After Angkor Wat and Cambodia’s other gorgeous temples–and truth be told, oppressive heat and humidity–I was happy to land in mountainous Laos with it’s cooler temps. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Laos, but it became a major highlight of my trip.
There are several luxury hotels in Luang Prabang–we stayed at the Belmond la Residence Phou Vao, which had a pool with a spectacular view of the Phou Hills. Next time, the Rosewood! But it wasn’t the 5-star luxury that made Laos memorable.
It’s the combination of culture, religion and artistic traditions coupled with the French colonial feel of its capital city Luang Prabang that so surprised me.
It started with participating in a morning ‘Baci’ ceremony (“calling of the soul”), a deeply meaningful and important part of Laos culture. We went to a villagers home, and the local shaman blessed us as we sat among a large group of local village women. The shaman tied good fortune strings around one wrist, and a village elder female tied strings around my other wrist. These needed to stay on for at least 3 days without being pried off….if they fell off naturally, that’s ok. Good thing, becuase I started shedding strings on just about the third day!
I also visited the Laos Ethonology Museum, a small museum dedicated to telling the complicated stories of the 4 native groups of Laotians. It also showcases and sells the handcrafts from each group, at fair trade prices. The quality of weaving throughout Laos is remarkable.
After the hustle and bustle of Vietnam, the languid pace in Luang Prabang was a welcome change. It’s very chill, very zen. And –very clean! The streets are charming, and it’s easy to duck in anywhere for an iced coffee or a nice cold beer.
Giving alms to the local Buddhist monks was such a moving experience that I will never forget. The monks are not allowed to cook and so every morning at daybreak they get rice from the locals, and one hot meal a day at noon, also from the locals. A&K was ready with rice for us to be able to participate in a village tradition, but it’s definitely not a tourist thing….there were plenty of local people on both sides of our little group that put stools out in front of their homes to give the monks their rice for the day. It starts at 6am when you hear a bell, alerting everyone that monks are on the way. Then you see the orange column moving closer to you, silent and single file. Not a word is spoken. The monks come in all shapes and sizes and ages. And not a word, just silence as they move through the streets. The faith that is embedded in the culture of this entire country is palpable.
Visiting the local “fresh” market in the mornings is another way to experience authentic life here.
The most important temple complex in Luang Prabang is “The Tree of Life” temple, or Wat Xieng Thon It’s filled with murals in gold and mosaic tile.
The absolute highlight of my too-brief time in Laos was a visit to OCK POP TOK, a living crafts center situated on the banks of the Mekong. OCK POP TOK means “East meets West” because it was started by a British woman Joanna Smith and a Laotian woman Veo Douangdala. Their vision was to empower local women to use their traditional handicraft skills to create a sustainable future for themselves. Today the center has over 78 employees who work an 8 hour day 5 days a week and receive health benefits. Their mission is for people to discover Laos through textiles, and they are producing a wide range of gorgeous silk and cotton textiles in a variety of designs.
They also have a terrific café called Silk Road that overlooks the Mekong, and even several villa rooms if you wish to stay overnight. It’s also possible to do group and even private classes on premises as well.
You can walk freely around the looms and watch the artists at work. A free tour will explain the entire weaving process to you, from cultivating silk worms (they do so on premises) to harvesting and dying the silk with traditional herbal and vegetable dyes (also on premises). It can take 1- 3 weeks to weave one intricate scarf.
Laos was truly a surprise on my 3.5 week adventure through Southeast Asia. If you are into textile crafts, Laos is your Nirvana. I think it’s also a wonderful place for wellness retreats including yoga and meditation. Laos has a lot to offer, it should be on every seasoned traveler’s radar!