Archives for : Laos

A Galic Breakfast in Luang Prabang

Excuse me for being a bit self indulgent here, but breakfast can either make or break a destination for me.

I’ve eaten in some pretty nice places (the Sheraton on Jimbaran Bay, Bali is nice) and some not so great places (a hotel that turned out to be a brothel in the mountains of Turkey is one I’d like to forget) and Luang Prabang has one of my favourites.

Cafe Ban Wat Sene, Luang Prabang, Laos

A quiet breakfast at the Cafe Ban Wat Sene

The Cafe Ban Wat Sene in the main street opposite the school doesn’t look much different to many of the others but it has everything I look for.

A few small tables sit out on the street and one always has a reserved sign on it. Here, each morning, the same old European guys meet to read french newspapers, drink coffee and chat about the state of the world. You could be in a provincial town somewhere in France – except here its warm.

As you sit, you can hear the pleasant sound of the kids in the junior school across the road, playing, sweeping (they do a lot of that all over Asia) and reciting their lessons (just as I used to do back when the world was young). You also see the tourists as they shuffle into the main part of town to hook up with buses or minivans or rent bikes from the bike stand just up from the school (Luang Prabang town is flat and, with the exception of Pi Mai (Lao New Year) in April is an easy place to get around).

La Grande Set

La Grande Set


My favourite table (well actually it’s a small timber desk) for two is just inside one of the three doors. I prefer to be inside ’cause there’s less chance of somebody I don’t know speaking to me (as friendly locals and tourists are apt to do). I’m not much on speaking until I’ve had my breakfast.

Now there’s lots to choose from but I go straight for “La Grande Set” – with coffee. That’s poached eggs, bacon (not a lot but its good), bread, croissant, baguette,  jam and fresh fruit salad. Filling, and because its served on a small table you do need to use some method in its eating. For me, that’s a plus. I love method – a lot of guys do. You know, this goes here, that goes there, this is eaten first, that is left to last. The kind of thing that drives others mad but makes sense of the day for me.

Once done, I signal one of the incredibly thin young men who go about their duties as if in church to bring the ridiculously small bill and I’m ready for the day ahead.

Ka Bin La Phom, Luang Prabang’s god of the sky

I am fascinated by cultural stories of non-western people and one fascinating story is the one in Luang Prabang, Laos about the four faced god, Ka Bin La Phom.

Not only does the god personify a whole value system, he also features very prominently in the lunar new year celebrations each year.

Ka Bin La Phom, Wat Mahathat, Luang Prabang, Laos

A statue of Ka Bin La Phom at the top of stairs leading to Wat Mahathat

If you walk up the stairs leading from the main road into Wat Mahathat you will pass through a gateway featuring the god’s head on the top of the ornate gate posts. In his four faces are four guiding principles which people believe gives guidance on how to interact with people – especially your children.

The four things exemplified in Ka Bin La Phom’s four faces you should use in any interaction are:

  •  Loving Kindness,
  •  Compassion,
  •  Sympathy, and
  •  Neutrality.

Sounds good to me and from my interactions with Lao people, I think they take this lesson fairly seriously.

Entry Doors, Wat Mahathat, Luang Prabang, Laos

One of the beautiful entry doors to Wat Mahathat

But, Ka Bin La Phom plays a strong part in Lao New Year, or Pi Mai. Yes, I know there is a lot of water throwing and mud smearing and drunkenness too, but there is a serious religious side to the festival and the parade through town and the blessings at the Pac Ou Caves are serious affairs – featuring Ka Bin La Phom.

Let me tell you the story as it was told to me by our friend and guide Lathasak Manilatsamy.

Ka Bin La Phom created the world and its people and remained the god of the sky. It was the custom for people to ask his advice to solve problems or to grant them their wishes. But the people started to favour asking a learned man called Tamaban to solve their problems. Tamaban had studied a lot and had actually learnt to speak the languages of the birds and beasts of the forest.

