Once the royal capital of the kingdom of Laos, the thriving town of Luang Prabang today is an appealing mélange of traditional Laotian culture, French colonial influences and international enterprises that offers visitors an unparalleled glimpse into this unique Southeast Asian country’s culture. Writer Eric Rosen takes part in ritual and tradition in this slice of paradise.

I blink awake and find my room is still dark. Is it already 5:00 a.m.? It seems like I just shut my eyes after a meal of local specialties like lime and lemongrass-infused river fish at the 3 Nagas restaurant, but yes, indeed, it is time to get up.

I fumble on some clothes then cross the street to meet my chipper Ker & Downey guide, who greets me by name (this is our first encounter) and cheerfully hands me a basket of steaming rice he has commandeered for me from a smiling local lady who wishes me good morning as well.

We wait on the town’s main street as a procession of what seems like hundreds of saffron-robed monks from the dozens of monasteries in and around town file past for their daily alms.

monks in luang prabang
Beside me kneel devout locals, silently spooning rice and vegetables into the monks’ empty baskets. Most of these boys are just teenagers who studiously avoid eye contact—speaking to them during their morning ritual is forbidden—but a few cannot help but steal a curious glance at me as I hand out my own bounty of plain white rice.

The moment seems gone almost as soon as it began, but I realize nearly half an hour has passed since I started handing out alms to the monks and had been overtaken by the solemnity and reverence of it all. Whether you participate in the actual alms giving or simply watch from a respectful distance, this simple ceremony will start your day on a thought-provoking and contemplative note.

I do not contemplate long, though. After a fortifying breakfast of rice crepe stuffed with spice pork, carrots and mushrooms, we take a wander through some of the town’s landmark 16th-century temples. Next, we stroll through the main food market with everything from lizards and bats to dragon fruit and dried herbs on display, and then it is time to head out to the hinterlands.

My destination is the Shangri-Lao Elephant Village, 20 miles from town on a scenic stretch of the Nam Khan River. Although I do not have time for a two-day expedition down the river or an overnight in one of the kitted-out Explorer Camp tents, I spend my morning learning about the camp’s local preservation and employment efforts as well as meet the on-staff veterinarian for a quick but fascinating tutorial on pachyderm health and wellbeing.

luang prabang elephants
Then it is time to get to know my elephant for the morning and her mahout as we make the quick trek down the riverbank, across the stream and over to an enclosure to visit the camp’s baby elephant Maxi. He and his mother come here for a few hours a day to feast on bananas, though Maxi seems to spend more of his time teasing visitors with his trunk and trying to entice them into a bout of tug of war (I lost to this 500 pound toddler). On the way back, we have a refreshing dip in the river—be sure to wash behind your elephant’s ears, they love that—and then it is (all too soon) time for me to go.

But I have an appointment back in town, and it is one I do not want to miss. Southwest of town is a cultural center called Ock Pop Tok, where guests can not only enjoy a meal of local Lao specialties like curries, fried riverweed with buffalo jam and grilled fish, but they can also take half-day, day-long or multi-day courses in local handicrafts. There is everything from fabric dyeing to indigo stenciling and even learning how to work a traditional loom and weave the complex geometric patterns for which Lao textiles are so famous.

ladies at craft market in luang prabang
This is more than just an arts-and-crafts show and tell, though. Ock Pop Tok is a social enterprise. Co-founders Joanna Smith (an English expat) and Lao native Veomanee Douangdala launched the endeavor back in 2000, and since then, it has grown to include a living crafts center where visitors can interact with local artisans as well as an upscale boutique in the heart of town. But perhaps most importantly, the pair has helped communities all over the country establish self-sustaining and fair-trade cottage industries by establishing a bustling point of sale for the one-of-a-kind local crafts. I spend all afternoon here learning about the various ethnic groups with which the center works, but next time I am coming back to weave my own scarf!

There is just enough time to grab an espresso at Saffron Coffee back in town to perk me up before dinner. The American founder, David Dale, came to Laos a few years ago and fell in love with the country. So much so, that he is now helping local farmers cultivate long-dormant century-old coffee plantations in the mountain regions around town purveying their beans throughout Southeast Asia.

That evening, an entire Lao feast is in store at Tamarind, where visitors can take daily cooking classes. The prix fixe meal starts off with an earthy bamboo and vegetable soup and is followed by a mouthwatering platter of local favorites like savory sausage, eggplant and tomato dips, and herbed fish and lemongrass chicken. I almost think I won’t have room for the dessert of purple sticky rice with rich, citrusy tamarind sauce. Almost. But one more bite couldn’t hurt.

After all, the evening is just getting started, and I have an appointment first thing in the morning with the monks again.

luang prabang street market
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