Luang Prabang is nestled in the mountains of north-central Laos, on a raised tongue of land at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers. Buddhism reigns supreme here. The small town of 100,000 is packed with Buddhist wats (temples), stupas (mound-like structures containing Buddhist relics), and monks (saffron robed fellows with shaved heads who rise promptly at 4 in the morning every day and vow never to so much as touch a girl. Madeleine nearly caused a diplomatic crisis in Cambodia when she reflexively stretched out her arm to encircle the shoulders of a novice monk for a snapshot. You should have seen the look of terror and disgust on his face as he squirmed away. You would have thought she had the wet kind of leprosy!).
Doua was the perfect guide for our temple tour. Like many men of his generation (he is 28), Doua had spent 3 years as a novice monk when he was a boy, studying Buddhist scripture and doing odd jobs around the monastery. Doua hails from a Hmong mountain village and, until recently, when primary education became more accessible in the countryside, the only practicable way for a boy from the sticks to get any kind of education was to train as a novice monk. Girls were really out of luck.
We started with Wat Visoun, a mere stone-throw’s away from the hotel. This one boasts a beautiful, large seated Buddha, dozens of standing Buddhas in the “Calling for Rain” position with their hands pointed to the earth, and a large, squat stupa known as the Watermelon Stupa, whose treasure of gems and gold buried inside had regrettably been looted by Chinese invaders in the late 19th century. Our next stop, right next door, was Wat Aham, featuring interior walls completely covered with “instructional” scenes from Buddhist theology painted by the local monks. The gruesome depictions of what awaits some people in hell put to rest any thoughts that I had been entertaining of converting to Buddhism. The final stop on our temple tour, the beautiful Wat Xiengthog, dates from 1560 (one of the lucky few to escape ravage by the Chinese), and is known for its sweeping Luang Prabang style roof and richly decorated columns. At the first hints of sunset, we mounted steep steps to the summit of Mount Phousi, in the center of town, to admire the wonderful panoramic views of Luang Prabang, the rivers, and encircling mountains. The town has retained the charm of French Indochina, with red tiled roofs sprinkled among beautiful tropical trees, flashes of gold from the dozens of temples, and the civilized flow of pedestrians, bicycles, tuk-tuks, scooters, and vans. It’s easy to see why UNESCO declared Luang Prabang a World Heritage Site.
That night, Madeleine and I strolled through the colorful night market, down a few dimly lit alleys and streets (only getting lost once), carefully past several stray dogs of questionable parentage and sanity, and found our destination, L’ Elephant, where we finished off another amazing and exhausting day with a wonderful Lao-French meal.