Tucked away in an endless scene of lush verdant mountains dotted with glistening golden Buddhist pagodas is the stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang. Laos is still a bit untraversed by mass crowds of tourist so it’s crucial to visit the country in a responsible way to help preserve the unique heritage and stunning nature. Here’s how to be a responsible traveler in Luang Prabang, Laos.
PARTICIPATE IN ALMSGIVING WITH A LOCAL
Monks and novices collecting alms for the morning tak bat ritual.
Almsgiving, known as tak bat or sai bat, is a sacred Buddhist ceremony that occurs across many Southeast Asian countries every morning at dawn–rain or shine. Luang Prabang is the ancient capital of Laos and is nicknamed the “land of a thousand years of history and culture.” There are over 150 temples in the tiny town so it’s one of the best places in the region to get to witness the beautiful procession. The city itself is named after Buddha or Prabang in Laos.
This is not a tourist attraction. This is a normal aspect of everyday life for Laotian monks and lay people. We are fortunate to be allowed to see this authentic cultural activity–or even participate in it. The least we can do to honor Laotian heritage is to follow the simple rules that are clearly stated all over the Luang Prabang peninsula.
Outside of most temples, you’ll find placards that have clear rules to follow. They’re written in Laotian, English, and Chinese in order to help you be a mindful traveler during the morning alms-giving. The rules are as follows: stay silent, keep a distance, and don’t use flash. There are even helpful images that show you how to dress appropriately–men should place a scarf over one shoulder and women should place the scarf across their chest.
Learning how to participate in almsgiving properly with Backstreet Academy.
Another image depicts how to properly give alms. You must remove your shoes and kneel. You pinch a small amount of white rice and put it directly in the monk’s alms bowl. Black rice is considered back luck for offerings. You also under no circumstances should touch a monk or look them in the eye. This can be a lot to remember so for my first alms-giving experience I went with a local guide from Backstreet Academy who helped me get sticky rice and a scarf to wear.
LEARN HOW TO MEDITATE WITH A MONK
Wat Phaphay temple in Luang Prabang.
I went with Backstreet Academy to Wat Phaphay (Google Maps) to learn about Buddhism in Laos. We got around during the morning using an electric tuk-tuk! At the temple and monastery there 4 monks and 17 novices. The novices take turns leading the Backstreet Academy tour so that they can practice English and converse with foreigners.
Vanh is the monk who took me through a meditation practice. He’s 18-years-old and has been living in the temple for 3 years. He was just 15 when he left his village, Muang Ngoi. His brother was already a novice monk at Wat Phaphay so it made the transition a bit easier. But, he’s still a teenager and shares with me that it’s challenging to see how lay people live and a struggle to get rid of attachment. He tells me that he’s currently practicing trying to feel lucky to wake up each day.
Without knowing that Wat Phaphay was the temple I would be visiting with Backstreet Academy I had actually come by a few days prior serendipitously during the evening monk chant. I was invited inside and was astonished at how much faster the monks chanted in Laos compared to Thailand–I couldn’t keep up at all! The chanting is done in Pali, the ancient language of Theravada Buddhism. Every day the monks gather together at dawn and dusk to chant different mantras, and travelers are invited to join in respectfully to chant and meditate.
Monk Vanh taught me how to properly hold my hands in the prayer position, in Laos, the hands aren’t held with the palms pressed tightly together but instead a bit apart to create space between the palms. This is meant to look like a blossoming lotus flower. He also told me that all of the Buddha images at wats in Laos are actually made by monks–who are apparently also skilled artisans.
I returned to join in the evening to Wat Phaphay with Backstreet Academy to join in on the chanting and meditation. The room was filled with monks and novices who chanted in unison. The room vibrated with the sounds of their voices and positive energy. A light rain came down softly as the wind cast shadows across the candlelit room. I struggle to meditate but have never fallen so deeply into a place of complete calmness as I did during this experience.
Before I left Wat Phaphay temple monk Vanh had one more thing he wanted to tell me. He sent me off with a simple blessing that I hold near and dear to my heart. “May you be happy and have joy wherever you travel.”
GET A MASSAGE THAT GIVES BACK
At the Lao Red Cross Massage and Sauna Center (Google Maps) you can get a full body massage for just $5–or you can go as a part of the Zen Meditation Journey on Backstreet Academy. I went a few times as the steam bath and massage were excellent, affordable, and impactful. The mission of the Lao Red Cross improves access to healthcare in vulnerable areas of Laos. They provide aid to ill people and also those in crisis. The proceeds from your relaxing treatments will go directly towards helping those in need.
A few weeks before my visit to Laos disaster struck when a dam broke in Attapeu and took the lives of at least 30 people and left hundreds displaced. The Lao Red Cross was collecting monetary and clothing donations so I gave away my pair of Nike sneakers as I’d recently been sent a new pair from OluKai. If you’re traveling long-term and have lightly used items that you no longer need to consider donating them here.