Ka Bin La Phom is carried by the current Miss "Lao New Year" at Wat Mahathat

Ka Bin La Phom is carried by the current Miss “Lao New Year” at Wat Mahathat

In time, people started to forget Ka Bin La Phom and he became jealous and angry. So he decided to set Tamaban a problem to show the people who was the smartest. So he came down to earth in human form and showed himself to Tamaban and the people. He told Tamaban that they were now in a life and death struggle – after the competition either Tamaban or Ka Bin La Phom would die.

To save himself, Tamaban had to answer three questions:

  • Where is the sin of the people in the morning?
  • Where is the sin of the people in the afternoon?
  • Where is the sin of the people in the evening?

Ka Bin La Phom told Tamaban that he would return in seven days to hear his answers – expecting that Tamaban would not have the answers.

With Ka Bin La Phom at the front of the float, the daughters take up positions on and under a Garuda

With Ka Bin La Phom at the front of the float, the daughters take up positions on and under a Garuda

And he would have been correct because Tamaban did not have any idea what the answers were. For six days he thought, asked people and prayed for the answers – but they did not come. So, in fear of his life, on the sixth day, he ran away into the deep jungle.

He clambered for hours through the dense jungle and becoming very tired, he lay down under a huge tree and as he lay resting two large eagles landed in the branches.

Crowds arriving at the Miss Lao New Year Competition

Crowds arriving at the Miss Lao New Year Competition

Not realising that Tamaban could hear them, Mrs Eagle said to Mr Eagle “I am very hungry. Will we get anything good to eat tomorrow?”

Mr Eagle replied “Tomorrow we will have a treat. The god Ka Bin La Phom has asked a man called Tamaban three questions and if he does not give him the answers tomorrow, Ka Bin La Phom will cut off his head and we will have days of feasting on his flesh.”

The daughters of Ka Bin La Phom sprinkling holy water on Buddhas at Pac Ou Caves

The daughters of Ka Bin La Phom sprinkling holy water on Buddhas at Pac Ou Caves

“That’s good news,” said Mrs Eagle, “But what are the questions and do you know the answers?”

“Listen, and I will tell you the questions and the answers,” said Mr Eagle – and he did, while hiding below them, Tamaban listened intently. When they were finished, Tamaban ran back to his village.

On the seventh day, Ka Bin La Phom returned and confronted Tamaban.

“Well, do you have the answers or shall I cut off your head?” he asked.

“I have your answers” said Tamaban boldly.

“The sin of the people in the morning is on their faces so they wash their faces before they start the day.

The sin of the people in the afternoon is on their bodies so when they come home from the fields they wash the sin away and refresh themselves.

In the evening, it is on their feet so before going to bed, they wash their feet.”

Some of the Buddha statues inside the caves at Pac Ou

Some of the Buddha statues inside the caves at Pac Ou

“You are correct!” exclaimed an astounded Ka Bin La Phom, “and as I promised, I will now cut off my own head instead of yours. But, this will be very dangerous for human kind and you must follow my directions or the world will come to an end!”

With that, he called his seven daughters to him and explained to them what they needed to do. He told them that once his head was cut from his body it would be very dangerous. If it was placed on the ground, the earth would catch fire and burn to dust. If it was placed in a river or stream, all the water in the land would boil away and if they threw it into the air, the air itself would catch fire and all life would perish.

To make the head safe, it would have to be placed on a golden platter and kept inside a cave – except for once a year, when it must be brought out to be venerated and washed in holy water.

And this is the ceremony that takes place every Lao New Year.

The seven daughters are picked in a huge contest for their looks as well as their character and intellect. They bring the god’s head out and venerate it in a building inside Wat Mahathat. It is then carried in procession from Wat Mahathat to Wat Xien Thong where it can be worshiped before returning it to its resting place.

The seven daughters also visit the ancient caves north of Luang Prabang which overlook the Mekong just where the Ou River flows into the Mekong.

Here, the daughters sprinkle holy water on the hundreds of Buddha statues crowded into the caves .

