I recently went to the zoo and among the many animals we saw was the beautiful butterfly house. It evoked fond childhood memories but also made me think about one of my all-time favourite places - Luang Prabang in Laos, which has so many charms including exotic-looking butterflies fluttering all over town.
Luang Prabang is one of those places that on one hand you don't want anyone else to know about because it's such a unique and exquisite destination, but on the other hand you want everyone to experience a place of such marvellous beauty. Thankfully it's a UNESCO heritage listed town so hopefully the atmosphere will be maintained.
The town is the former capital of Laos. It is full of graceful French-colonial era buildings, old wats and is situated between two rivers amidst dense jungle. The streets are strewn with frangipani and there's a palpable sweet smell in the air. It's easy to walk around and there's numerous day trips you can go on. We went on an elephant trek in the middle of the jungle and saw how mahouts are saving elephants from hard labour like logging and giving them a better life. We also swum in a beautiful, refreshing tiered waterfall, which was greatly needed after a long day in the humidity.
Because of its French influence, the town has many European-inspired bakeries and there's no shortage of delicious breads and cakes. The local cuisine however takes the cake (excuse the pun) and we dined on sumptuous lemongrass stuffed with chicken, dried river vegetable chips with tomato, eggplant dips and pastes, sticky rice, banana and coconut smoothies and the traditional Laos Jeow Bong (sweet chilli paste). Many of the guesthouses offer cooking classes and this is a wonderful way to experience the cuisine and savour it long after you leave.
There are many small businesses in Luang Prabang that encourage tribespeople to craft their wares and sell to travellers. Many of the menus in towns ask travellers to 'stay another day' in the town to give more.
There is a beautiful night market in Luang Prabang that's unlike any other market I've been to in Asia. Usually the Asian markets are lively and bustling and full of vendors rushing around to chat or re-stock or sell. The night market in Luang Prabang is very sedate. It's a street of mainly women and children sitting under red umbrellas with their goods spread out on blankets and quilts before them. There's no pressure to buy and it's therefore absolutely delightful admiring all the handmade clothing, bags and linen.
One of the best endeavours I've ever seen was called Big Brother Mouse, a small Laos-run publishing house that asks travellers to buy books to give to the local children. It aims to increase literacy among local children and to help them to learn about their own culture and stories. I gave a few books to children on a long-tail boat out in the jungle. They looked delighted when they took them and then 'read' them upside down and back the front. We had a guide for that day trip and he told us the children would walk a few hours back to their village so they were worthy recipients in a remote area.
The other amazing thing about Luang Prabang is the monks. There are saffron-robed monks everywhere working and living in the wats, and each morning they rise at dawn to ask alms of the townspeople. This involves a long procession around the town and local women fill their bowls with sticky rice. It's a solemn affair and they ask that travellers don't donate unless they're Buddhist. The long line of robed monks is an absolute photographer's delight but something that I didn't want to impose on. They are there asking for food, not as a tourist spectacle.
The town is resplendent, regal and romantic. An amazing place to spend a week and a day.