I can’t quite believe that my one month in Luang Prabang, Laos, has trickled past so quickly. In a hazy blur of yoga, sunrises, sunsets, a birthday, lush countryside, new friends, some illness and homesickness, but most of all an overwhelming feeling of contentment and gleeful disbelief that my world right now allows me to work, travel and live like this.
There’s something very special about Luang Prabang, in a way that you can’t quite put your finger on. It is the kind of place that just keeps ticking along – you come, you settle in, then you leave, and it just keeps going without you, which is both sad and comforting at the same time. A month is too short a time to fully experience life there, at least in the way it needs to be experienced. The most captivating part of Luang Prabang life for me is that life feels easy. Nothing is too far away, you have culture, religion, outdoor adventure, nature, comfort and a bounty of good, cheap food on your doorstep.
I was there for a month, teaching yoga daily for Luang Prabang Yoga, overlooking the Nam Khan River, through rain and shine, sunrise and sunset, to whoever passed through. I had some regulars – people staying in town for a while, expats, or returning visitors who went elsewhere and decided this was the place to be. I was teaching most classes at Utopia, which is just as it sounds – a chilled out, everybody welcome kind of place with good food, interesting people, cosy seating overlooking the river, a volleyball net and a yoga deck.
One of my favourite evening activities was to visit one of the temples at around 6.30pm and join the monks and novices for their evening chanting and meditation. From 6.30 – 7pm they would chant Buddhist verses, then from 7 – 8pm they would meditate in silence. I would do my best, sometimes sneaking out a little earlier, because an hour and a half is a long time to sit without stretching out your legs. The feet are considered the lowest part of your body in all respects, so its very rude to stretch your legs forward and face the soles of your feet at Buddha. If you want to stretch, you have to awkwardly poke your legs to one side. One time I made the foolish mistake of wearing a wrap around skirt to meditation, and quickly realised that I couldn’t sit cross legged without baring my crotch to the Buddha, which is generally deemed inappropriate in Buddhist tradition.
At the end of the meditation sometimes the novices would turn to practice their English with any westerners in the temple. They were very inquisitive about our lives and how we can travel, and in exchange I asked questions trying to get a grasp on the day in the life of a monk or novice. It’s a lot of discipline for these tiny little boys, and one night in meditation I opened my eyes to just watch them sitting. Some of them are so small and their heads keep lolling forward, then they catch themselves and try to sit upright again, only to keep falling asleep every few minutes. It’s adorable and kind of sad and also very impressive all at the same time – as teenagers these kids have more discipline than many of us might learn in a lifetime. At their age I was running around half naked in a field, building tree houses and singing at the top of my lungs. The contrast is pretty eye opening.
The food… People say that Laos food is nothing to write home about. I found some gems in Luang Prabang that made me rethink – my particular favourite breakfast at Delilah’s consisted of a little bamboo box of sticky rice, a Lao omelette with dill and vegetables, steamed vegetables and a pot of spicy eggplant dip which was the best in town. I would go there for brunch after teaching, use the Internet, and just watch people passing by. It was a weird little place, they would often be blasting the music at 9am, even if I was the only customer, but I took my food outside and they took a shine to me because I tried out my rudimentary Laos on them every day and they thought I was hilarious.
Some places in town make awesome Laap or Laab – made with either chicken, fish or tofu/mushroom, mixed in with fresh herbs and served with greens and sometimes sticky rice, it makes a refreshing lunch or dinner. Street side stalls have grilled bananas, fresh fruit, tiny pancakes, sandwiches, and fruit shakes. I discovered an alleyway in the night market offering a buffet selection of vegetarian food, where you grab a bowl, fill it with as much as you can pack in, get them to heat it up for you, chuck an egg on top and pay a tiny 15,000kip (less than 2usd). You can also choose to wash it down with a big beer Laos, at the average price of 10,000 kip. Cheap and cheerful.
A favourite was also the Sin Daad or Laos BBQ, with baskets of vegetables, noodles, raw meat or tofu, pots of broth and dipping sauce. You grill your own meat or tofu on the hot pot which is built into the table, pour the broth into the little most and fill it with vegetables and noodles, and then scoop it out bit by bit into your bowl and try to get it in your mouth with chopsticks. An awesome social way to eat, pretty cheap, and there are places around town that offer an all-you-can-eat situation, including icecream for dessert, and you can just stay there for several hours to see how many meals you can squeeze in for your kip.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows in Luang Prabang for me, though. I got a nasty burn on my leg from riding on the back of my friends motorbike, which I was terrified was getting infected, especially when it started bleeding and looking quite worrying. Luckily a friend had some medical supplies and it has started to heal nicely. Apparently they call them “Laos burns”, because everyone gets a burn in the same place from bumping against the exhaust pipe on their bike.
I got a weird bite or something suspicious on the back of my other leg which became a curious texture and felt all squishy when I touched it, but I just kind of ignored it for a while (out of sight, out of mind) and it seems to have gone away. Phew.
I also had some nasty stomach issues which still haven’t quite been resolved – a sensitive stomach at the best of times can struggle in Asia, with all the hidden ingredients and language barrier when you ask for certain things to be excluded/ added to your meal. Laos has come a long way, but if you’re looking for gluten free dairy free vegan chia seed muffins, this is not the place. And maybe that’s a good thing.
In general, being sick when you’re away from home is pretty much the worst thing. Every tiny little inconvenience of living in Asia comes to the fore – you can’t find the medicine you need, you can’t drink from the tap, there’s a power cut and you lie there all feverish with no air con, nobody understands what you’re saying (to the point where you think perhaps you are delirious and rambling), the thought of noodle soup makes you turn green, and everything comforting and familiar is far away.
Nobody ever talks about the shitty hard part of living and working away from home. It’s like it’s a little bit unacceptable to admit to being unhappy while you’re living in sunshine paradise and working your dream job. It’s natural that there are ups and downs, and being sick makes you realise that your health is the single most important thing, coming before everything else. If you’re not well then you can’t enjoy everything that your surroundings offer.
And THAT, my friends, is the time to go to Chiang Mai, a vegan/ vegetarian/organic/ gluten free/paleo Mecca for anyone with awkward dietary requirements. It was very sad for me to leave Luang Prabang, where life was easy, and faces had become familiar, but the time has come, and I’m looking forward to starting a Thai Massage training in Chiang Mai and having the resources around me to get my glow back.
I’m currently up in Pai, a chilled out ‘hippie town’ north of Chiang Mai, where I plan to spend several days doing just that – chilling out, doing yoga, catching up on some work and exploring the lush surroundings. Next week I start my course, where I will learn to massage bodies.