The mist’s hanging chill and grey as the tuk-tuk deposits me in the middle of Luang Prabang. It sets the tone for me as far as the town’s concerned.
Because, Luang Prabang’s a morning place. Somewhere that even a night owl (that’s me, taking a bow) has every incentive to be up before dawn shows you its crack.
It helps, of course, that Utopia – Luang Prabang’s reigning loungy nightspot – closes by 11.30 pm. Even the Bowling Alley (bizarre, but true – that’s where what passes as late-night drinking happens) sends you home by 2.
But, that’s an easy sacrifice when the alternative is watching the mist lift off the Mekong, with a strong Lao coffee, eggs, French pastries and (this is optional, but try it) a main of orlam – the local beef stew – and rice to fuel me for the day. It’s even less of a sacrifice when I stroll across a bamboo bridge at the the end of town to a Lao village selling exquisite handmade paper and textiles and, instead, come back with packs of homemade pork-lemongrass-garlic sausages and Luang Prabang’s special chili sauce.
By 9 am, I’m placidly floating through Luang Prabang’s UNESCO-protected streets, more French than anywhere else in Southeast Asia. Waking up early (and arranging for an early tuk-tuk the evening before) is also a good idea to beat the crowds to Kuang Si, the heavenly, gently-stepped, turquoise waterfalls 20 km out of town. I’m soaked and satiated well before the tour buses arrive.
But, as someone in Utopia told me, it’s best to save the best for last. Or, more specifically, the last morning.
Well before sunup, the first of Luang Prabang’s residents are already settling down on the footpath for what has to be Asia’s most mystical dawn ritual – the feeding of the monks. Every Lao male becomes a monk at some stage (and for varying durations) of his life, and has to beg for his food. So, feeding the monks is a venerated community service (it’s slightly less venerated now, given the hordes of tourists, so please don’t get in the way and please learn to shoot without a flash) that’s performed every morning, come rain or shine.
Black’s just turning to grey on this, my last morning in Luang Prabang, when a line of orange floats silently into view. Lines of monks, from monasteries all around town, file down to the square. Saying not a word, they hold their bowls out as they march past the laity sitting on the kerbside, ready with handfuls of sticky rice and bananas. And, equally silently, they float on, till they’re swallowed by the morning mist.