I mentioned in my tip about the Big Brother Mouse literacy programme that it is easy to feel good about yourself in Luang Prabang and this tip refers to something that, whilst not free is so ludicrously cheap and yet so worthwhile it is well worth doing.
The building shown is as multi-functional as it is aesthetically pleasing. It houses the local library, the Childrens Cultural Centre, a book exchange / shop where any profit goes into providing books and the place I am now going to describe. Literacy in much of rural Lao is a serious problem with 30% of all Lao females aged 6 - 25 never having attended school. Some of the other statistics are seriously disturbing as well.
To the left hand side of the building as you look, there is an office which runs a slow boat library, as this is the most effective way of visiting many of the outlying areas. For a mere $2 US you buy a book to be put on the library boat and distributed next time it goes out, which is usually about twice a month. If you donate and are there at the right time, you can go on the boat and watch this distribution, altohugh unfortunately, I wasn't.
I don't care how tight a budget you are on, if you can afford to travel from elsewhere to Lao, you can afford $2 for the chance to perhaps start an under-priveleged Lao child on the path to literacy. Backpackers, forego that extra beer tonight in the Hive Bar and believe me, you will feel far better than the buzz the Beer Lao would give you.
The Alms Giving Ceremony is an old tradition of Theravada Buddhism and one of the most sacred Lao traditions. Alms giving is usually done at the break of dawn when Buddhist monks leave their monasteries and begin their alms rounds. It starts at about 5:30 am and by 6:15 am the monks are back to their monastery; you will have to match this window if you intend to observe or participate to the ceremony. The Northeastern part of Sakkarine Road (Main Street) and its parallel street leading to Wat Xieng Thong are two popular spots to observe the ceremony, with Sakkarine Road being popular with guided tours and the street leading to Wat Xieng Thong being in my experience more intimate.
The Alms Giving Ceremony involves local people preparing food and making offerings to the monks. Laypeople wait for the monks to approach them with their alms bowl. The monks walk bare feet, single file, carrying their alms bowls in front of them. The monks do not speak or smile or make any sign of appreciation; once food has been placed inside the bowl, the monk will place the lid on top of his alms bowl and carry on on his round. Most common offerings include rice, fresh fruit and traditional sweet snacks.
All what you need to be equipped with to observe the ceremony is common sense: attend in silence and, if taking photos, do it discretely. If you intend to participate to the ceremony offering alms to the monks, the key rules are: (a) dress appropriately (women should have their shoulders, chest and legs covered), (b) women are supposed to lay in sign of respect, men are allowed to stand, (c) women must not make any physical contact with the monks, (d) do not disturb the regular course of the ceremony. Since it appears monks have occasionally got sick by mishandled food, you will find recommended to have your food cooked at your guesthouse or to buy it at the local market rather than purchasing it from street vendors gathering around to sell to tourists for the purpose.
Nowadays this religious ceremony has become the top tourist attraction in Luang Prabang, with tourists often outnumbering participants and spoiling the ceremony with disrespectful behavior. I have read somewhere monks intended to discontinue the practice but government stated they would maintain the ceremony for tourists using actors so eventually monks reverted on their intent.
I believe this is only possible in the dry season. There are two bamboo bridges across the Nam Khan River. The one near where the Nam Khan and Mekong meet costs 5000kip there and back. We just crossed and viewed the Mekong and Nam Khan but I read you can walk from here to a pottery village. The other bamboo bridge was also 5000kip, but you could cross several times a day for that. On the other side there was a guest house restaurant overlooking the river.
Watermelon shaped stupa located on the grounds by Wat Visoun and Wat Aham. This area is worth a wander. At this point in our trip we had no kip and I paid $US3 to go in Wat Visoun. It would have been cheaper to pay in kip at 20,000kip. For me the grounds were more interesting than the inside which housed a large Buddha surrounded by smaller Buddhas in a variety of different positions.
