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Luang Prabang

A city of 80,000 that retains a good deal of French colonial past in its patisseries and buildings, Luang Prabang is a place you can fall in love with. The pace is slow, lingering perfection, bikes and tuk tuks, fruit shakes, pancakes, and noodle soups from the street food stalls.

Lao people are surely the kindest, gentlest and most helpful Asians we’ve met so far. Their second city is surprisingly sophisticated in many ways, populated with inviting cafes and shops selling traditional textiles. There is an element of a tourist set up of course: the real Luang Prabang happens off the main streets and beyond the night market, but nevertheless, we couldn’t have been happier as we biked side by side with the tuk tuks along the Mekong, to visit the ornate Wat Xiengthong temple at the end of the peninsula, decorated with fabulous gold and red, or gold and black motifs inside. We then braved the rickety temple of doom-like bamboo bridge to view the city from the other side of the river before grabbing some pains au chocolat and heading into town to visit the national museum, shops and temple on the other side.

We stayed at the simple but lovely Villa Oasis, extremely well priced at 100 dollars for a family apartment with a great view, breakfast and pool, but there are some really fabulous other hotels well worth a stay. The people at Villa Oasis were just so lovely though, we wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.

We had stopped in the evening before at the Ock pop Lok store and cafe on the main road and booked ourselves on for a day of Lao handicraft and textiles workshops, so off we went in a brilliant multicolores tuk tuk to their cultural centre, a few miles outside of the town overlooking the Mekong. Meaning ‘East meets West’ this was set up by an English-Lao pair of women specifically to empower local women and keep their artisan skills alive. Working with over 400 women in different villages through the country, they make and sell some genuinely lovely textiles, necklaces, hammocks and more, as well as offer a range of excellent workshops, and extremely good food.

We were to try our hands at bamboo basket weaving and batik (me), and tie dye with natural dyes (the girls and alberto). Our teachers were various smiling and delightful young Lao. They ask us about our travels and our homes, telling us in turn about their own villages in the hills and how they want to try for something better than farming: hence why so many come to the city to try to learn English and dream of becoming tour guides. Their lives have not been easy- one of our helpers lost his parents to leftover landmines, growing up with just his sister to support him and hardly any money. Like many others, the temple plays a vital part in development: he joined as a Buddhist novice for 7 years, which gave him a good basic education, and is now saving up for his course to become a guide.

The fun we had that day speaks for itself in the photos: learning to dye with indigo, turmeric and lime, weaving baskets and placemats, learning the rudiments of batik under the auspices of the venerable Mae Thao (Grandmother) Zuzong, apparently the only H’mong batik artist still practising the exact art around. Drawing multiple straight lines, freehand, in beeswax on hemp, using a rather mysterious and unwieldy pointy object,is NO easy task!

Clutching our newly made handicraft, it was time to return for some food at Tamarind, highly recommended for cooking classes too, and our last day, due to be spent in the rice paddies…

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