Search Tours

From the Ground: Lao Home Cooking

By Nicole Long and Jay Austin

We have a new cooking class option in Laos, and this is not your typical cooking course.  Our guests will have the chance to spend time in an authentic Laotian kitchen, and learn how to cook traditional dishes the local way. Anthony Bourdain recently was in this exact home learning to cook Lao-style by your hosts, Por and Mae Keo.  The tour is completely private so it works very well for small groups and families.

What to expect from this tour:

This morning you will be picked up from your hotel by your guide and transferred by private van to meet today’s Homestyle Lao Cooking instructor at the Phousi Market. You will stroll through Luang Prabang’s largest fresh market and learn about traditional herbs and spices as you pick up the ingredients for today’s menu. Once you have finished shopping at the market, you will head 15 minutes outside of town to Nong Kham Village. With the assistance of your guide, the instructor will go over the day’s menu and demonstrate some of the techniques useful in traditional Lao cooking. Then, just like a typical Lao family, you will be responsible for cooking one of the dishes for lunch. Don’t worry, your guide and Lao chef are nearby to provide any assistance needed! Once the staple dish, Lao sticky rice has finished cooking you will help to set up for lunch. Finally, enjoy your fruits of labor by having lunch the typical Lao way by sitting on the floor and eating family style from a small rattan tray. After lunch, sit back and relax under the breezy wooden and bamboo outdoor sala and enjoy some homemade rice whiskey with your hosts. Once you have had your fill of the pungent Lao Lao you will say goodbye to your hosts and be transferred back to your hotel.

From the Ground: New Luang Prabang Evening Chanting and Meditation Tour

By Nicole Long and Jay Austin,

 Luang Prabang is known for its many beautiful and historic temples, and for the hundreds of monks collecting alms around dawn each morning.  For guests who want to enrich their experience by stepping into Laos’ spiritual world, rising before dawn is no longer the only option.  We now offer a new evening mediation tour!  This tour makes an excellent add-on and can easily combined with any itinerary.   We find that our guests love the chance to learn more about the life of the local monks and participating in this activity will add to feeling of serenity and peace that accompanies spending time in Laos. Participating in this Chanting and Mediation tour also gives travelers the opportunity to help give back to the local community through the temple donation included.

Here’s what the new Evening Chanting and Meditation Tour looks like:

This evening, at approximately 5:30pm you will join your guide at Wat Nong Temple for the monks’ evening chanting and meditation. You will have the opportunity to absorb the sounds of the monks chanting as you take in the splendor of the gold stenciling and woodwork of Wat Nong, located in the heart of Luang Prabang’s old town. After chanting, the abbot of the temple will lead the monks in meditation. Your guide will help translate if needed for your introduction to their meditation practice. At the end of the session, you and your guide will give a donation offering to the temple before departing for dinner at a local Lao restaurant.

Laos summer “Green Season” hotel specials

By Courtney Ridgel

We love the ‘green season’ in Laos – particularly August. This time of year is considered a shoulder travel season so there are fewer travelers, the scenery is particularly lush this time of year, and the hotels tend to offer incredible deals. The Green or Rainy Season typically occurs through July, August, September and October, and low season hotel pricing in Laos is tends to run April – September. So – to catch the best of both the lush scenery and the low prices, we recommend traveling July – September.

Here are a few of the deals that hotels around Luang Prabang are offering over the 2017 Low Season:

Kiridara Hotel: Travelers visiting during this low season can expect to save around $30 per room per night compared to this year’s high season pricing, or save around $125 per night compared with peak season pricing.  The hotel also offers different promotional rates for guests that book at least a 4 night or 5 night stay, and they also offer a variety of ‘early-bird’ booking deals for guests that book 90 days, 60 days or 45 days in advance.

Kiridara Villa: Travelers visiting during the 2017 low season can expect to save around $100 per room per night, in comparison to booking the same room over high season.  When compared to this year’s peak season pricing, travelers can expect to save closer to $200 per room per night.  On top of that, this property is offering different promotional rates for guests that book at least a 3 night, 4 night or 5 night stay, and they also offer a variety of ‘early-bird’ booking deals for guests that book 90 days, 60 days or 45 days in advance.

Villa Maly: Travelers can expect to save around $100 – $135 per room per night, depending on the room type, if they travel over the 2017 green or low season, rather than over high season.

Luang Prabang View Hotel: Visitors to this property can expect to save around $45 – $60 per room per night during this low season, depending on the room type.

Sala Prabang: This property is offering ‘Stay 3 nights, pay for 2’, and ‘Stay  4 nights, pay for 3’ promotions through the end of September 2017.

Azerai Luang Prabang Hotel – This new property is offering travelers an average savings of $50-$80 per room per night this low season, compared to the 2017 high season rates.  This property also offers special deals for guests who plan a minimum of a three night stay.  Guests who book through Journeys Within may also receive special complimentary bonuses such as room upgrades (depending on availability) or massages.