There are more than 30 Buddhist temples (wats) in Luang Prabang's tourist center, an area which can be easily walked in a hour or so. No much guidance is needed on which temples to see or how to get there and my advise would be: beside visiting Wat Xiang Thong which for historical and religious relevance is a real must-see, just wander the town center stopping by the temples which inspire you the most.
Luang Prabang with its history of capital of a kingdom has been historically rich in temples. Following reopening of Laos to international tourism in 1989 and leveraging funds from UNESCO after appointment as Heritage Site in 1995, the majority of those temples have been beautifully restored (with undeniable success on one side but also to the point that at times it may feel like being in a theme park) and protected by the city's UNESCO status. Those temples also serve as monasteries housing more than 1,000 monks.
All architectural styles found in Laos are represented in Luang Prabang: the so-called "Luang Prabang style", with multi-tiered roofs sloping almost down to the floor (check Wat Xieng Thong), the "Vientiane Style", with roof sustained by columns and verandas outside the hall, and the "Xieng Khuang Style" a blend with features from the two styles above.
Some of the temples require an entrance fee during opening hours but access is still permitted (and free of charge) outside those hours. No specific need-to-know for visiting temples in Luang Prabang other than using common sense keeping in mind those are religious monuments with a religious life going on. Among other things: dress respectfully and ask permission before photographing monks from close distance.
The best time of the day for temple site-seeing is in my experience the earlier hours of the day, between 5:30 and 8 am, when the atmosphere is peaceful and serene.
The best place to view the sunset in my opinion is from a restaurant overlooking the Mekong. There are lots of people offering sunset cruises too. You will encounter them as you stroll along the Mekong. Apparent disinterest gets the price down.
Luang Prabang's royal palace is now its national museum. Entry 20,000 kip. We did not go inside just looked at its grounds where you can see a stunningly beautiful wat, the royal theatre, a statue, a fish pond, some lovely plants.
There were lots of beautiful wats one after another on this road. All were free entry and all are worth a visit. Sakkarine Road is a continuation of the main road as it heads towards the end of the peninsula.
These wats are right next to each other which is why I include them together. They are located near the post office on the other side of the road. Entry to these wats is free. Entry to Wat Hor Xieng is protected by a fierce looking snake and to Wat That Noi by a many headed nga. The wall paintings on Wat Hor Xieng depicted many gruesome, hellish punishment scenes. I saw exactly the same scenes depicted on other wats, too. Peaceful gardens.
This wat is located on Sisavongvang Road quite close to the royal palace (now the national museum). This wat dates from the early 19th century. Entry is 10,000 kip. The best thing about the wat is the gold panels depicting the life of Buddha on its facade. It also had beautiful ceilings and a pretty garden with statues and (right up the back) the temple boat.
This wat means wat of the golden city. It is located near the end of the peninsula where the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers meet. Entry cost 20,000 kip. We entered on the Mekong side where the wat was protected by some fierce looking cat statues. For me the best thing about this wat was its beautiful wall decorations including the tree of life on the back wall of its main building ( I won't include a photo as it was being repaired and had scaffolding over it during our visit) and lots of other beautifully depicted everyday scenes. The wat dates from around 1560.
We climbed up Mount Phousi from the Nam Khan River side and came down near the royal palace. It costs 20,000 kip. On the way up we passed lots of shrines, Buddha statues in different positions, a large Buddha footprint. There was even a machine gun up near the top of the hill. The views from the top were lovely and made the climb well worth it. We went up during the day preferring to see the sunset fom the river rather than from here .
The main areas for wandering are the riverbanks and the main street, but also take some time to wander down sidestreets where you just might find food drying in the sun and people preparing food or making things. Luang Prabang lends itself perfectly to the aimless stroll.
I am not for one minute suggesting that the readers of VT are anything other than useful, but if you are in Luang Prabang there is something really useful you can do that will not cost you a penny and will, I guarantee you, make you feel good about yourself. I shall explain by reproducing an antry from my blog which describes what I did.
