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Strolling the streets of Luang Prabang

Sisavangvong Road market was flooded with tourists. Couples cuddled to keep the cool mountain air at bay. Parents haggled over paintings and scarves while their children hid behind them shyly. Lone travellers with fisherman trousers and tangled dreadlocks sauntered through with an air of indifference. Groups of backpackers laughed and smoked as they passed the elegant arches of weathered temples. The monks seemed to float between the rabble and chatter of the crowd; their orange robes complimented by beige woollen hats and socks. The lingering smell of citrus and spices wafted down in droves from the nearby food market. Lining the streets were the local women and children, smiling and coaxing the wealthy westerners.

Luang Prabang from Phou Si Temple

They sold arts and crafts; hand-woven fabrics, carved ornaments, illustrations, photographs. The clang of a bell rang and reverberated down from Phou Si Temple which stood beside the main street atop of a tree-carpeted mountain. I had been up there the previous day to see the sunset plunge below the distant peaks of the surrounding hills. The tourists had taken over the hilltop temple at dusk as well, swarming around the building like honey bees in a deserted hive.

I was in Laos’ second city, Luang Prabang. Nestled in a mountain range beside the Mekong River, this sleepy town was awash with colours, culture and colonial history. I had arrived in this town at the tail end of my gap year, and I’d fallen for its understated charms immediately. The first thing that struck me was the difference in the climate compared to the suffocating humidity of the S-E Asian cities I’d visited previously. To take advantage of this, I’d undertaken a two day guided trek into the surrounding mountains to visit three different hill tribes. Our guides, Keely and Mai were warm, open and quick to laugh; typical of the Laoans I had met so far. They led us through the settlements of the Hmong tribe (where Keely’s family originated), the Lisu and the Karen. To reach the villages we first got a lift across the Mekong on a hand-carved canoe, drifting past local women waist high in the water fishing for seaweed. This in turn would be sold to the market, dried and seasoned and served with a buffalo skin puree, a Luang Prabang speciality.

Trekking from Luang Prabang

Our hike took us through shaded forests strewn with sturdy bamboo, and over high ridges overlooking fog-shrouded valleys. We passed a quarry and saw miners sheltering from a cascading rock fall; then passed with the dull thud of dynamite echoing behind us. I took a unique memory from each of the villages. The Hmongs were unresponsive and distant, quartering us off behind a bamboo fence as they peeped over the enclosure. The adults in the Lisu tribe played cards with fast snapping movements, while the children giggled and held onto each other as if these strange white men had come to prise them apart. In the Karen tribe, I was initiated in a game of sepak takraw, where two teams kick a small woven ball over a volleyball net with martial art style efficiency. I was terrible, but ironically this amused the Karens so much that they warmed to me immediately.

author in Hmong village

I happily buffooned around and joined in their amusement. I was sad to leave them behind when dinner was called; but the buffalo chunks in a spicy soup made it almost worthwhile.

Back in Luang Prabang, I ambled around in a contented bubble, passing pink-white buildings, pausing to dip into a temple or two, drunk on the clean air and low clouds. I stopped at one of the many boule-a-dromes; a remainder of the French occupation, and challenged some of the locals to a game. I was losing narrowly to a tuk tuk driver when the game was interrupted and he was called away on a job. He left me with a handshake and a grin, hopped in his three wheeled scooter taxi, and sped off down the road, his engine rasping and raging as he went. At night I met with Keely and Mai again who had offered to escort me round their town. They had no obligation to do this; it was simply a charitable act which summed up the selfless nature of this country’s people. We ate a fish laap in a riverside restaurant, another Laos speciality, a rich herb-infused curry served with sticky rice.

Childen, Hmong tribe

On my final day in Luang Prabang, I got a longboat to Pak Ou, some nearby caves crammed with Buddha images and statues alongside the Mekong. In the evening, I took one last walk down the dimly lit nightmarket, breathing in the wafts of barbequed fish and the wisps of smoke from the incense candles outside a nearby temple. I sat down and surveyed the street. An old woman stooped over her market stall to bless each of her belongings after she had a successful sale, and a monk smiled to himself as he passed a family looking over a watercolour of a Luang Prabang.

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