Thursday, September 21, 2017

Monsoon magic in northern Laos

Mrs Noi’s noodle stand is bustling. A mix of locals and tourists crowd around a single long table, patiently waiting for her to dish up her famous khao soi – a hearty minced-pork and rice-noodle soup. Overhead, dark clouds swirl about: Rain is imminent, but nobody seems bothered, and I reluctantly slide into an empty seat. I order my bowl, asking for a vegetarian version. Mrs Noi arches an eyebrow. She clearly disapproves but indulges me anyway.

Mrs Noi dishes up khao soi at her noodle stand in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: SuppliedMrs Noi dishes up khao soi at her noodle stand in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: Supplied

In front of me are assorted plates of fresh herbs, greens, limes, sauces and a pot of jeow, a thick roasted chilli paste. I add each one to my bowl, eliciting delightful chuckles from the locals seated next to me. I take my first bite, inhaling the fragrance and the savouring the taste of what is arguably the best bowl of noodle soup I have ever eaten.

A fat raindrop hits the table, and all eyes turn up, briefly acknowledging the swath of charcoal grey sky overhead. Several more drops follow, and soon it is drizzling. Mrs Noi and her cohorts grab paraphernalia tucked under the table and with great alacrity assemble a canopy over our table. “Bor pen yang!” she exclaims – Lao for “no worries”. The rain falls heavily now, but we are dry. Friends continue their animated conversations, strangers exchange greetings, and Mrs Noi dunks another batch of noodles into the steaming stock pot.

This is Luang Prabang during wet season: unhampered by showers, carrying on with an easy-going spirit and charm that is the hallmark of this enchanting town.

Travellers are often deterred by monsoon travel, avoiding what they believe will be torrential rains and impassable roads. No one wants to lug around umbrellas and get soaking wet shuffling from one historic site to another. When I first arrived in Luang Prabang, in late May at the beginning of the monsoon, I was nervous. I braced myself for the inconveniences that accompany rainfall, the discomfort of being so hot and so wet that I would never fully know if I was drenched in my own sweat or in a surprise downpour.

I was pleasantly surprised. Rain, like Mrs Noi’s steaming bowls of khao soi, is a part of life here. The monsoon season typically arrives in late May, giving the air and streets a good cleaning. Rainfall usually occurs in the late afternoon or at night, leaving the days full of bright sunshine, with plenty of opportunities to explore.

Humidity and heat can spike precipitously during this period, making the showers all the more refreshing. To buffer the dispiriting aspects of the season, the town offers plenty of activities that fete the monsoon and provide shelter from the elements. Once I embraced Luang Prabang’s bor pen yang attitude, I began to discover the joys of exploring the city in low season, in extreme sunshine and rain.

Photo: SuppliedPhoto: Supplied

The rivers
Luang Prabang occupies a narrow peninsula that points north. The grand Mekong River flanks the western shores, and the enchanting Nam Khan River flows up the eastern side. The Nam Khan runs into the Mekong at the very tip of the peninsula, where a shady park is a perfect place to sit and watch river life. Small skiffs shuttle fishermen in and out of the mouth of the Nam Khan and along the Mekong larger long-tail boats ferry villagers, produce and bags of rice from north to south. The rains cause the rivers to swell, making transit swift.

Meanwhile, local boatmen wait by their launches, ready to whisk visitors upstream to see the famous Pak Ou Caves. Most boats are equipped with a sturdy canopy to shelter passengers from the sun and rain. And, when it does rain on the river, you are surrounded by water on all sides. It is an exotic experience, at once exhilarating, romantic and sublime.

High water levels also mean better conditions for water sports. The Nam Ou, slightly north of town, cuts through karst ravines and makes the most picturesque and thrilling venue for kayaking and rafting.

