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food / travel

In Laos, Dawn's First Light Meets Mekong Rhythms

"Luang Prabang is one of those early morning cities."
"Luang Prabang is one of those early morning cities."
François Bostnavaron

LUANG PRABANG — As they say, the early bird gets the worm. Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos and a UNESCO world heritage site since 1995, is one of those early morning cities — not necessarily calm, but where a walk at the crack of dawn is very satisfying. As early as 5 a.m., the first colorful tuk-tuks begin roaming the city, buzzing like lawn mowers. The market is being installed on the main street, giving the town a Katmandu-of-the-hippy-years feel.

This is the time of the day when the first tourists start gathering in the main street to attend Tak Bat, a ritual ceremony of the Bhikkhu, or Buddhist monks. With bare feet, saffron-robed and alms bowls in hand, they begin a long walk around their monastery to beg for the khao niao, the sticky rice that inhabitants donate daily. The ceremony can look a little like a Disneyland parade, as tourists are not always aware that these young monks are observing a religious rite.

Getting up early also means being able to ascend Mount Phou si and the 330 steps that lead to it before the sun and the heat make the expedition unbearable. The effort is rewarded with a mind-blowing 360-degree view at the top. From here, it is possible to imagine the ancient capital of Lan Xang, the kingdom of the “million elephants under the white parasol,” stuck between the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers.

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The gilded stupa of Wat Chom Si on top of Mount Phou si — Photo: Allie Caulfield

Before leaving the place, one can buy, for a few kips (the local currency), one of those tiny reed cages holding a bird. The sellers, say that once the bird is freed, there is no doubt it will take the buyer’s problems with it.

After a quick walk back down the mountain, a simple jaunt across the road leads to the old Royal Palace, which has been turned into a museum. Automobile enthusiasts especially shouldn’t miss the royal car collection, where an authentic 1950 Citroën DS is parked between an old Lincoln Continental and a Jeep, slowly rusting away.

A bit of squirrel, anyone?

Some 200 kilometers north of Luang Prabang — a six-hour drive on a chaotic road — there is Muang La. The first café, halfway there, offers several options for adventurous eaters: among them, squirrel served on skewers or iguanas bathed in sauce. Chinese truckers are said to be particularly fond of these dishes (the border with the Chinese province of Yunnan is less than 100 kilometers away). They are seen driving along this only road in their huge semis, fully loaded with precious rosewood roots.

Muang La is as calm as Luang Prabang is lively. After the city bustle and the uncomfortable road, this relaxing stop is most welcome. Around the river, herds of buffalos are grazing or bathing in the river’s troubled waters. A guide will not forget to explain how a bamboo house is made or how salt is extracted here.

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In an Akha village — Photo: Nicolai Bangsgaard

Culture shock comes with the visit to an Akha village a few kilometers away from Muan La. After passing several Hmong women who come to the village to sell bracelets and other handmade jewelry, the car stops. To the right, a path going up the hill seems to lead nowhere. After around 20 minutes of walking, a hamlet can be seen on the mountain side. A little girl is carrying her younger brother on her hip, the houses have darkened by the interior smoke, and the local flies are feasting on buffalo skulls. In a wooden house, children are enjoying the recent installation of electricity by gathering around a television.

The trip back to Luang Prabang will be done on the Mekong, via Pakbeng. A slow cruise instead a chaotic road. There is a last stop in a village on the riverside where, for some time, the inhabitants have abandoned opium cultivation for handicraft. Further on, young villagers are playing bowls, a game they call “pétan” here, inherited by the French colonists.

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