The sauna at the Red Cross is far from glamorous. This is an authentic local experience and you’ll be sharing the tiny room with Lao people who are accustomed to the heat! Follow their lead and use your towel to cover your face. Breathe in deeply to enjoying the healing benefits from the spiced sauna that’s infused with over 20 types of herbs. Mr. Pheng hand collects the traditional herbs from a local garden and creates the unique concoction. I could only handle the sauna for a few minutes at a time, much to the delight of the other people there. After you’ve soaked to your heart’s content and sweated away toxins ease your already loosened muscles with a strong traditional Lao massage.
MAKE YOUR OWN NATURAL TIE DYE
Get to know Laos through 100% handmade local textiles at Ock Pop Tok. The fair trade social enterprise employs 150+ women in 6 remote villages. Ock Pop Tok is committed to keeping local textile traditions alive, fair employment of craftswomen, reducing waste, organic production methods with all-natural materials, and more. Most importantly, Ock Pop Tok creates economic opportunities for ethnic tribal women. 50% of all revenue goes directly back to the villages.
They have a variety of workshops available at their beautiful Living Crafts Center headquarters that overlook the Mekong River. You can pick up their tuk-tuk that’s adorned with one of their vibrant patterns from the boutique in town or ride a bike as the roads are pretty flat and mellow.
I was invited to take the half-day natural dyeing class at Ock Pop Tok. The morning began with a tour through the on-site production facility where skilled craftswomen create unique masterpieces. All of the machines and raw materials are provided for the women so that they can work in a safe and fair environment. Each woman benefits from paid leave, profit sharing, and health insurance.
My host, Oun, is incredibly passionate about the handicrafts and methods which made him an absolute joy to learn from. Every time I visit a weaving cooperative I learn something new. The astonishing fact I was absolutely clueless about although I worked in fashion for a decade? The color indigo comes from a leaf! If you add limestone it will turn blue but if you ferment the leaves the dye will turn green. The Tai Lue people of Laos tie white cotton around the indigo pot to stop the spirit from leaving while H’mong put a chili in the pot and Tai Lao put a knife on the pot. The cultural beliefs and practices vary widely in Laos.
Indigo smells terrible but looks so beautiful when applied to natural fibers. I learned how to create the natural indigo dye and how to tie up my napkins just so in order to mimic traditional patterns. I decided to use a purple color for my other napkin which actually comes from the red sappan tree bark which I first had to chop into fine pieces and boil. Ash is added to the water to ferment the redwood and transform it into a vibrant amethyst color.
The trick to making the color stick to the fabric? Tossing a rusty nail into the brew. Other natural items used to create dye include roots, flowers, fruits, and seeds such as turmeric, rosewood, lemongrass, wild almond, betel, teak, and jackfruit.
During my visit to the Ock Pop Tok Crafts Center, I was lucky to have the chance to meet Mae THao Zu Zong, a master in Hmong batik. She’s been an artisan since she was 12 and beamed with pride as she showed me a few of her masterpieces. Batik prints are made by using wax to cover the cloth in a set pattern before dipping it into a dye. This process can be traced to Indonesia–in Laos, it typically calls for blue dye on white cloth.
Many of the weaving techniques used at Ock Pop Tok are from the Tai Kadai ethnic groups and date back to the year 800. The cultural belief that spirits will tangle the yarns on a loom if you don’t leave a knife on an unfinished piece is probably just as old.
Ock Pop Tok was created through the vision of Veo Liu, a local master weaver, and Jo, a photographer in 2000. The two came together to create an innovative business that brings together innovation and tradition through practices from the East and West.
VISIT THE PAK OU CAVES
The ancient town isn’t the only UNESCO recognized site in the area–25 KM north of Luang Prabang are the Pak Ou Caves which have also been protected by the organization. I headed up the mighty Mekong River with Backstreet Academy on a traditional wooden Lao riverboat to see the sacred Buddhist monument.
The ride took about an hour and was quite misty in the morning which made the adventure even more enchanting as we passed by slow boats and adored the incredibly lush surrounding scenery. As always, Backstreet Academy made sure that there would be vegan food available for me. Having lunch on the Mekong River was such a special experience.
The grottoes hang above the river and are embedded into the sides of the limestone cliffs. They’re reached by a set of stairs–depending on the season there may only be a few steps to climb as it changes frequently with the water levels of the river.
The caves are filled to the absolute brim with Buddha images–there are over 4,000 statues. But before Buddhism reached Laos in the 16th century these caves still held spiritual meaning for local people who would visit to worship the spirit of the river. Once Buddhism reached Luang Prabang locals would still hold a pilgrimage to reach the caves, this time with Buddha figurines in hand. The ritual was to bring a new Buddha image to the Pak Ou Caves at the New Year–even the King would participate.
Like many Buddhist temples, there’s an altar where you can receive a fortune. Mine was terrible! It said that no one likes me, I’ll be alone for many years, and am hiding a secret pain in my heart. The way to repent of course is to seek blessings from Buddhist monks, which I do often, so hopefully, I’ve since rid my heart and soul of that negative energy.