Worshipers leaving Pac Ou by canoe

Worshipers leaving Pac Ou by canoe

The Prabang’s Big Day Out, Luang Prabang


Pra Bang, National Museum, Luang Prabang, Laos

Approaching the Palace gates (Image: Lathasak Manilatsamy)

It’s difficult to express the significance  to the people of Luang Prabang and Laos of the Pra Bang. For Luang Prabang, this small gilded statue, after which Luang Prabang is named, marks the beginning of written history, the formation of the Lan Xan Empire and the Lao identity and the coming of Theravada Buddhism as the state religion.

It’s a small statue of the Buddha (in the “calming family quarrels” pose) that’s believed to be the protector of Luang Prabang.

It arrived as a gift to the king of the new Lao empire from his father-in-law, the King of Angkor, around 1353. (Is it the real one or is the real one in Vientiane or Moscow? Is it pure gold or a bronze that’s been gilded? Does it matter?)

It’s had a difficult life. The temple it was in was burnt down (Wat Visoun), it was stolen by the Thais (twice) and the last thirty years or so have not been its happiest.

The Pra Bang is carried through the gates of Wat Mai, Luang Prabang, Laos

The Pra Bang is carried through the gates of Wat Mai

When the communists took over in 1975, they aimed to destroy the old feudal order. And the Pra Bang featured strongly in the melding of religion and rule. So, it and the ceremonies that went with it were not well liked by the new Government. But it has remained a constant in the long history of Luang Prabang which has seen wars with the Burmese, Thais, Vietnamese and amongst themselves as well. It has survived wars, fires and theft to remains a powerful symbol of Luang Prabang and Laos.

It currently lives in a wing of the old palace, now the museum, where you are able to view it but not photograph it.

But, once a year, during Pi Mai (Lao New Year around April), it comes out to be carried down to Wat Mai where people are able to venerate it and pray to it for a day or so. It’s quite a big deal.

A large, ornately carved, gilded wagon is parked in front of the palace. Prayers are said both inside and outside the building. The little statue is carried by attendants wearing white gloves down the stairs of the palace and up into a palanquin atop the golden wagon. Despite its small size, it’s obviously very heavy and the guys who carry it clearly show the strain.

Once standing in its place atop the wagon, a priest carries out a ceremony to bless and cleans the statue. His little pointed hat is put in place and with the orchestra playing and conch shells blown it starts its creaking journey out of the palace and down the road to Wat Mai.

It’s quite a procession with orange clad monks, silk and satin clothed officials and VIP’s carrying their best silver bowls, a band of young men in white jackets sounding conch shells and then the Pra Bang, high above the heads of the crowd.

The wagon is pushed and steered from behind and out the front walks one old man carrying a baton as the crowd joins in behind singing and sounding gongs.

Pra Bang at Wat Mai, Luang Prabang, Laos

Wat Mai – the Pra Bang is ready

It’s only a short distance to Wat Mai where the attendants take him down from the wagon and carry him to his new position under a large temporary roof structure erected in the forecourt of Wat Mai.

Here, he is placed in another mini temple surrounded by flowers and covered by an ornate gilded roof.

On either side of the enclosure are wide timber stairs leading up and down (there are helpful signs to tell which is which). From the top of the stairs spanning the short distance to the roof of the Pra Bang’s mini temple are things called “hanglins”. These are in the shape of nagas (mythical snake-like creatures) with their rear end at the top of the stairs and their heads over the roofed structure under which the Pra Bang stands.

A young couple pour holy water into the hanglin

A young couple pour holy water into the hanglin

Devotees climb the stairs carrying large silver bowls filled with scented water. They say a prayer and empty the contents of their bowl into the back of the hanglin. The water runs down a channel inside the naga, falls through an opening in the roof and showers down over the Pra Bang.  This aspersion brings a blessing to the person carrying out the ritual. As the water hits the floor of the Pra Bang’s structure, it is channeled away and collected to be used on Buddha statues in people’s homes.

Despite the religious significance of this ceremony, I found myself very welcome – in fact, when attendants saw that I was trying to photograph the statue while respectively staying at a distance, I was ushered down to the front (mind you kneeling on the thin mat on top of rough concrete was a bit painful – but, you know – must suffer for art!).

