contain a link that must be clicked to confirm the subscription. Once confirmed, a final email will provide a link to download the ebook. Readers who are already subscribed will automatically receive an email with a link that will allow the ebook to be downloaded.
This first ever joint effort by Lonely Planet BlogSherpas, as they are called, features photos of almost 70 countries, taken by bloggers who are experts in travel modes ranging from family to solo to couples travel; expat living to long-term and perpetual travel; others who specialize in adventure; and even those who focus on a particular destination or region. The gathering of this eclectic group of travel experts was born out of Lonely Planet’s effort to broaden content for their audience. They sought to shine a light on the very best writing and photography around the globe by importing articles published by top travel bloggers into destination pages of Lonely Planet’s website.
Our ebook was spearheaded by Todd Wassel, who has been on the road more than ten years and publishes the popular travel blog Todd’s Wanderings. After a few years of vagabonding Wassel could not conceive of a 9 to 5 job in an office, so he created a career as an international conflict resolution specialist for the United Nations, which requires him to move every few months to hot spots around the world. Wassel is indicative of the creative solutions that the 40 featured BlogSherpas have employed to pursue lives of travel.
Aside from being a stunning collection of photos, “Around the World with 40 Lonely Planet Bloggers” is an ideal read for anyone seeking suggestions for summer travel. Please accept it as my gift to wanderlusters everywhere.
Kindle users LOVE their e-readers, so when I learned that Kindle is now making popular travel blogs available on their devices I rushed to sign up. I am happy to announce that Hole In The Donut Cultural Travel is now available for download to your Kindle for the low subscription price of $0.99 per month through Amazon.com.
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Though I resisted the idea of climbing out of my cloud-soft king size bed and leaving Luang Say Lodge, my boat beckoned for a second day of my Mekong River cruise in Laos. As the captain expertly piloted our white yacht through rippling rapids encased by jagged rocks, I swayed with the gentle motion of the boat and made my way to a cushy leather captain’s chairs in the bow. By 7 a.m., a searing sun was burning off mists clinging to the liquid mud flowing past our hull, gradually transforming the surrounding landscape from sepia to a vivid palette of greens and golds.
I savored my morning Lao tea, brewed from local ginger root wrapped in gauze balls and pondered the notion that if ginger is an Ayurvedic cure for high blood pressure, the combination of Lao ginger tea and the Luang Say Cruise with Mekong Cruises must surely be the cure for any stress-related malady. From my backpack I pulled a dog-eared paperback book and flipped to my bookmark, but the soothing sway of the boat lulled me as it had the previous day; my chin drooped and I was soon fast asleep.
Excited chatter snapped me back to consciousness. I peered over the side of the boat just in time to see hill tribe fishermen pull up to the side of our vessel. Our eagle-eyed captain had spotted a large catfish in their flat-bottomed wooden boat and wanted it for his dinner. He drove a hard bargain, buying the fish for 30 Thai Baht, about one US dollar. Still groggy, I shook my head. We were no longer in Thailand, so how could I understand what was being said? Sensing my confusion, our guide magically appeared at my elbow and explained, “Thailand and Laos are the only two countries in the world that need no interpreter to understand each other because our spoken language is so similar. Plus, Lao children watch Thai TV, so most of them understand Thai. And of course, Thai Baht are accepted almost everywhere in Laos.” A surprising side benefit of many years spent traveling around Thailand was that I could understand much of what was being said in Lao.
With his dinner secured, the captain turned our boat toward the shore and placed its nose onto a glittering white sand beach, where we disembarked for a visit to the hill tribe village of Ban Baw. For over 600 years the village has been inhabited by three different ethnicities: Lao Loum (the majority in Laos), Tai Lue and Shan. The 180 residents live together in harmony as family, communicating in Lao rather that their native tongues. Over the years they have developed similar customs, wearing indistinguishable clothing and celebrating events such as weddings in the same fashion.
While this ethnic diversity is interesting, the village’s real claims to fame are the products produced by its residents. At the top of the hill, hand-loomed textiles were displayed on blankets lining both sides of the main dirt road. Woven from locally grown cotton and silk thread purchased in Luang Prabang, scarves and shawls were interlaced with gold lame thread that highlighted their intricate designs. I wandered between the women, looking for a more muted option among the brilliant reds, oranges and golds. Finally an ochre scarf with gold thread and brown fringe caught my eye, a perfect complement for my mostly khaki traveling wardrobe and only $5 US.
While the women riffled through scarves the men had congregated around the still to sample Ban Baw’s other famous product, Lao Lao whiskey. Husked rice is soaked in water overnight, after which it is steamed, rinsed with clean water, then mixed with powdered steamed rice flour and the leaves of the sang bong tree. The mixture is placed in a large clay jar and left to ferment for about ten days. Finally, the stored rice mixture is boiled in a large pot where the steam rises and is caught on the pots lid. As it condenses and cools, the liquid drips out of a spout and into a waiting jar. While I did not sample, I was assured by those who did that it had quite a kick, as well it should have, given its alcohol level of 45-55% proof. Read More