Between the Pak Ou Caves and Luang Prabang are many local villages. At first, they may seem touristy with stalls set up selling that awful Lao sticky rice whiskey that’s infused with small animals as a health elixir and thousands of knit goods. But, if you walk into town a bit you’ll be able to have a look at local life and will probably come across gorgeous temples and maybe even women weaving traditional textiles.
LEARN HOW TO COOK LAOTIAN SPECIALTIES
I learned the simple yet flavorful traditional methods of making Laotian specialties at the locally-led Tamarind cooking class. Taking a local cooking class is always my preferred way to get to know a culture’s cuisine and get insider information on which dishes can be made vegan-friendly.
The authentic cooking course began with a visit to a traditional produce market to learn about local fruit and vegetable cultivation as well as typical ingredients in Lao dishes before we headed back to the riverside open-air cooking school.
Tamarind restaurant was happy to help slightly offer traditional dishes to be plant-based. I was amazed at how easy it was to make incredibly tasty dishes such as mushrooms and roasted eggplant wrapped in banana leaf–the hardest part was artfully folding the leaf to make it stay in place as it cooked.
I had never seen lemongrass baskets so this dish was my favorite to make. With a knife, you cut little slices into the base of a stem of lemongrass and open it up like a lantern. I stuffed my lemongrass stalk with a mixture of potatoes enhanced with local herbs and then lightly fried in vegetable oil–delicious!
To round out the meal I was led through the steps to make a hearty version of tofu laab with khao niao, sticky rice. For dessert, we tried our hands at making traditional rice pudding with black sticky rice served with an assortment of local fruits and covered with a generous serving of handmade coconut cream.
BE SMART ABOUT ANIMAL ATTRACTIONS
I intentionally didn’t visit or partner with Manda Lao, an elephant sanctuary that many responsible travelers have supported. While they don’t allow for elephant riding they’re promotional materials feature people touching and hugging elephants which I find unethical. I only support animal encounters that are fully hands-off.
Instead of visiting a questionable elephant project visit the genuine Tat Kuang Si Free the Bears Rescue Center. The sanctuary is a safe haven for Asiatic Black Bears which are often referred to as sun bears or moon bears due to the markings in their fur. The beneficiaries have all been rescued from traffickers or poachers who keep the bears captive until they find a buyer for their vile which is often used in various traditional medicines.
Free the Bears established themselves in Laos in 2003 and work directly with the Luang Prabang Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Office and have rescued over 50 of the endangered bears. Backstreet Academy offers travelers the chance to visit the center and help keepers hide food around the massive enclosures for the bears to use their natural instincts to find.
REFILL NOT LANDFILL
There’s no excuse for single-use plastic water bottles in Luang Prabang. There are refill stations that offer free purified water conveniently located at nearly every other shop thanks to the Refill Not Landfill project. Many of the participating locations also sell the branded reusable bottles which conveniently list out all of the locations. Think reusable, not disposable.
WHERE TO STAY IN LUANG PRABANG
If you’re looking for a more affordable stay or need to be centrally located in the Luang Prabang town center book your stay at the beautiful Lotus Villa Boutique Hotel.
The central location is only a block away from the busiest street in Luang Prabang but still manages to be a tranquil oasis. Historic Buddhist temples and the Mekong River are just a block or two away. During my stay, I woke up at 5 AM each morning to watch the procession of monks and novices pass by as they collected their morning alms from local villagers.
There’s no better place in Luang Prabang to witness this sacred cultural event. Hundreds of monks passed by each morning in a flurry of orange robes–rain or shine. I was moved to tears the morning after my candlelight meditation with several of these monks to witness their dedication to their spiritual beliefs–there’s something so pure about honoring the teachings of Buddha, especially in a region of the world that has faced so much violence and oppression of religion.
The boutique hotel is committed to several social responsibility projects. They adhere to a policy of paying fair wages, training, medical care, and providing safe working conditions for local people. They support their community by providing daily food offerings to the neighboring Vat Sene temple and operate an assortment of fundraising programs for several local orphanages such as providing resources for food, medical, dental, hygiene, education.
An assortment of goods from local artisans is available in the lobby. The cultural conservation efforts extend to the guest rooms–each night during the turndown service a small gift is left in the room. These gifts support local artisans while teaching travelers about Loa culture such as a booklet of folk stories, locally cultivated coffee, tea, and even bamboo straws!
If you have an unlimited budget don’t miss the chance to take a lap of luxury at the infinity pool at Luang Prabang View Hotel and enjoy all of the sustainable practices. I loved my stay at the eco-resort, and I think that you will too! Read 5 things you’ll love about Luang Prabang View Hotel to see why.
I was a hosted guest at Lotus Villa Boutique Hotel and on the Backstreet Academy tours, Ock Pop Tok workshop, and Tamarind cooking class. All opinions and photos are my own. This post contains affiliate links. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.