My next destination was beautiful Luang Prabang in Laos, where the entire city and surrounding villages have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nestled alongside the meandering Mekong River, it is filled with numerous Buddhist temples and is popular with both foreign and Lao tourists alike. Every morning, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms. The surrounding mountains offer wonderful trails for day hikes to surreal waterfalls and multiday trekking opportunities to hill tribe villages, which I’ll describe in my next post. Despite all these attractions and the fact that I was there for the city’s busy annual Fire Boat Festival (Boun Lai Heua Fai), attended by visitors from near and far, Luang Prabang remains quiet and peaceful – much like Lao culture at large.
I rode my motorbike up the Nam Khan River to catch an early morning long boat to the lower falls of the Tad Sae Waterfalls before hiking a few kilometers to the more remote middle and upper falls. The views and sounds of the water pouring over the limestone are quite mesmerizing. By the time I returned to the lower falls, the serene pools were filled with many more happy visitors. The air was hot, the water was cold, and the mosquitoes were hungry!
Fire Boat Festival (Boun Lai Heua Fai)
This annual festival draws people from throughout Laos and has various components: colorful lanterns that light up the streets and temples at night (giving the Instagrammers a wonderful backdrop for their photos); a long and loud street parade to show off the fire boats made by companies, schools, and community groups; and the slow river dance on the Mekong of small handmade offerings and fire boats. I now know why they’re called “floats!”
Each small handmade water float is uniquely decorated around buoyant slices of banana trunk. Some people make their own, while others are available for sale. Thousands are lit with candles and sent down the river to accompany the fire boats at night.
Businesses and community groups compete for the best design of their fire boats in the street parade before they get launched down the river.
As everywhere, the kids make Luang Prabang special. These fun high school students tracked down foreign tourists to practice their English.