“Hot, with monks”. My sister said that my pre-visit description of Laos’ most famous city was uninspiring, and she may have been right. It reminds me rather of Ford Prefect’s tag for the world when he visited in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘mostly harmless’.
I fear I undersold it. Post visit, I’d go for “beautiful, ethereal and relaxing” – but I don’t want to wax too lyrical. You might go, after all, and it is very pretty as it is, without any more visitors.
On the offchance though, that you do decide to make the trip, here are my top tips for taking your children and your parents, to Laos’ World Heritage Site.
1.Have a fruit shake
Have one now! The night market is rammed with stalls that will blend up an amazing range of fruit into delicious fruit drinks. I liked lime, mint and soda. Clover came up with a variety of combinations that she was always rather disappointed by. Daisy stuck with what she knew. But yes, it’s hot, and they are under 80p each –so have one now. We didn’t try the ones with ‘local rum’ in – but if the children are cranky, why not? (for you, not them, obviously). When you’ve got your shake, you can do some souvenir shopping – nice handicrafts… I’m still regretting the beautiful bedspread I didn’t buy to bring home, but it’s such a long time until we get back!
- Visit the ‘Buddha who needs the toilet’
It’s a long trip up the mountain to Laos’ most holy Wat, on the beautiful Mount Phousi that watches over the city. Go near sunset, and although you’ll share it with lots of tourists, and their cameras, it won’t matter as you marvel at the surreally perfect valley below you, with smoke issuing from a hundred chimneys.
With children though, you won’t get into too many religious reveries. Daisy dubbed one of the holiest images – Buddha with his hands crossed in front of him as “the Buddha who needs the toilet”, while his friend the ‘Stop it I don’t like it Buddha’ (with his hands up in a warning gesture similar to that taught at the girls’ school nursery) also garnered much mirth.
It was on our trip up the mountain that Clover’s beloved Ever After High dolly, Blondie Locks, lost one of her (bizarrely removable) hands. We’ve told her it is now being venerated as a holy relic, but I’m not sure she believes us – so if you find a small plastic hand on your visit, do mail it back to us.
- Eat Laos tapas
Sounds unpromising, but is delicious. Try Khaiphaen, a social enterprise project that trains local people. It was all fabulous, even the river weed. In fact, all the food was good – the French influence means I had some of the best croissants ever (including those in France) at Le Banneton Cafe. Relax with a beer (not with breakfast) and watch what passes for crowds going by – i.e. a few dogs, hundreds of monks and a couple of German tourists.
- See the monks
Obviously, see the monks. They go by early (my Dad dubbed them ‘birdfart monks’) with their offering baskets, and the locals give them the rice they need for the day. You’re asked only to contribute if ‘the gesture would be meaningful to you’ so we didn’t. Nor did we get the children up. The Apple Guesthouse – a delightfully friendly place – was right by the corner so we left the kids in bed, and spared ourselves the inevitable grumbling.
- Go round the temples at sunset
Very pretty. The kids will grumble, obviously, but don’t heed them. They’ll get into it soon enough, especially trying to distract the younger monks – who are about the same age as Daisy. Unlike Christian monks, throughout most of South East Asia being a Buddhist monk is a normal rite of passage. Almost all boys do it at least once, and in the least developed countries, like Laos, it is the only chance of an education for most (shame about the girls – we only saw nuns in Myanmar). Tiny monks might look ethereal, but they love to see small children to distract them from their chanting. Daisy and Clover are apparently hilarious – if you’re a monk.
- Do some Monk Chat
On this note, do chat with the monks – they are all learning English and hang out because they are keen to practise. We met some who told us that Luang Prabang was now far too busy and noisy (true, I did see at least ten cars). They must never visit Hanoi – or indeed London. If you are a girl, don’t touch the monks though – they don’t like it (on religious grounds, not personal preference!). Mum is even considering an offer to come back and teach some monks this winter – she’s a retired primary teacher. She should go for it – Laos is lovely – and winter is so cold at home.
- Take the Shompoo Cruise
You’ll be reluctant to leave Luang Prabang, so you may as well do it in style. The Shompoo Cruise takes a necessary journey (a boat up the Mekong back to Thailand- or indeed to Thailand if that’s how you arrive) and turns it into a massive treat. We were the only four people on our boat, with delicious food, relaxing cushions and a fantastic view of Laos riverside life. You’ll stop overnight at Pak Beng – which is a little odd – mainly Laos karaoke, rain and stray dogs, but the Shompoo Cruise will be a relaxing end to a relaxing trip. Thanks Luang Prabang!