"This morning I went to a place called Big Brother Mouse, a strange name I know. Big Brother Mouse specialises in trying to attain literacy in the poorer areas round Luang Prabang. In fact, I read in the Vientiane Times that 30% of females aged 6 - 25 have never been to school. They commission books for which they need sponsorship and distribute them in the Province but their shop / office / classroom serves as a drop-in centre every day except Sunday from 0900 - 1100 as a learning facility for Lao people wanting to learn English.
I speak about ten words of Lao, have no teaching qualification, well no qualifications at all unless you count my Cycling Proficiency Badge and a couple of swimming awards, but this doesn't matter. Many Lao can now speak English as learned at school from Lao teachers but they want to work on pronunciation etc. Heaven forbid there should now be three young men in Lao speaking with Belfast accents! It really could not be simpler. There are a couple of tables, a few maps on the wall and a few childrens English posters of the A is for apple, O is for owl type, and you just sit down, introduce yourself and talk. Heaven knows I am good enough at that.
I have always respected teachers and now I begin to realise why. I had no classroom plan or whatever they are called, so what to talk about? It really was quite nerve wracking at first, especially given the natural shyness of the Lao. What do you talk about? There is no guidance at all from the staff there so you just wing it. My "group", although it is all very informal, consisted of three (H)mong lads, two about 20 and one only 12 years old. They were all from far flung villages in LP Province and the two elder lads were working in town whilst the youngster was studying at school a few miles out of LP. We had two books, an English / Lao dictionary and a book of kids games that Big Brother Mouse produce. So off we went.
We started with the usual, "What is your name?", "Where are you from?" routine, so I came to Northern Ireland. That had to be shown on the very useful world map on the wall, so it gave me a plan. Northern Ireland - North. All the guys had notebooks which they assiduously wrote things in, so I got out the pen and did the points of the compass, using my guidebook to demonstrate. LP is Northwest of Vientiane etc. That led to compass and sailors / boats etc. and we discussed long tail boats and slow boats on the Mekong. I could not mime or demonstrate sailor so the dictionary came into play. Remember sailor, it becomes a little odd later on.
So, we had done the compass thing and then I noticed one of the older guys, the quiet one, was wearing an Inter Milan top. I asked if he supported them, trying to start a talk about football which the Lao love, but he told me he had bought it because it was warm! In about 30 degree heat and me sweating like the proverbial pig, I found this odd. However, I then regaled them with the story of the founding of that club in 1908. The kids play book was then brought into play, so I got the young lad to read aloud from it (it is in English and Lao) and it started to get difficult. It has long been the butt of humour that Eastern Asians confuse our L and R sounds, thereby rendering farang as falang etc. They also, like the Germans, have a serious difficulty with the W sound and render it as a V, so a fairly extended session on that, correct pronounciation of walk was the big one.
We were having a great laugh, and one of the kids games in the book was "write your name in the air with your bottom". I can just imagine the hilarity this must cause in a village. So, bottom led to the concepts of bottom top and sides, which went well. Then I was writing something in one of the guy's books and I noticed on the opposite pages a drawing of the Golden Gate Bridge, a map of San Fransisco etc. and a Chinese female name. Apparently, one of the large Chinese community in that city had come here to do what I was doing. I explained that San Fransisco was Spanish for Saint Francis. "What is a saint?" was the inevitable question. How do you explain the concept of sainthood to someone with only the scantest knowedge of Christianity? Go on, try it yourself. I think I managed. This is where it gets odd. In the two hours I was there we probably looked up about five words, so we looked up saint, and what was it adjacent to? Sailor, as above. What are the chances?
