Laos makes its own beer. The most famous is beer Lao available in light or dark. We only tried the light and it was very good. It is not available in draft in Lung Prabang only bottles and cans. We also found Nam Khan beer in some restaurants along the Mekong. This was also good but tasted more like a bitter than a lager.
Most restaurants sell delicious coconut milk shakes mixed with a variety of juices such as pineapple, papaya, banana, mango. I even tried mint. For some reason they are dearer if you have them without ice.
The slowboat trip between Pak Beng and Luang Prabang on the second day is better than the first day as you'll see far more life both along and on the river. We stopped at one village and there were a few families with young children in longtail boats leaving and setting off upstream. The Mekong is a mighty river and serves as a main highway for transportation in this part of Laos.
The slowboat not only takes westerners from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang but is also used by local people who travel between small villages that the boat calls at. As well as people, the boat also delivers goods, food and livestock - we had some chickens clucking away in cages on the roof of our boat!
It really gives me no pleasure at all to write this tip as the behaviour of others made me feel ashamed to be a foreigner in this country, which I love. I will allow an entry from my blog and a photo to explain both what happened and my feelings about it. It regards a ceremony called Tak Bat.
Basically, the local people get out of bed at an appallingly early hour and sit at the side of the road with alms, generally in the form of rice. The monks, mostly the younger novices process barefoot and in silence through the streets stopping whilst people place their offerings in the bowls they carry on their shoulder and make obeisance to them, thereby gaining merit in the Buddhist way of thinking. Luang Prabang, although not the administrative capital is, to many Lao, the religious and cultural centre of the nation.
I went to the end of the street I am staying in (slightly out of town) and watched from the far side of the road as elderly ladies swept the streets in front of the boy monks and others sat on the side of the road reverently placing the gifts in the bowls and praying. At this tme of morning and this time of day the light was not good enough to take a photo without flash (see below) so I watched in awe as it unfolded before me.
This city is rightly proud of it's heritage and history and is very much at pains to explain politely to visitors how to behave both in wats and at this daily ceremony which is, after all, a religious service. Any guidebook will tell you how to behave in a Buddhist country, what to do and not do especially in respect of monks. I try, as best I can, to observe these things, although I am sure I am sure I transgress unintentionally on occasion. I hope not. Several of the strictures, if you are not aware, are these. You always act respectfully in the presence of a monk, women do not touch a monk or his robes, if a monk is sitting you either try and get your head lower than him or, if you are tall like me, hold your hands in a praying attitude to show respect. These are holy men / boys. Several of the specific things mentioned in the excellent Tourist Information Centre are not to get too close to the monks and not to use flash photography.
I decided to walk down to the centre of town where I knew there would be a lot of monks as the main concentration of wats is there. What I saw there disgusted and angered me in about equal measure. This solemn religious observance has been turned into a circus by tourists with no more concern for the sensibilities of the local populace than getting a good holiday snap to "show the folks back home". It was one of the most appalling things I have ever seen. It was like a papparazzi scrum on Oscars night and as one who has faced the papparazzi (ask me about it sometime, I was not the star attraction obviously) it was frenzied, and I use the word advisedly. Germans jostled with Japanese and Australians elbowed the French to see who could stick their huge lenses furthest into a 12 year old novices face and fire off a professional standard flash gun. It was nauseating.
The photo, which isn't very good, taken without flash and from a distance, shows the kind of thing these poor young men must have to endure every day. I am not a religious man although I find much in Buddhism to admire but I found this profane in the extreme. I would like to believe that these people are ignorant of the local customs but that would be niaive. Everyone here has a guidebook and nearly everyone has visited the Tourist Information Centre. What it is is not ignorance but sheer selfishness and a total lack of respect for what are our hosts. Not wishing to profane the ceremony further I said nothing although I would dearly have loved to show some of them the error of their ways.
Please show respect. It is not difficult and the people of Southeast Asia will forgive a lot as long as you make the effort. If you are not prepared to make the effort stay at home, your own countries probably deserve you more than the people here.
Ask yourselves a question. Would you wander into Canterbury Cathedral and stick a camera into Dr. Williams face when he was preaching? Stroll into a mosque in an Islamic country and point your Canon into the face of the Imam? Decide to go sightseeing in Jerusalem and start snapping the Chief Rabbi in the synagogue? I don't think so, and the consequences may be a lot more serious than with these basically peacable people. I appreciate that the Lao people want, indeed need, the tourist dollar but are we going to destroy the very things we came to see in the process?
I am sorry to sound so negative about this but it does not take much to respect the culture you have come to visit, so please do just that.
