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Nagas, Temples, Textiles, Elephants, Bears and other projects. Journey down the Mekong… Nong Khiau and the North.
Luang Prabang- the ancient and former royal capital is seemingly still guarded by the spirits where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet.
Usually the first thought of destination for the traveler to Laos today, the old town of Luang Prabang was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. Within a few blocks are precious temples, boutique accomodations, charming cafes and galleries. Luang Prabang has grown into Southeast Asia’s chic place to be. I wonder what young tech-savvy travelers today would think of 1998- not long ago to me, when I first visited, when there was hardly an internet connection. Imagine sitting at a painfully slow computer terminal at an internet cafe. But what did it matter- or “boh pen nyang”, as the Lao will still say about things beyond their control.
Luang Prabang is still a place where you can still get lost in time and to learn of stories from the past. What was this former royal capital? Recent history tells of the fall of Laos to the Pathet Lao in 1975 when Laos was drawn into the middle of the Vietnam/American war. Stories of the ethnic Hmong fighting for the CIA in a secret war and stories of Laos as a French colony and the result of a turbulent transition following World War II.
Amongst the countries of Indochine, it is said the Vietnamese were the people who planted the rice, the Cambodians worked in the fields and the Lao still like to sit and listen to the rice grow.
Indeed one will feel a more relaxed pace of life in Laos today and one can also sit for hours watching the rivers flow.
Stories of the Naga:
Legend tells of a woman called Sayak who went fishing. She felt a strange-ness after touching a piece of wood in the river and later gave birth to ten children! This piece of wood later turned into a dragon and the sons of Sayak are thought to be the ancestors descending from the sacred water dragon called naga which is still worshipped as a symbol of fertility.
For those who love myths, read more about the story of Phi Fah– the celestial dragon spirit of the sky who sent down a giant golden pumpkin out of which the “Four Marvellous Brothers” were hatched! These brothers married daughters of the king and founded their own glorious kingdoms.
I am told this why Lao hesitate to eat pumpkins today!
But most visitors to Luang Prabang hear history starting in the 14th century when one prince was born inauspiciously with a full set of 32 teeth! His name was Fa Ngum and he was cast down the Mekong on a bamboo raft to finally land in present day southern Laos near the famous of temple of Wat Phou in Champassak, then part of the Khmer empire. Fa Ngum was raised in the Khmer court and married a Khmer princess. Along with a golden Buddha image (the Phrabang) said to have been presented as a gift to the court of Angkor by Sri Lanka, Fa Ngum and his princess, set off in a grand procession of elephants and founded his Kingdom of Lan Xang– Kingdom of a Million Elephants in 1353 with its capital of Luang Prabang. ( meaning the Great Phabang )
Luang Prabang’s old town is full of precious temples or wats.
Wat Xieng Thong is the most revered and again auspiciously located near the tip of the peninsula where the rivers meet.
Dating back to 1560 under royal patronage, the temple was built at the site of a sacred tree. On the rear wall of the temple is a Tree of Life in beautiful glass mosaics. Other pavilions tell of more local Lao stories and legends and within the monastery grounds is the hall housing the royal urn and funeral barge. Protected by nagas, this royal barge was last used for the cremation of King Sisavangvong in 1959.
Alms Giving to Monks – PLEASE respect this tradition.
Each morning many visitors come out before 6am to see the procession of over 300 monks to receive alms. Unfortunately, even with notices around town asking visitors to behave in an appropriate manner, tourists often step right into the procession for the photo opportunity!Please remember this is a sacred ritual to the local people.
It is best to observe the alms giving from the quieter middle road of town
( 1 block behind the main road). Observe quietly and take photos only from a distance. If wishing to give alms, please do so only in a proper manner as guided by a Lao friend. Or perhaps make your own merit with a donation to the many worthy causes in Laos. Thank you for respecting the dignity of the monks and young novices.
An interesting read:
Preserving and protecting Buddhist Heritage of Laos:
a wonderful article from Buddhist Door:
Textile Heaven in Laos:
The Lao have maintained their amazing weaving skills and are masters with natural dyes.
Learn more about the beautiful Lao textile arts:
KimThong Lao Silk:
The Red-Tai are traditionally a shamanic people with a strong belief in the afterworld. Textiles depict stories of ancestor spirits traveling in between our worldly and other-worldly realms. Look for the Nagas in these gorgeous textiles! They are often woven into textile motifs honoring these river spirits providing fertility and protection for livelihood.
Visit Kim Thong’s new showroom filled with loads of treasures!