Parasol Blanc HotelThis new boutique hotel is offering travelers savings of around $30 – $50 per room per night for stays during the 2017 low season.

Photo credit: Courtney Ridgel
Photo credit: Courtney Ridgel

Sunset Cruise on the Mekong

Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

By Courtney Ridgel

Laos is the most overlooked destination that we work with and while it may not make the news and travel magazines as often as neighboring Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam do, our guests routinely tell us that Laos is the highlight of their trips.  I was there myself last November and I can certainly see why.  Laos certainly has an alluring peaceful atmosphere all its own.

Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

One of the best examples of this spirit may be found in the beautiful and sleepy town of Luang Prabang, nestled on the banks of the Mighty Mekong River, carving its way through the steep hillsides covered in dense green jungle.  Our Laos Country Director, Onkeo or ‘Keo’ for short, offered me a spur of the moment invitation to join him, and his young sons, Anan and James, on a sunset boat ride with his friend Pet (who also goes by ‘Johnny’).  I am always up for an adventure and I love boats, so I was naturally thrilled.

Keo and his sons, Anan and James – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Pet, the Ferryman – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

I don’t speak Laotian, but I could tell that as we made our way down one of the many steep staircases to the water’s edge, Keo did his best to discourage his energetic boys from sprinting full tilt down the steep stairs at the river’s edge.  Here on the other side of the world, it was a strangely familiar scene that reminded me of my own childhood (the boys had also apparently rebelled earlier that afternoon, refusing to wear shoes, and were merrily skipping along barefoot).  As sunset approaches, and the water began to glow with the golden light of evening, and I could see other travelers gathering at the water’s edge to snap photos.

Travelers gathering along the riverbanks to photograph the sunset – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Anan and James watching the Mekong flow past – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

We were fortunate enough to have Pet cruise smoothly up to the dock and welcome us aboard, and his wife offered us cold beers and chips.  (James and Anan quickly attacked the bowl of chips.)  As we set off upriver, taking in the stunning views of the setting sun, Pet recounted me with the story of his life.  He is from a remote village far upriver and became severely ill as a child.  His parents, fearing for his life, brought him to Luang Prabang to receive medical care.  He pulled through his illness and his parents enrolled him in one of the many monasteries in Luang Prabang, to both give thanks for his life and to ensure that he would get an education as they feared that he may not have the constitution for the hard labor that accompanies farm life in rural Laos.  He learned English during his time as a monk and later went on to work at some of the high end hotel properties around Luang Prabang.  He saved up enough money to purchase the boat we were sitting on and went into business for himself, ferrying travelers and locals on the river, and living on his boat with his wife.

Keo pointing out the sights to his sons – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

As we cruised along, Keo and Pet regaled me with tales about life on the river, local legends and interesting facts about nearby villages and temples.  This was James’s first river cruise and both boys were quite excited, pointing out interesting sights as we cruised along, in between munching handfuls of chips.  As the sun went down, Pet steered us to where the local boatmen spend the night, tied to the bank, and his wife hopped on to the next boat over to say hello to a friend. The boats are tied side by side, creating a strange temporary floating neighborhood each evening.

Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

As twilight set in, we bid farewell to Pet, and headed up the riverbank to a local BBQ place.  Laotian BBQ, much like Khmer BBQ, involves sizzling a variety of ingredients selected from a buffet in hot oil in a strange pot & grill combination set into the center of the table over hot coals.  I was amused to notice that although Anan and James selected lots of shrimp and mushrooms which they kindly spooned onto my plate, they also favored something that looked suspiciously like French fries and mini hot dogs.  As we all grew sleepy and full (after a minor mishap where James stepped on an anthill with his bare feet and was soothed with desert), we bid each other goodnight and headed home for the evening.  All in all, it was a stunningly beautiful evening spent with new friends and delicious food, and I would highly recommend this experience to any traveler heading to Laos, especially those looking for personal connections that are meaningful, memorable and unique.

Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Luang Prabang from the river – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Onkeo turning over the meat and vegetables on the BBQ – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Alms-Giving in Laos & Thailand

The daily procession of monks Collecting Alms in Luang Prabang – Photo credit: Courtney Ridgel

By Courtney Ridgel

Many travelers to Laos and Thailand choose to get up early at some point to partake in the daily alms-giving to the monks, otherwise known as ‘Tak Batt’.  ‘Tak’ comes from the act of giving food directly from your plate or bowl to the monk’s “batt” or alms bowl. .  Most of our travelers experience this in either Laos or Thailand or both, so we wanted to give a brief overview of what to expect, how this practice is different between the two countries, and the proper etiquette to use when joining in these experiences.

To begin with, throughout Southeast Asia, monks should be treated with the highest respect and women in particular should never touch monks, their robes or hand anything directly to them.  Many young men will spend a period of time as a monk for a number of reasons.  For poor families, sending their sons to the monkhood allows them to receive an education and skills that will serve them later in life.  Spending time as a monk is also thought to bring ‘merit’ to yourself and your family, and is thought to help round you out spiritually as a person.  One aspect of monkhood, in Laos and Thailand at least, is that you are meant to live piously off of ‘alms’ or donations from the local community.   For the locals, giving alms to the monks brings them ‘merit’.

