To get from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos you have four different options. Number one is the plane which is fast but honestly quite a boring way to travel. Number two is the bus. This means taking a minibus to the border, getting your visa and boarding a sleeper-bus to take you to Luang Prabang. This option would take about two days. Just as fast is the third option which is the speed boat. You will once again take a bus to the border, spend a night there and after getting your visa in the morning you will board a tiny boat attached to a huge engine which shots you down the Mekong in 7 hours. A very fast option with the risk of not making it to Luang Prabang at all because you might die. I went with option number four: The slowboat. Here you will go to the border just like anyone else but then you will board a big boat which will take you to Luang Prabang in two days. While it might not be the fastest way to get there it is the most beautiful with all the views of the river and you will make many new friends.
It would be very cool if I could say I planned my whole Laos trip beforehand because I knew about Bun Awk Phansa and that I needed to visit it...well I didn’t, it was just a very awesome coincidence. After checking in to my hostel I went to the nightmarket for some food and that’s where I first found out about it. I found this really beautifully decorated temple with lanterns and lights everywhere and after asking around for a bit I was told there would be a big celebration in two days...I just knew I had to cover this. I can’t even describe to you how crazy I went photographing the temple and the festival was going to be even so much better.
So the first stop the next morning was the Phu Si temple up on a hill over the city. Here locals were preparing food for the monks as well as offerings to the gods. Just a great atmosphere especially when the whole crowd started praying together. Although I’m personally not a big fan of religion those Buddhist rituals are awesome to photograph. Oh and I don’t have to feel bad about running around and taking pictures, most of the monks had a camera or smartphone in their hands as well.
The temple is also a great place to watch the sunset, which basically translates into “it will be very full up there at sunset”. But of course I had to do it so I went up one more time in the evening. The weather didn’t really play along but yea to take whatever you can get. That’s just as valid for photography as it is for streetfood, which by the way is simply awesome in Luang Prabang.
Before it was time for the festival in the evening I went to see another must-do sight in the Luang Prabang area: The Kuang Si Falls. Some really nice waterfalls about 45mins away from the city where you can go swimming or hiking. Yea going swimming is great fun but in the end I never really feel good leaving my bag alone (or taking it swimming with me for that matter) so I decided to spent my time there hiking up to the top of the falls. A short but steep hike and in the end you are literally standing at the edge and the views are simply spectacular. If you have any time in this area, you need to go there.
But now it’s finally time for the festival, which was just sooo awesome. During the three months wet-season the monks go into lent and don’t travel anymore or even leave their temple. Once dry-season starts the monks end their lent and this is what’s celebrated with Bun Awk Phansa. I didn’t want to miss any of it and since no one knew exactly when and where it’ll be I just went there way to early. This on the other hand gave me great opportunities to warm up to the crowd and start shooting pictures before it was dark and everything was full and moving. Oh the the Lao-people there were just so great. Everyone was happy and friendly and I never had any problems getting the shots I wanted. Just get the wide lens ready,start smiling and ask the people for a quick photo.
Once the sun had set and it got dark the parade started. Masses of people would move through the street carrying lanterns, candles and of course the giant paper boats covered in lights. Those boats were later to be set into the Mekong together with countless small offerings. A great spectacle and all those lights made it so extremely pretty. I can’t even really describe it. If you are ever planning on going to Laos in the end of October make sure you are in Luang Prabang for the end of lent.
Before moving on to another country I wanted to visit one more city and this one was Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I thought it might be quite nice but as it soon turned out I was wrong. But let’s start from the beginning. Those two cities are only 363 km apart but it takes about 12 hours to get there by bus. The condition of the roads is really bad and that they go through the mountains in countless tiny curves doesn’t really help. The bus, which is an old Chinese bus, is of course filled to the maximum including locals sitting on the floor and a scooter as well as live chicken in the storage compartment. It wasn’t really a nice trip at the time but hey it’s a story to tell.
Now to Vientiane. Apart from the small temples all over town there are exactly three main sights. The Buddha-Park outside the city, their own version of the Arc de Triomphe and the famous Pha That Luang. They are nice to visit but only plan for about half a day. Other than that there isn’t really much to do. They don’t really have anything of an old town like for example Luang Prabang or even a real city center. But the restaurants are good and plenty and if you have the time definitely visit it but really one day is enough.
I have now finished my second day here and in a couple of hours I will be boarding a plane to take me to my next adventure. Angkor Wat here I come!