Photo: SuppliedPhoto: Supplied

The temples
Luang Prabang is dotted with exquisite temples or wats, which serve as places of daily worship and as monasteries. The white temple walls and their gilded rooftops cast a handsome silhouette against the shadowy monsoon sky. Intricately painted frescos and murals grace the exterior and interior walls and ceiling. During the hot midday sun or a surprise downpour, find refuge in a temple compound, where the hours slip by comfortably in cool cloisters and tranquil, shade-filled gardens. One of the great pleasures of Luang Prabang is visiting as many as you can, and deciding which is your favourite.

Photo: SuppliedPhoto: Supplied

The festivals
Luang Prabang’s effusive and, at times, raucous rituals and festivals edify the town’s legacy as Laos’ spiritual and cultural capital. During rainy season, several noteworthy religious observances and celebrations take place, giving visitors rare insight into local traditions. For starters, the beginning of the monsoon coincides with beginning of Khao Pansa – Buddhist Lent. Throngs of locals visit their neighbourhood temple and offer handmade candles, a practice that harkens to olden days. For the next three lunar months, monks do not leave the monastery, a custom dating back to the time of Lord Buddha. Wat Manoram, Wat Mai and Wat That Luang, some of the oldest temples in the city, have the most elaborate and well-attended ceremonies.

In mid-August, the entire country celebrates Boun Sanag Heua, or the Boat Racing Festival. This is a high-pitched event in the otherwise calm and reflective period of lent. The first race of the season is held in Luang Prabang. Rain or shine, the long, hand-carved boats, each with 50 rowers, engage in friendly and fierce competition on the Nam Khan River. An animated street market offers with plenty of local fare, refreshments and, of course, Beer Lao.

In October, Luang Prabang stages a spectacular Boun Awk Phansa or Festival of Lights, signalling the end of monsoon and lent. Leading up to the festival, each wat constructs a wooden boat, adorned with lights and flowers. The wats themselves are lit with thousands of small candles, some arranged in artful mandalas. It is worth wandering the entire length of the peninsula to look at as many temples as you can. The festival culminates with an evening procession of all the wooden boats down Sakkharin Road, the main thoroughfare in old town. The boats are then launched into the Mekong at Wat Xieng Thong. The townsfolk cast small banana leaf floats on the river and light lanterns that float up to the sky. The display is magical and thrilling.

The massages
When the rain and humidity take it out of you, duck into one of Luang Prabang’s many massage and sauna spots. Traditional Lao massage is a bit more strenuous than those found in neighbouring Thailand, though you can request the level of pressure you like. Herbal poultices are places over coals in the wooden saunas, emitting scents that relax and rejuvenate. With plenty of options for a massage and sauna, it’s hard to choose where to go. Locals go for a massage and sauna, possibly more than visitors! The Peninsula, L’Hibiscus, Lemongrass and Lao Red Cross are all affordable and excellent. Souvanh Massage, run by a school for the blind, is a worthwhile stop.

Flora, fauna and falls
Drive out of town in any direction and see terraced paddies and hillsides in varying shades of green. Or, climb over 300 steps to the top of Mount Phousy in the middle of town and get an aerial view of the verdant landscape.

The monsoon is a boon for butterflies and moths. Many stunning species can be spotted along river banks or in one of the town’s lush garden. To get an upclose look, drive 30 minutes south of town is the Kuang Si Butterfly Park. Here, an inspiring Dutch couple have created an ecological zone to harbour butterflies and study native species.

Nearby Kuang Si and Tad Sae waterfalls, south and east of town respectively, also spring to life during the rainy season. The multi-level falls of Kuang Si are one of the natural wonders of Lao and, during the rains, the volume of water is breathtaking. It is a great place to spend the day hiking on trails shaded by jungle canopy. Or simply lounge in the aquamarine pools. Tad Sae, which barely has water in the dry season, is lush and alive during the wet season. From here, you can kayak back into town on the Nam Khan.

The sunsets
The mood and temperament of extreme heat and rain paint the horizon in brilliant colours, some resplendent, others melancholy, but all with a beauty of their own. Take a front row seat at The Big Tree Cafe or any one of the waterfront cafes along the Mekong for a dramatic show.

And, if it starts to rain, just remember, bor pen yang!