Somewhere in the middle of all this I thought to explain how odd a language English was. I did this to make them feel better as they were obviously trying so very hard and it was difficult for them. In fact, their thirst for knowledge was a truly humbling experience, not lost on one who basically squandered the opportunity of a very good education. You English speakers have a go at this. I wrote down BOW and explained it meant a thing you tie on your shoe, bending at the waist, something with an arrow and the front of a boat. Confusing enough until I told them BOUGH as in part of a tree was also pronounced the same as bending at the waist. English is my mother tongue and it confuses the life out of me.
Then he hit me with another one. "What is Engand and what is Britain?" Here we go again. I am sure there are British passport holders who would struggle to differentiate between Britain, Great Britain and the UK. Cue another trip to the map and a discourse on the political makeup of the UK, the passport being used to demonstrate. Which led to more discussion of the perversity of the English language. I was talking about the visa stamp in my passport for PDR Lao. You are undoubteldy ahead of me already, dear reader. Stamp. What is in your passport, what you put on a letter and what you do with your foot. Three entirely different concepts served by the same word.
The older, quiet guy hit me with another couple of questions and I realised how little I actually know about my own language. He asked what did "somebody" mean and he asked me to explain when to use the word "a" and the word "the". Go on, try it. Try to explain that. I know when to use them but damned if I knew how to explain it. I tried my best though.
All too soon the two hour session was over and I have to say I left feeling pretty drained. It is very hard work that teaching lark, glad I never took it as a profession, although this place really is so rewarding. The looks on their faces are a joy and there is no expectation of you, you don't need to be a formal teacher, although I might jot down a few topics for next time should the conversation falter. If any of you ever venture this way, I strongly urge you to do this, it costs you nothing except a bit of a taxation on your brain, and mine could do with it, and the results are so, so wonderful. I didn't want to stick a camera in these young mens faces so I only took a photo from a distance."
Believe me, I sound like I am gushing there but it really was that fulfilling and I recommend it to any native English speaker.
Admittedly, it was a pretty small machete, and they also gave me a small vegetable knife, vegetable peeler, wok, burner and spatula. Are you with me yet? I finally got round to going to Cookery School. I have been promising myself for trip after trip and never managed it, so I enrolled at the Tamnak Lao Cookery School which is attached to the excellent restaurant of the same name, I had done my pre-read and had observed the advice of the Australian lady who owns the place to skip breakfast. What a sound piece of advice that turned out to be, as you will see later.
As I say, I had done my pre-read so I had some idea of what to expect and also learned a lot about Lao culture which is so bound up in their cuisine. Communal cooking and eating are an essential part of the social fabric here. In fact, the Lao have an expression along the lines of "food eaten alone never tastes good." I would have to agree to disagree on that one, as the food I have had here is uniformly superb but you get the idea. The class was full at 12 people, about an equal mix of men and women, some couples and four singles. Poor old Liz, a late 20's (I guess) Australian drew the short straw and got me. She was really nice about it, and we got on like a house on fire. By about the third dish we were just doing things without even discussing them, we had got it down fairly well.
A quick introduction with the two instructors Leng Lee (the thin one) and Phia Yang (the not quite so thin one). I cannot speak highly enough about these guys, they were superb. At the end of the day I asked the owner if they had started out as chefs and she told me they weren't chefs at all, she had picked them for their communication skills (and obvious patience) and they had gone from there. As (H)mong, they would not even have cooked these dishes much, if ever, as their tribe has a different cuisine. I found this incredible given the quality of the food they dished up all day.
Into a couple of tuk tuks and off to market, the big Phousi Market on the outskirts of town. I love roaming about markets but it is always difficult trying to find out what unusual things are due to the language barrier but Leng very patiently explained what things were, and what they were used for in cooking. The one that amazed me was what he called spicy wood. It looked like lumps of dead wood about two inches in diameter. Aparently, the Lao grate it and use it in cooking as it has a chilli like taste. It was also a working trip. When Leng was giving us the guided tour, Phia was off buying the produce we were going to be using that day and came back laden with plastic bags full of all kinds of things.