The two spirits of Luang Prabang, Pu Nyer and Nya Nyer, bring water collected from the Nam Khan river at the home of a naga called Kham La and pour this over the Pra Bang in a marriage between the old animist religion and Buddhism.

The Pra Bang is left there for a full day and then the whole thing is done in reverse to bring the Pra Bang back to its place in the palace.

Here in Luang Prabang, this ceremony and many others are still carried out much as they were hundreds of years ago. But here, the scale is small and the people accommodating. As an outsider, you are welcomed into the mix and can get close enough to really feel a part of the ritual – at least for an hour or so.

Pu Nyer & Nya Nyer – the Ancestors

Pu Nyer & Nya Nyer on the steps to Wat Aham

Pu Nyer & Nya Nyer on the steps to Wat Aham

The religion in Luang Prabang is Therevada Buddhism which also includes the spirits of the land and water, the Nagas, and also the tutelary gods of Luang Prabang, Pu Nyer and Nya Nyer (with their stepson the lion named Singkow Singkom).

The story goes that when the king of the gods came to earth, before there were people, he brought with him two helpers who cleared the jungle for him as he moved west.

Those helpers were Pu Nyer and Nya Nyer.

When they came to the spot that is now Luang Prabang, Pu Nyer and Nya Nyer decided to stay.

They came to an agreement with the 15 families of Nagas that already lived here and they settled down to grow rice. Their rice fields were close to the current location of Wat Visoun and Wat Aham.

They became the ancestors of the Lao people and they are still venerated in Luang Prabang.

Pu Nyer & Nya Nyer lead the New year Parade

Pu Nyer & Nya Nyer lead the New year Parade

Their masks and costumes are kept in a small building alongside Wat Aham where there used to be an alter to them for people to make offerings.

Each year, after a ceremony to bring the spirits of these gods back to their costumes, they play a feature role in important ceremonies.

For example, they march at the head of parades and they collect holy water from the rivers to use to wash the most sacred Buddha statue, the Pra Bang during Pi Mai.

You will find miniature versions for sale right across Luang Prabang.


The Boat Racing, Luang Prabang

The boat races have a deep religious meaning both Buddhist and Animist. But it’s also one of the best natured picnic races I have ever been to.

In the weeks leading up to the races, the teams practice on the Nam Khan (river) and the Mekong. You can hear them chanting in the rhythm of their rowing in the early morning and the evenings.

Practice in the rain

Practice in the rain

The canoes are big – carrying more than 40 rowers. Each temple has at least one racing canoe. In the quiet of Luang Prabang, the chanting floats for miles up and down the river.

Small crowds gather in the evening in the street overlooking the Nam Khan to watch the rowers practice.

One of my favourite things to do is sit drinking a gin and tonic and watch the river traffic. On the Nam Khan, that’s racing canoes and small fishing canoes. On the Mekong you will see everything from canoes to floating hotels!

Racing on the Mekong

Racing on the Mekong

Before the main racing is held in the old city, another meet is held a little south of the centre on the Mekong near the mouth of the river that is the traditional boundary to Luang Prabang. This is the home of one of the Nagas that feature in the mythology around the races.

The crowd getting excited

The crowd getting excited

This race is much less formal, the canoes are smaller and it’s quite a carnival. Not so easy to find. As you head south out of the city, you cross a bridge then immediately turn right and enter a temple which then leads you through the food stalls and down to the Mekong.

It’s worth the trip. You will probably be the only westerner there!

There are also two carnivals. One held on an expanse of land between the main road and Wat That Luang and, on the day of the races, a street fair that takes over the main highway leading into town.

Jumping Castles at the Night Carnival

Jumping Castles at the Night Carnival

The night carnival has the biggest array of jumping castles I have ever seen. It also has food and games and bargain shopping for the locals.

The daytime one is also huge and as well as food there are so many shops selling so many goods it shard to remember them all.

We stayed in a hotel on the street above the Nam Khan so we didn’t have far to go and so we could watch the races from our balcony.  But not wanting to be left out of the fun, we were able to hire a table at a restaurant looking down on the river just by turning up mid-morning.

