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Saffron and Lime in Laos
By Ewen Bell
1 December 2016

Ewen Bell 

In the early morning light hundreds of monks dressed in saffron robes walk silently through the streets of Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos. The ritual of giving alms is repeated daily before the first rays of sunlight have cleared the horizon. Locals wait patiently outside their homes with offerings, placing rice and other food carefully into the monk's bowls as they walk past in single file. The line of monks winds through the streets for before each group splits off to return to their own temple.

Joining the morning alms is a beautiful experience, but you'll get a chance to meet monks any time of day just by wandering around town. Even the Buddhists enjoy a stroll down main street to get a fruit-shake. When the sun is shining the young boys carry golden umbrellas to keep the sun off their heads, which makes them even easier to spot.

Luang Prabang is a spiritual centre for the people of Laos, with a temple every few hundred metres in any direction. Not just any old run-down temples either, every one of them glistening with golden ornaments, tall prayer halls and elegant representations of the Buddha. And yet all of them have their own character and charm.
Wat Xieng Thong is my favourite, nestled near the geographical tip of town where the Kham River meets the Mekong. Colourful mosaics and graceful stupors bring a sense of joy to the spiritual setting, and frangipani trees grow tall along the fence-line.

Before communist rule in Laos this was the site for the coronation of Kings. The ruler in waiting would arrive in Luang Prabang by river and spend three days contemplating within the temple before taking command of his kingdom. Today the daily routine for "novice" monks is to contemplate the lessons of Buddha.

Young boys come to Luang Prabang from all over Laos to spend years studying, yet only a few will continue after the age of 18 to train for monk-hood. Most novices will return to life in their home towns and carry the teachings of Buddhism for the rest of their lives. This is one reason that the people of Laos have such a gentle nature when you meet them.

Most monks in Laos speak very good English, and I asked one young novice named Toui about joining the ritual of giving alms. Toui said, "It's OK for tourists for take part, but we don't just eat rice you know. We're very happy when people give us vegetables from the market." He was referring to the morning market which takes place daily before breakfast in the old town of Luang Prabang.

It's a great place to buy fresh produce but for cheap souvenirs you're best to return at dusk for the night market, when the H'Mong villagers sell their crafts and clothing.

Shopping in Luang Prabang is a delight because no-one hassles you as you walk by. You can browse first and bargain later, if you want. And there is no shortage of exquisite quality silks to tempt the fussy traveller, all set against a backdrop of the UNESCO listed streets and the tasteful style of French colonial architecture.

Up-market textile stores and boutique beauty spas mingle between the elegant hotels and charming cafes - none of which have enough room for more than a handful of guests. Everything in Luang Prabang is presented with style and on a pleasingly small scale.

The biggest building in Luang Prabang is the Royal Palace, which now houses a museum full of all things Laos. Cultural relics and a magnificent adjoining temple are both very lovely, but the palm fringed lily-pond is the real treat for visitors. By mid morning the flowers have opened up to share their splash of colour with the world. Giant bees hum across the petals of water-lilies and monks rest on the edge of the pond to contemplate prayers without words.

Further out of town the more adventurous visitors can try their luck at learning to ride elephants, cycling tours or trekking to minority villages and river cruises that explore the Buddhist caves at Pak Ou. There's even a popular waterfall within an hours drive that plays home to a refuge centre for bears and tigers.

The problem is that once you arrive in Luang Prabang it's hard to convince yourself to leave town at all. The pace is so gentle, the dining so enticing and the monks so serene that you can quickly find that low gear and just relax.

First time travellers to Laos will especially enjoy the culinary diversity of Luang Prabang, so head for Tamarind to get a contemporary perspective on the traditional diet. Tamarind is a modest restaurant by the banks of the Nam Khan, hard to get into and filled with local dishes such as Lemongrass Stuff with Chicken and Smokey Eggplant Jeow.

Much of the menu at Tamarind can also be experienced at their charming cooking school. Pick ups in town pass by the main market to explore the produce and limes, then onwards to a renovated farmhouse for the cooking class. You'll eat too much but have a great day.

Food is life in places like Laos, it's how you share your kindness and how you support the spiritual journey of monk. Make it a part of your journey too.
THAI flies from Australia to Bangkok with onward connections to Vientiane and also to Luang Prabang with THAI Smile.  Visit thaiairways.com for details or ask your travel agent.

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