Behind Villa Santi – opposite Villa Santi Annex. Wish she had a website!
Another enterprise by two talented Lao brothers, Somneuk and Nat, who share their passion to promote handmade Lao crafts.
Nat at Indigo Fabric located in Ban Aphay.
TAEC – Tradtional Arts and Ethnology Centre
A wonderful place to learn more about the various ethnic cultures of Laos and their initiatives supporting education and community outreach. Located close to the Dara Market up a small hill.
TAEC Boutique is on the main road in old town opposite Villa Santi.
OckPopTok Textile Gallery and Living Crafts Centre:
Learn about how Silk Worms become Nagas and the art of natural dyeing at OckPopTok’s Living Crafts Center located along the Mekong where you can join workshops or just relax for lunch or tea: www.ockpoptok.com
Ban Xang Kong Craft Village
Just beyond the airport of Luang Prabang- a short ride by tuk-tuk or when season permits cross over the Nam Khan River by bamboo bridge at the tip of the old town for a walk to this village of weaving families.
Visit Simone Saa Paper to see the process of mulberry paper making.
The Language Project @My Library
Supporting Lao Youth in their quest for a brighter future.
The Library is thriving in their new space along the Nam Khan on the lane down from Wat Aphay close to Utopia Lounge and Yoga space.
Learn more at: www.thelanguageproject.org
Check out the beautiful Photography of Lao Youth: www.laophotographers.zenfolio.com
Big Brother Mouse!
continues to publish easy to read and fun books for children in Lao and in English. Started in 2006, well over 100 books have been published- making literacy fun!
Alam Asia was happy to sponsor printing of their book called Wonders of the World. Great website with news and stories of the Lao staff, how to donate -sponsor the printing of a book or a Book Party! www.bigbrothermouse.com
Friends without a Border Lao Hospital for Children
recently opened in Luang Prabang- a branch of the wonderful facility in Cambodia. A visitors center is located opposite Dara Market and TAEC.
Photography exhibit and weekly yoga classes supporting the hospital. www.fwab.org/laos
You won’t find a million elephants in Laos today, but visitors can be a part of supporting those elephants remaining:
Learn more about this annual event usually during October/November to raise awareness of these beautiful animals in Laos: www.theelephantcaravan.org
Mekong River trip to Luang Prabang from the Thai border:
A two-day trip down one of the last beautiful stretches of river in Southeast Asia. Cross into Laos from Thailand at Chiang Khong in Chiang Rai province and depart by boat from the Lao town of Houixay. Overnight half-way down to Luang Prabang at the trading village of Pakbeng.
Public Boats depart daily in the morning and are more comfortable these days but can become crowded in peak season.
Overnight prior in Houixay allows you to get boat seats earlier. Or plan on crossing over from the Thai side by 0800am and proceed to the harbour in Houixay. Tuktuks can take you there from the international bridge.
Private Boat Charters can also be arranged through a local agent- a wonderful way to float down the river into Laos.
Pakbeng offers a range of accomodations:
Upscale: Pakbeng Lodge.
Good budget option is: Phetsokxai Guesthouse.
Pak Ou Buddha Caves:
Cruising down from Pakbeng you pass the sacred Buddha caves at the mouth of the Ou River. Housing over 4000 Buddha images, this is sacred pilgrimage site for the Lao people. The lower cave known as Tham Ting is accessible by a few steps from the boat landing. Continue up about 200 steps to the upper cave which offers a great view of the rivers.
Free the Bears!
While at Kuang Si, visit the Rescue Center of these beautiful bears. Over 150 bears have been rescued from a fate of having their bile extracted for medicine. Their work is expanding to Vietnam, Cambodia and hopefully more in Myanmar:
also close by Kuang Si is the lovely Butterfly Park:
Exploring more of Laos:
Nong Khiau along the beautiful Nam Ou river…
The Ou River is no longer navigable from the mouth of the Mekong up to Nong Khiau but you can drive either from Luang Prabang in approx 3 hours or set off by road opposite the Pak Ou Buddha caves. Once in Nong Khiau, you can explore more of the Ou river northward.
Nong Khiau Riverside Resort is affordable luxury- lovely bungalows under a star filled sky listening to the peaceful sounds of the river. More travel info on: www.nongkiau.com
Mandala Ou Resort offering Yoga Retreats:
Luang Namtha – a base to explore northern Laos
Boat Landing Eco Lodge: www.theboatlanding.com
Wishing you wonderful Lao Journeys!