Bun Nam (Water Festival) & Bun Awk Phansa (end of rains) are held in early October. They are an annual celebratory time for the cycle of rains that bring life to the land.
There are boat races during the day and the culmination of the festivals are the procession of the fire boats through the city's main street and then floating prayer candles (loy krathong) down the river.
1. Temples are beautiful and interesting but most important of all, they're holy places. Please visit, but dress appropriately, covering shoulders, knees and everything in between. Whether in a temple or on the streets, ladies wearing long skirt will find the gesture much appreciated.
2. In Buddhist cultures, the head is high and the feet are low. Use your feet only for walking and refrain from using them to point at someone. Putting your feet up on a stool is thus rude, so is stepping over someone seated on the floor.
3. Please don't use camera flash to take pictures of folks giving alms or monks receiving them. You're disturbing people practicing their faith.
4. Please be thoughtful about your generosity. Giving away candy or money discourages initiative, rots teeth and encourage begging. Medical supplies are easily misused and should be donated to the Red Cross. Books and educational supplies are best donated directly to schools.
5. Kissing, holding hands and other displays of affection between a couple should be done in private.
6. Don't lose your temper as everybody loses "face". Stay calm, don't raise your voice and things can be worked out.
7. The Lao people are modest. Nude bathing at waterfalls, in the river or while rafting is never appropriate. Lao women wear a T-shirt and shorts covering from mid-thigh to shoulders; for men, shorts are fine.
8. Don't carry away Laotian heritage. Don't buy old objects as souvenirs as they were probably stolen from unprotected temples or historic sites. Support talented and hardworking local artisans by purchasing new and beautiful weavings, silverwork and handicrafts.
9. Please preserve and observe Laotian traditions. Be sensitive.
10. Culture isn't understood in a single day. Give yourself time to accept differences and understand why the differences existed. Don't try to impose your way and believes on others especially if the culture is older than yours. The world is diverse and that is what make things so exciting.
Monks are maybe the most known image of Luang Prabang. Laotians practice the Theravada Buddhism, they are very devout and almost every Lao man is expected to spend at least a short period of their lives living as a monks (specially before marriage), but some of them continues as a monk for all their life.
The daily alms-giving ceremony is a beautiful tradition and is one of the main attractions of the city. Buddhist monks are not allowed to cook , so they relly on the offerings of food given by the people. So at 5.30 in the morning, hundred of monks forming a single line in the main street, receive the the food offerings from kneeling women and standing men.
This is a food which is relatively unique to Luang Prabang made from moss or seaweed - another product of the Mekong - season for making this is February to March, when we were there. The weed is collected from the river, cleaned and seasoned with salt, tomatoes and garlic - and set out on grass mats to sun dry. It can be eaten dried or deep fried and enjoyed with sticky rice.
I have eaten this a few times - as I've been fortunate enough to be there "in season" - and its beautiful - crispy fried, and lovely with a cold beer! A fairly mild flavour, more of a "chip" than anything else.
We've seen young mostly males playing this game in other countries in SE Asia, but more so in Laos. It is played - you guessed it - with a woven rattan ball! We've mostly seen it played freestyle without any form of net - but the formal game has a net. Its a bit like foot volleyball, with a rattan ball! There is a significant amount of skill involved, and I can watch it for ages!
We often asked for Nescafe to have a break from the strong coffee. The strongest we had though, was when we went trekking, when we were served the hot drink in glasses. After 2 sachets of whitener.....well, see if you can tell which cup has the milk!
Lao people are very modest, and it is embarrassing to see bathers at the local waterfalls in their bikinis. The Lao locals will never show their displeasure, but you will never see Lao women in bathing suits; they always bathe in a sarong style garment. Show a little courtesy and respect local customs by avoiding bikinis.
In temples, it is polite to cover arms and legs. Shorts and halter tops are inappropriate.
Please be respectfull if you see in the local market, dog meet or cat meet or snke meet, they are use to that ,not everyone of them likes it but is they way of living. and if you have the chance try it...
I was lucky enough to be invited to a Basi ceremony in my guesthouse: A Swiss guest, Stephan, had been a regular and long term guest was leaving for Switzerland. He had become good friends with the son of the family, and they wanted to send him on his way with their blessings. I joined the family, neighbours, other guests, and friends around a low table covered in candles, rice cakes, sweets, and long sticks with many white strings tied round.
Everyone leaned in and touched the table while Somphone wished Stephan safe travels and good luck. He then did the same for the rest of us. The white strings were handed out and everyone tied them to eachothers wrists, whilst wishing them safe travels, good health and long life.
The ceremony is performed when someone is going on a journey, is sick or in trouble. It symbolises the tying to the body of the good spirits that look after you. Without the ceremony these spirits can be left behind..