Luang Prabang is a northern province in Laos and seat of the old capitol. The town is very charming, colorful, lush with gardens and tropical plants. The streets follow the river and many are one way so it is easy to misplace oneself. It boasts a stunning royal palace and ornate Wats (temples). Many buildings are preserved and gently renovated with balconies and wooden shutters repurposed as guest houses, restaurants, shops and residences. It is a UNESCO site and opened to tourism in 1989. Laos has a very complicated history of French colonialism, constitutional monarchy, take over by communist Pathet Lao, civil war, economic struggles and the site of massive bombing by the US during the Vietnam War. 45 years later Luang Prabang sits peacefully high above both the Nam Kahn and Mekong rivers and their confluence.
Our hotel sits over the Nam Kahn and we breakfast every morning facing the water and opposite shore. We have a crowing rooster who comes from a property on one side and meets with his hen sweetie who comes from a property on the other side. We are amused.
And very relaxed. We ride bicycles, get lost, shop, eat, visit museums and enjoy river life. We walk over a bamboo bridge that washes away during wet season and is rebuilt in the dry. We climb the steep 355 steps up Mt. Phousi to the temple perched on top to view the sunset. I let my caged birds go; a bit of a weird concept of buying small caged birds to offer for prayers of long life and freedom when you reach the temple top and release them. It seemed an easy plan but I struggled opening the bamboo slats and really was praying for their freedom and forgiveness for my culpability in delaying their captivity. It all worked out.
Very early on we decided to stay an extra day and felt genuinely pulled to stay another. Our wifi password really was: “1moreday”. Our dear friend Fred, used to comment about Fire Island, an idyllic 25 mile barrier beach off southern Long Island that, “There’s nothing to do and not enough time to do it”. That sums it up.
Of the lovely time spent in LP, the highlight was a day spent with our hotel manager, Keo, his girlfriend, Phop and fellow traveler Andrea from Switzerland. Keo had been suggesting various tourist spots and I was lukewarm but when he mentioned he could arrange lunch at his sister’s home in a village near the Kuang Si waterfall and then visit another sister’s rice paddy nearby, I was enthusiastic. I suggested he come with Steve and me. He graciously decided to host and we had a magical and heart warming experience spending a day with this generous young man. He brought us inside his life: sweet childhood memories of working in the paddies with his dad and the water buffalo, being the youngest of 9 siblings and preparing and eating all meals together , the hard time of losing his mom and having to leave his village to be cared for. So when we went to market and bought the day’s vegetables and he taught me how to chop papaya with a small machete, I was overjoyed. When his sister, brother in law, the driver and the 5 of us sat down to eat and his nieces and nephews were running around, being cute and distracting it was a piece of family life that was good for everyone. Walking through his village and giving away clothes was an act of goodwill and connection. The children followed us, his sister meeting with neighbors, gentle women, mothers, weavers, grandmothers. We were made part of Keo’s life by his love of place and family.
Steve, Andrea and I went to Kuang Si falls. A natural phenomenon made into a tourist attraction in the 90’s. The land on top of the waterfall was actually the original site of Keo’s home village. The government decided to make the falls a commercial enterprise and moved the village into the valley. Keo hopes someday to live and farm up there where they have ancestral land rights.
Keo and Phop finally have some time to themselves. It is, after all, their day off they are sharing with us. We meet them in a hidden area with small waterfalls and pools and a restaurant-bar and am glad they have had alone time together.
We go to his other sister’s rice paddy. The bright green is startling against the dark green of the surrounding hills.. We walk on the narrow dirt paths that rise above the flooded paddies. From a distance they create a beautiful design in the fields. Acres of family owned farms, each with a hut like shelter on stilts. Here the workers stay for the month of planting. They fish in paddies and nearby ponds. They collect the snails that breed and eat them. The work is hard, precise and time consuming. We meet Keo’s eldest brother who also owns a section. Keo loves the land and I am thankful for this gift of a day.