French pastries, saffron robes and talcum powder: Luang Prabang

With a couple of exceptions noted at the end of this post, four days in Luang Praban meanders delightfully by, with little more strenuous than a sprinkle of almond croissant flakes to concern us.

I make no apologies. 

It seems that the well-meaning folks at UNESCO, while protecting a plethora of working Buddhist temples, have also encouraged the decadent cafe tradition left here by the French. Perhaps the temples still remain to serve as people-watching fodder for the coffee drinkers?


That is evidently how some tourists see it anyway, as they block the morning alms-giving ceremonies just to get that perfect saffron-splashed image. Instagram update secured, why not repair to Café Le Banneton for a cappuccino and a pain au chocolat?

UNESCO is also responsible for the horde of (admittedly very tastefully appointed) guesthouses that share Luang Prabang’s central streets with the wats and the cafes. It’s actually comical: once the monks are out of range for the day, what holidaymakers there are in low season are all parked in central open-air hotel bars to people-watch. That of course leaves the streets regrettably devoid of action. As for us backpackers, we are all busy shopping for elephant print trousers at the night market or filling our stomachs for £1.50 in the adjoining smoke-filled alleyways. The vegetarian buffet and the BBQ buffalo sausage are probably hygienic enough. 

More fool us all, as the UNESCO-clean thoroughfares are bordered by some of the most evenly-paved sidewalks in all of South-East Asia. Just wandering around without worrying about falling into the sewage system is a treat in itself. 

Even nature parades its decadence in Luang Prabang. The city centre is shaped by the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, both part of the wonderful panoramic views from the readily accessible summit of Mount Phousi. Moreover Kuang Si falls and their arresting turquoise waters are only about an hour’s ride from the city and occupy a very diverting half-day. Swimming is compulsory, as is the complimentary dead skin removal service offered by the local aquatic life. 

It is hard to feel anything other than smugly relaxed in Luang Prabang, so I should note the following:

1. We wander down a side street one day to find an old woman completely naked in the middle of the road in front of us. As we try not to look, she starts putting on various items of clothing from a frame where they have evidently been drying. Finally dressed for the day she hustles off, completely unfazed.

2. Thinking a haircut would help me to manage the Laos midday heat, I decide to give the yawning barber next door to the hotel where we spend our 2-year anniversary something to do. He must be in his eighties. As I approach, he is sat upright in the chair his clients would normally occupy, brown leathery skin covered in talcum powder. 

“Short” I tell him once I’ve taken his place and he starts covering my torso with an old sheet. His wooden walls are conspicuously covered with half naked calendar models. He dabs talcum powder on the back of my neck.

“Short?” he clarifies. I nod as he fishes out a couple of fittings for his razor. “Number one or number two?” he asks.

At this point I should really check that he means ‘back and sides’ for the razor work and not ‘number two all over’. But I don’t. So here we are:

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