It’s heartfelt and powerful, and as I walk back into the hotel I feel as if I’ve been meditating
Catharine Nicol asks if Luang Prabang is the most zen town in Asia
Once you’ve discovered Luang Prabang, it will become your secret, soulful bolthole. Set on the Mekong, it is a sleepy town of temples and their resident monks, crisscrossed with quiet roads flanked by cafés, boutiques and bougainvillea… and more temples. If you’re looking for somewhere to tune out, this is the place.
Luang Prabang runs on temple time, slow and yawningly early. Which is how come it’s 5.45am and I’m walking through the gloaming away from my comfy bed. My hotel, the gorgeous, glamorous Amantaka, has invited me to take part in alms giving to the monks and novices from the nearby temples. Set up by the side of the road just outside their gates I find cushions on the pavement and bamboo pots warm with just-cooked sticky rice.
Far from a tourist gimmick, there are rules to this revered and daily Buddhist ritual. When the monks walk past, I must keep my gaze lowered in respect, and pick a small ball of sticky rice to drop, thoughtfully, into their bowl.
We don’t have to wait long before we spot a single file line of monks walking towards us through the early-morning light. I lower my eyes and watch a procession of bare feet pause in front of me as I drop my rice into each bowl, giving thanks for the opportunity and feeling compassion for each monk.
Around a dozen monks from each of four or five different temples collect our alms before we give our remaining rice to the animal spirits by placing a small amount on the pair of pillars at the entrance to the hotel. And finally, we take water and pour it on the trunks of one of the hotel’s trees to remember our ancestors. It’s heartfelt and powerful, and as I walk back into the hotel I feel as if I’ve been meditating. My spirit feels light, my heart full. It’s a great way to start a day in this gentle town.
With such a slow pace of life, I feel I have time to play with in Luang Prabang and trying a traditional Laos massage features high on my agenda. There are a number of spas in town, from luxury hotel sanctuaries to sweet little day spas.
Up the hill is the Belmond La Residence Phou Vao hotel, with its dark wood, whirring ceiling fans and lofty views. Its Mekong Spa is beautifully arranged around a lotus pool, and I am keen to try a traditional Lao massage, which is somewhat similar to Thai, but the pace and pressure is gentle and there’s less stretching. My infinitely kind and calm therapist performs an emotionally as well as physically soothing treatment, from the starting foot scrub to the very last touch. I leave incredibly grateful and content.
It was definitely a tie between this and the foot massage that I enjoyed at the new property Azerai earlier in the week. How amazing can a foot massage be? Very, it turns out. The communal room is divided into curtained spaces, each with a supremely comfortable chair that tips almost horizontal. Following the foot soak and cleanse, a hot pad was placed over my shoulders before the hour-long massage started. The gentle yet therapeutic, healing pressure danced over the foot and lower leg. I closed my eyes to better appreciate the pressure. And then I nodded off…
Now, as the sun rose in the sky, I decided to dive into the cool of Luang Prabang’s tempting coffee shop scene. On the main street there’s Jomo’s high ceilings, old paintwork and tempting cakes, as well as Dexter’s modern black and white tiles and décor, and the best café mocha in town, but today I decided to stop at Le Banneton, a local institution revered for its crunchy, flaky, buttery croissants.
In the evening I decided to visit Sakkaline Road, which becomes the market of textiles, parasols, bags, t-shirts and antiques. As the sun sets, shop after shop unearths a journey of creative indigo and batik, antiques and handicrafts. I stopped by the Blue House, which is a wardrobe of stunning silk clothes and jewelery, then I viewed Lao’s famous weaving techniques at Le Pavilion de Jade and Ock Pop Tok, before finishing my exploration by dipping into the Buddhist Archives at Wat Souvannakhili. It’s filled with the black and white works of German photographer Hans Georg Berger, who has made Luang Prabang and its surrounds his home and his muse.
But if I thought the town was relaxing, I was practically comatosed when I took a ride along the Mekong River the next day. I climbed aboard one of the signature longboats that putt-putting upstream to tour the recently launched Pha Tad Ke Botanical Gardens. A labour of love, this beautiful nursery of trees, flora and herbs is 15 minutes’ boat ride and a world away from town. I wandered from one herb or bloom to another, reading up about medicinal properties, marvelling at the dragon-shaped orchids and loving the tunnel of bamboo. The only time I stopped was at the café overlooking a lotus pond where I quenched my thirst with a local tea and perused the Laotian snacks.
My time in Laos had almost come to an end, but I was told that I couldn’t leave without witnessing one of the city’s most charming experiences, some soul-stirring Buddhist chanting. In the morning the monks come to you, but in the evening you go to them. I arranged to sit in at Phon Heuang arriving at 5.30pm. Without preamble, novices started taking their seats on the floor of the wat, chatting and fidgeting like school kids until the more senior monks arrived. As the chanting started its deep, resonant sound, comfortingly repetitive, my eyes closed, my mind followed the ebb and flow and my spirit relaxed. It was balm to my soul, and I couldn’t have wished for a more fitting goodbye to this extraordinary place.