Pushing to the finish line on the Nam Khan

Pushing to the finish line on the Nam Khan

For the length of the race, there are restaurants set up on the banks overlooking the river and you can sit at a table, drinking cold beer and ordering food from the many stalls along the route. Both sides of the Nam Khan are crowded with people. The noise is something you have to experience to understand. There’s a race caller on a race wide PA system. Each stall plays its own music and add to that a screaming crowd, and groups of drummers and…well it’s load.

It’s noising, good natured fun – with lots of food and beer.

Fire Boat Festival, Luang Prabang

We loved the Fire Boat Festival.

Fire Eater at the foot of Mnt Phousi

Fire Eater at the foot of Mnt Phousi

This is when many of the villages in and around Luang Prabang make large illuminated boats which they parade through the old town to Wat Xieng Tong.

We were introduced to the people at Ban Na Luang who were building their boat on a large verandah on the edge of their Wat overlooking the street.

Their boat was the size of a large canoe – about six or eight metres long. We filmed them as they fashioned the boat from bamboo, timber and cardboard and attached decorations made from banana stems, flowers and moulded wax.

They fed us green mango salad with lots of chilli and invited us back to the pre-launch party.

Lao-style Line Dancing

Lao-style Line Dancing

So we arrived with a case of warm beer and our Loa friend Mr Bee to translate. The Laos do know how to enjoy themselves! Although, nobody seems to worry about industrial deafness – the music is SO LOUD.
If you want to mix with the locals, you need to get used to drinking your beer over ice and eating lots of chilli.

Floral Offering for sale

Floral Offering for sale

On the day of the parade, the boats are loaded up onto trailers and pushed into town.

They gather at a large intersection just to the south of the old town and wait for dark.

On the days leading up to the parade, the temples are decorated with lanterns and lights and boats are built outside some of the businesses and the large hotels.

On the road above the Mekong, stalls sell floral offerings which people buy to light up and send out onto the black Mekong.

School Children, faces lit by lantern

School Children, faces lit by lantern

As night falls, the people light up the many oil lamps that illuminate the boats and head off down the main road, passed the official party at the foot of Mount Phousi and on to Wat Xieng Thong.

Between the boats are entertainers, like fire eaters, and groups of school children dressed in their best carry lanterns as they walk along with the boats.

At Wat Xieng Thong, the boats are blessed and then carried down the steep wide stair that leads to the Mekong.

Gaint Fish, Light Festival, Luang Prabang, Laos

The Fish is lowered into the Mekong

Here, they are gently lowered onto the water and towed out into the main current to be let go.

Hundreds of people line the stairs and the banks of the river, some just watching, some letting of fireworks, some sending hot air balloons off into the dark sky.


The mood is happy but respectful. This is a family affair and very charming.


Luang Prabang Love Affair

A few years ago we visited a very small place on the UNESCO World Heritage List, Luang Prabang in northern Laos – we fell in love with the place.

Pi Mai - not safe even on motorbike

Pi Mai – not safe even on motorbike

Since then, we’ve been back numerous times and been there for the three main festivals of their Buddhist lunar year:

  • Pi Mai (Lunar New Year)
  • The Boat Racing Festival, and
  • The Fire Boat Festival

and we’ve made videos of all plus a selection of the temples, tourist attractions, markets, food and much more.

We had some wonderful adventures there but the original reason we were drawn back was not the pageantry nor the temples nor history but just the feel of the place.

Nirvana Buddha, Wat Xieng Thong

Nirvana Buddha, Wat Xieng Thong

I have never been anywhere as peaceful and lay back.

Laos don’t rush. Nor do they raise their voices, nor do they sell hard.

On our first trip a few years back, even in the night market, the one designed for tourists, you had to ask to be served. Hard sell is just not something they do.

There is a strong French influence and good croissants, baguettes and coffee are easy to find

We ave posted a few videost on our YouTube site, Robertson Guides, but the rest we have used to make a video guide to Luang Prabang.

As I write we have just to complete the interactive maps and then submit to iTunes to publish – wish us luck!