Back to base, and the fun really began. Donning a very fetching pinafore decorated with elephants we gathered round whilst Leng demonstrated Lang Prabang salad. As the name suggests, it is a local delicacy and I had a delightful version of it yesterday. This could not be simpler and includes the simplest "mayonnaise" in the history of cooking. Well, they call it mayo but it isn't really although I do urge you to try this recipe at home, it is so quick and simple apart from the boiling of a few eggs. Don't worry, I am not going to set down every recipe in detail. LP salad is a salad of mixed leaves and the local watercress (use any leaves you have and UK watercress would be good). Make the mayo, which consists of two egg yolks, two tablespoons of oil and the same of white vinegar, one tablespoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon white pepper and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Then beat the life out of it in a mortar and pestle or use a blender. Dress the leaves with some of it and reserve some. Arrange the salad on the plate andthen pour the remainder of the mayo over the top. Sprinkle some ground unsalted peanuts and a small amount of cooked pork mince (optional) over the top and garnish with coriander. How hard was that? Literally 10 minutes work tops.
This was to be a feature of the whole day. Nothing they made took more than about 10 minutes to make and by the end we were knocking up dishes in about 15. It really is fast food made with a minimum of equipment and containing a maximum of flavour. I loved the way the guys taught. They demonstrated it thoroughly once and then let you get on with it. While one of them did the washing up (nice touch) the other one was prepping for the next demo. They weren't wandering about watching you although no doubt they would have assisted if you got in trouble. I really do not see how you could though. We were working off a very good recipe book, and the cooking principles are childishly simple.
OK, this is where the trouble starts, we made that and, after a teabreak, another dish of fried rice noodles with chicken and veg, so that was lunch.
Outside to eat, and by one o'clock I was stuffed. I do not eat much in the heat of the day here. Back into class and they demonstrated another three dishes of which we had to pick two and then a further two of which we had to pick one. Are you beginning to see the problem here? One thing they demonstrated although we did not make is another local delicacy, Jeowbong, which is LP chilli paste. I like pet (spicy) but even I blanched a bit at a recipe where the first ingredient is 50 dried red chillies. Yes, you read that right. Along with a few other things it makes a paste and would you believe, it is not that hot? Honestly. It keeps for six months in the fridge so there will be a big batch of that on the go when I return home, it is gorgeous and goes with most Lao traditonal food. I am sure the neighbours will be delighted with the smell of the chilli and the twenty or so chopped garlic cloves!
Without boring you completely with recipes, just a couple more thoughts on what was a truly memorable day. Firstly, Laap Gai (chicken laap) which is one of the most popular Lao dishes, and I love. It requires taking chicken and attacking it, there is no other word, with the machete until it is reduced to almost a paste cinsistency. Liz decreed I looked like the man for the job and I set about with a will. I think she was getting slightly worried by the end of it with my maniacal machete assault. Norman Bates, eat your heart out. Hopefully, the photo will give you an idea.
I think my favourite of the day was the delightfully named Khua Maak Kheua Gap Moo. Try saying it aloud. It is basically a pork and aubergine dish. I generally don't like aubergine but Liz wanted to cook it so it wasn't a problem and it turned out to be delicious, if I say so myself, I'll definitely be giving that a try at home. Anyone who comes to my house for dinner better watch out.
Well, by the end of the event I was full to capacity. None of the groups managed to finish the food alrthough someone seemed to think that the guys took the leftovers back to their villages at night which I found sad. Not sure how true that was though.
At $30 it was a fraction of what I would have paid for a cookery course at home, indeed I would have been happy to pay that amount in London merely for the food itself. If you have the vaguest interest in cooking and / or Lao cuisine, I strongly recommend this place, it really is a superb day.
Update February 2013.
I was revisiting this tip today and found I had only attached one image due to internet limitations in Luang Prabang, so I have added a few more now. I must say looking at the results, I genuinely surprised myself. It looks almost edible!