You can travel the world a dozen times over and still not see all of the spectacular sites that exist. Most destinations repeatedly find a place in the ‘must see list’ of frequent globetrotters, but there are other destinations that minus the popularity, resonate with us on a very deep and personal level— like Luang Prabang, which is a little known jewel in the South East Asian crown. Also known as Laos, it is the land of a million elephants! This small land-locked country is little-known as compared to the others in South-East Asia. But it’s no lesser in charm.
You land via Bangkok into this small, but international airport, where Indians enjoy visa on arrival. You then step out of the airport, take a short drive and enter the town.
The city, situated in north central Laos, consists of 58 adjacent villages, of which 33 comprise the UNESCO Town of Luang Prabang World Heritage Site. The unique and remarkably well preserved architectural, religious and cultural heritage is a blend of the rural and urban development over several centuries, including the French colonial influences during the 19th and 20th centuries.
As you enter Luang Prabang, you can still see relics of the age when the French held it as the seat of their province, and then left swiftly. With time, Vientiene became more of a prominent city and the capital. And Luang Prabang was neglected; it needed to evolve into a paradise for the seasoned traveller of today.
The centre of the city consists of four main roads and is located on a peninsula at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong River. Luang Prabang is considered by many as the heart of Laotian culture, with traditional wooden houses, royal structures, colonial architecture, and over 30 vat (Buddhist shrines).
A long drive out of this town, through roads that are as much scattered stones as they are straight, through hot and humid weather, leads you to one of the wondrous Elephant Retreats. These majestic creatures enjoy sanctuary and care in an absolutely natural setting, with gentle mahouts and an endless supply of pineapple stems, leaves and buds from nearby plantations. Tourists are greeted by eccentric guides and mahouts, and led straight to a congregation point, where the elephants stroll in. From there on, it’s as much an adventure as you’d like it to be. Yes, there is the standard ‘basket’ with a seat harness for the weak-hearted. But then, there is also the natural seat on the upper back of the pachyderm, free of harness or handles. At this perch, you leave your life hanging precariously— at the tip of the swaying trunk of the elephant. With little warning, the pachyderm turns around and walks away into a thick forest, into a shallow river and then dunks you in the water a few times — all for fun. The mahouts keep close watch. There hasn’t ever been an untoward incident in this sanctuary, but their watchful eyes follow you closely. Yes, they know their elephants, but you, human, are a stranger!
Another long trip is the legendary Kuang Si waterfalls! An Instagram favourite, the falls are bright green and flow gently over different levels of the landscape. The experience is incomplete without a dip in the refreshing waters and a photograph that lends itself to many a poetic hashtag. The multiple levels almost allow each one to have their own private pool. Around the falls is the moon bear sanctuary. You see them lazing around in hammocks and wooden bunks. At this point, you could wave to them in absolute glee! They don’t care. And that is the beauty of a carefree spirit, nestled in its natural habitat.
When hungry, take to the streets! The street food of Laos is not as varied and elaborate as that of Thailand, but its flavours are unique and so different. River fish, pork, beef sausages and a variety of salads make for a great meal. The people of Laos are very particular about cleanliness. Every street stall I saw competes with restaurants in hygiene standards. With the meal, you can enjoy their own ‘BeerLao’ and their authentic, strong whiskey. And for dessert, fresh fruit crushes and shakes, along with many coconut and rice-based delicacies.
Overall, Luang Prabang is a very safe town, through the day and night. Along the town are many beautiful Buddhist monasteries and temples, which you can visit and pay your respects at. Luang Prabang is well known for its numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries. Every morning, hundreds of monks from various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms. However, if you are wandering through the forests and foliage, do remember to get a certified guide. The secret war, though half a century old, had left behind several unexploded mines, that tragically still claim lives.
All in all, Laos is a convenient and economical visit for seasoned as well as newbie travellers. It offers just the right mix of a peaceful getaway and exploration, and is great for staycations and extended vacations (when combined with Vietnam and Cambodia) alike!
(The writer is an entrepreneur and travel enthusiast who believes in inspiring others to travel)...