A young monk in Luang Prabang – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

In Laos, particularly in Luang Prabang, there are large numbers of monks and multiple monasteries, with monks ranging from the very young to the very old.  At the first sight of dawn each morning, the temple bells ring and the monks line up single file, usually with the eldest monk in front, and walk down the streets near their temple.  The local people gather on the edges of the street to give alms – donations of food – to each monk that passes by.  To give alms, the locals will kneel on a mat laid out on the street, with their shoes removed, and a sash wrapped over one shoulder.

Me giving alms in Luang Prabang – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel (and the local lady who sold me the offerings)

As each monk passes, he will lift the lid on his alms bowl (a large metal bowl hung slung over his shoulder with a sash) and the townspeople will drop in a handful of food – usually fruit or rice.  There is no verbal communication between the monks and the townspeople.  Back at the temple the food is collected into a communal pile and evenly distributed.  If you choose to partake in this ritual, be sure to be properly dressed with your shoulders and knees covered and sash in place.

Only the elderly may sit in a chair; otherwise, you should kneel when presenting alms – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

If you choose to simply observe and photograph this spiritual practice, please be respectful.  You may notice other travelers jumping right in front of monks and jamming a camera lens right in their faces, and we respectfully request that you don’t do this.  Giving alms is a sacred practice for the local people, and monks are the most revered members of society.  Additionally, you may notice that people do this in particular to younger (child) monks.  While iconic, please keep in mind that these young monks are still sacred societal figures, and what’s more, they are also still children – please take care to respect and protect their rights.

The daily procession of monks in Luang Prabang – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

In Thailand, smaller groups of monks, usually around 1- 6 at a time, will set forth from their temples in the early morning.  You will spot vendors with small booths offering to sell food or lotus flowers which you may present as an offering.  When the monks come past, you’ll once again kneel at the edge of the road, with your shoes removed, and place the offering (if it is food) into their begging bowls.  In Thailand, the food is usually pre-packed in plastic or Styrofoam containers.  If presenting a lotus flower, you’ll set it on top of the bowl and the monk will then pick it up (don’t hand it directly to the monk.)  Once you present your offering, the monks will pour water on the ground in front of you, and chant a blessing for you, before moving on down the street.

A local vendor selling alms offerings in Chiang Mai – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

You can certainly partake in alms-giving on your own, but we recommend using our Journeys Within guides to improve the experience.  Our guides can help explain the proper technique to each step, help you purchase and prepare your offerings, and explain the significance of each ritual and translate for you as needed.  I’ve experienced it both ways – in Thailand, my guide Tien walked me through the process, explained everything, and made it a wonderful and enriching experience, and took photos for me.

Monks blessing alms-givers in Chiang Mai – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

In Laos, I walked out of my hotel with the intention of simply watching and taking a few photos, and a local woman approached me and offered to sell me a few offerings for a very cheap price. Figuring that I was here and might as well join in the moment, I agreed. She helped me wrap a scarf properly, offered a place for me to kneel and kept bringing me more offerings to hand the monks, and took a rather blurry photo of me giving alms with my cell phone, before proceeding to demand extra money, which fortunately I happened to have in my pocket – all in all quite a skillful hussle, but I chalked it up as being part of the experience, and noted it as something that wouldn’t happen under the watchful eye of a Journeys Within guide.

Me giving alms in Chiang Mai – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel (and my guide Tien)

Other tips about visiting sacred sites in Southeast Asia and partaking in religious ceremonies:

  • Dress properly when visiting active temples. Be sure to remove your hat and shoes before entering a temple.
  • In many Asian cultures the feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body while the head is considered the highest and most sacred part of the body. Do not sit with your feet towards the Buddha or another person– sit with your feet tucked behind you and don’t use your foot to point or motion “kicking”. Try not to cross your legs while sitting, especially in the presence of a monk.  This applies whether you are sitting on the floor or in a chair.  When sitting in a chair, keep your feet on the ground.
  • There are many sacred sites and items in Southeast Asia – please don’t touch sacred items, sites or statues without permission. Don’t sit with your back against a Buddhist image or statue.  If you purchase mementos, don’t keep Buddhist images or sacred objects in inappropriate places.
  • You may notice contribution boxes – although not required, it is appropriate to drop a small contribution into a donation box at a monastery or pagoda, especially if there is no entry fee for visiting the site. These donations help maintain the sites and are considered to help create good karma.
  • Many temples or historical sites will post signs that state that photography is not allowed. Even if there is no sign, please be respectful and consider not using the flash in places of worship.
  • Speak softly when in a temple. Even more so if monks or locals are present worshiping! When handing something to someone, or receiving something, use both hands. When you pay for something, hold the money in both hands when passing it to the receiver.
Morning alms in Luang Prabang – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel