top of page
  • Writer's pictureJoanna

Boutique

Updated: Jan 17

One thing I have noticed in my short time in Southeast Asia is that everyone is very comfortable tossing the word boutique out & about. It’s very much like the wordsanctuary.’ Just throw it on to the end of anything to give naive tourists a whole new, distorted perspective. The meaning usually associated with 'boutique' is not always entirely accurate. There's such a multitude of boutique hotels and boutique cafes and boutique tours scattered about, it’s difficult to wrap your head around them all. Now I can’t really attest to whether or not they are all, in fact, boutique, as I tend to try and stick to a budget. That means avoiding anything that might teeter on the edge of being too posh for my wallet. Boutique tends to add the fear of extra costing and a luxury I can hardly afford. 


Of course, I can rightfully assume that only a small handful of them actually fit into the proper category and perceived notion of the word ‘boutique.'


Sadly, some boutique places are dives.

That’s a fact.


If I were ever to label a town as genuinely boutique, it would most definitely be Luang Prabang in Laos. It's delightful.


Truly delightful.


The ancient capital of Lan Xang ('one million elephants') and one of the oldest cities in Laos, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and probably one of most charming and picturesque places I have ever been. It's full of sparkling lights, bright colours, old colonial buildings, adorable alleyways, as well as attractive foliage overgrowth and flowers everywhere. It has a very decorative, sweet and cheerful ambiance.


A town with a sunny disposition!

Who'da thunk?


The first night I was there, I walked around in an enraptured daze. I was so completely enthralled by my surroundings. I just wanted to go everywhere and do everything, just to be at one with this magical place. I was pulled in every direction. 


Pure magic.


Every restaurant has the uncanny capability of casting a spell, enticing you in with their colourful & quirky decor... but the spell is quickly broken when you see the prices of their menus.


Luang Prabang is NOT cheap.

At all.


It's a bizarre concept to comprehend because I'd heard about how incredibly inexpensive Laos was, compared to most other countries in Southeast Asia. Not the case... not the case at all... especially when it came to Luang Prabang.  In fact, I might go as far as to say it's creeping closer and closer to Western pricing, little by little.


That is - food, drinks and trinkets. Absolutely.  Without a doubt.


It's actually cheaper to rent a moped for 24 hours AND get a full body massage than to have a meal & a simple cocktail on the main street of the historical district. Even Kit Kats are about $3 or $4.... or more... depending on where you go and what price the clerk decides right at that moment.


I guess when you find boutique, you pay for boutique.



I had originally decided to spend a full week in Luang Prabang. Once a booking is done, it's difficult to back out... so I was stuck. 'Stuck' is perhaps not exactly the word I'm looking for. It makes it seem like I was so cemented. So grounded. Which I was not.


A week here seemed like a good idea at first and Luang Prbang was and is a simply beauitful location. Who wouldn't want to stay here for an extended period of time? It was the perfect place to relax over the Christmas holidays. 


Right?


Precisely... and that would be an ideal week if I were the type of person comfortable with just relaxing. The trouble is that I always feel like I should be doing something. Anything. If I'm not out exploring, I'm wasting my travel time. Any normal person would have caught up on some work... done some writing or reading... listened to music and podcasts... but no...


Not me...


What ended up happening was me strolling the streets every day, all day, eager for a new adventure around every corner.


And I got a bit bored...


I think I tackled everything on the Luang Prabang tourist trail... and some of it on more than one occasion.


Temples ✔️

I visited both Wat Xiengthong and Wat Sensoukharam. Temples... the usual... won't get into them in any detail. As I've mentioned in a previous blog, they say visiting too many temples within a short span of time can lessen your appreciation of them. I am in full agreement. After a bit of a wat overload in Thailand, I am all for taking a temple break. I'll admit I wandered through the grounds of these two, but didn't spend a significant amount of time there.


Craving a little bit of Laos history, I made a point of visiting the once Royal palace turned National Museum. I'd read that it housed many antique, historical items and everything had a story to tell. It was built for King Sisavang Vong and his family during the French colonial era, but after the 1975 revolution, the building was taken over by the government.


I was most fascinated with the series of pictures hung up along the several walls, which told a mythical story as you made your way through the palace. It was like walking story time.


The Night Market ✔️

The Luang Prabang night market is a bustling hub of activity, filled with stalls selling traditional handicrafts. At first I loved every step of it and couldn't get enough. Nearer to the end of the week, it really began to drain on me, as I tried desperately & ever-so delicately to push my way through the claustrophobic creeping crowds.


The astronomical prices made bartering beyond conceivable.  I am all about haggling, but I won't even bother entering into negotiation with someone whose main objective is to completely rip me off. It doesn't seem fair. Needless to say, I didn't buy one single thing from the Luang Prabang market, which was disappointing.  From what I hear from other travelers, not many people did.


Phousi Hill ✔️

Phousi Hill is located in the centre of historical Luang Praband and the very top offers a panoramic view of the town, as well as the Mekong River and its surrounding mountainous valley. It's very popular for sunset, but I walked up during the afternoon. It cost me 20,000 kip to make the 15 minute journey to the top, so I took every opportunity I could to pause along the way and check out the days-of-the-week Buddhas, the revered footprint, the monasteries, the sacred Bodhi tree and the pagoda at the peak.


Old French Bridge ✔️

Too soon? ... a bridge over a bloody river???

Ugh...


The Old Quarter of Luang Prabang is nestled right on a small peninsula surrounded by the Nam Khan River and the Mekong River, so avoiding rivers while you're here is a little bit difficult. I'm still not completely over my Mekong boat experience... so I'm still doing everything in my power to avoid being directly on or beside the river. It's tough, as there is always a local trying to lure you down to their wooden boat for some cave or waterfall tour. Regardless, I crossed the Nam Kham River on the Old French Bridge and then took a small river boat back. It was a big move...


BIG.


Alms ✔️

I gave alms.


To be honest, I had NO idea what alms was... what the word meant... or what the ceremony of giving alms entailed. I really should have done my research into the service prior to being right there in the thick of it all... but too late smart. Kevin and Terry brought this tradition to my attention, and with a week in Luang Prabang, I figured I couldn't really justify not participating in some manner. On my final day, I set my alarm for a barbaric hour and made my way out into the black of the morning.


There was a lady there who took my money and in return, wrapped me with a small checkered scarf and then directed me to a small stool located on the side of the road. In front of my stool was a bamboo bowl filled with rice and a bowl of wrapped candy.


I sat there waiting...

And waiting...

And waiting more...

There was a kid sitting next to me, playing his video games on high volume. The man on the other side of me, I suspect, had not had a shower or brushed his teeth since the late 1960's. There was a Korean tour guide speaking loudly into a muffled microphone, barking distorted directions. What he possibly had to say for the better part of an hour, I have no idea. I wanted to rip the headset right off of him. We were hardly at a concert. We were a handful of people sitting on the side of the road... in the pitch black... in the early hours of the morning.


What was the rice for? What was the candy for? Was I supposed to eat the rice?

Was I supposed to donate the rice?


I had no idea. 


No one spoke English, so literally nobody could tell me what was going on.


The sun finally gave us light and eventually our ceremonial road came to life as the Buddhist monks made their way towards us. As each monk passed, we put either a little bit of rice or candy into their golden bowls. I did not ration well and ended up running out of donations fairly quickly. I'd failed to properly guestimate how many monks there would be. In my defence, there should be a manual...


Being at the very end of the procession, most of the monks dumped their golden bowls of donations into a large laundry hamper situated directly beside my stool. 


I had questions...

Do they retrieve those candies and use them again for the following day?

Do we feed the poor with these alms?

WHAT was going on...?


It all just seemed an awful waste.

True. I should have done my research. I honestly thought the monks and I would eat rice together and then I would get blessed.


I was wrong.



Eating ✔️

Regardless of the atrocious prices, I managed to fill my stomach with delicious foods for the entire week. With a lot of time on my hands, I was able to completely scour the town, checking out each menu and what I deemed as a reasonable price. That conclusion was usually determined through a mixture of hunger and exhaustion. The diners and dives found outside or on the outskirts of the old district were usually a fraction of the cost, double in portion and triple in taste.


I've become addicted to pad Thai and fried rice and they are different everywhere you order.


Most of the menu layouts here make me laugh.


~ Fried rice with chicken.

~ Fried rice with chicken and vegetables.

~ Fried rice with chicken and vegetables and cashews.

~ Fried rice with chicken and vegetables and cashews and pork.


The list usually continues though the protein and vegetarian options.


~ Pad Thai with pork.

~ Pad Thai with pork and egg.

~ Pad Thai with pork and egg and basil.

~ Pad Thai with pork and egg and basil and vegetables.


Makes for a very, very long menu.

The other day I was in one restaurant and their menu had an entire section dedicated to the non-alcoholic beverages they had. The list was fairly extensive and included all their available juices and sodas. Each item was 30,000 kip. The adjacent page was EXACTLY the same drinks menu, but each item was listed once again... 'with ice.' Seemed a bit of a waste of print and time, considering each item was still ONLY 30,000 kip... but I guess it makes it seem like more substantial.



Massages ✔️

I got too many massages.

I will admit that.


I fell into the vortex of cheap foot rubs. There are approximately 10 (or more) massage parlours on each block, regardless of really where you go in Southeast Asia... so it's easy to fall prey to the extravagance. That's exactly what happened to me


How can one resist?


If it isn't the comfort that lures you in, then the pricing is certainly seductive enough. A foot massage is about $6 and a full body is around $9-10.

Massages have been helping my knee out quite a bit. My knee has been holding up with the assistance of anti-inflammatories, but I still have to be very careful. It's not so much the long walks that do it in... but the following day. It's never so much the going up... but the coming down. The slightest thing can tweak it and I'll end up suffering for a couple days.

Getting old sucks.


I overdid the massages though.


What is it they say about too much of a good thing?


I guess anything can be unpleasant if experienced excessively... and unfortunately I had a couple undesirable experiences. .


The first thing that happened...


I opted for a full Laos massage. The lady at the front led me into the back room, which was divided up with bed sheets. It seemed a bit back alley... perhaps a bit too dirty and cheap... but I ignored the warnings. Entering through the opening of one of the bed sheets, I saw a row of mattresses, pushed together on the floor. Some of them had a sheet dividing them, but most did not. It was like a set up for an enormous slumber party.


As instructed, I lied on my mattress and was beaten to a pulp by this woman. She actually hit my upper right leg with such force that it sent my muscles into spasm for a couple of days. The lady who was lying on the mattress directly beside me was speaking (maybe Korean?) on her phone for her entire massage. There were a multitude of other phones dinging, videos playing... and two of the younger staff members gossiped and giggled incessantly. There were children in the building, running up and down the stairs, yelling at each other and making a complete rukus.


Did I mention they were playing Christmas music?


If there is one thing that has the possibility to send me completely over the edge, it's holly jolly Christmas music. I wouldn't complain at all had it been the lovely, soft sounds of the holiday season... but the likes of Frosty, Rudolph and Jingle Bells is anything but soothing.

It was a horrific, unsoothing experience and almost put me off massages for some time. I was just left feeling battered and unbalanced. I figured I could counter it with another foot rub.


Seemed a reasonable thing to do.


Right?



Later that afternoon, I found another parlour and went in, full of anticipation. I love having my feet massaged. One of the staff members washed my feet and then set me up in a reclining chair. I leaned back, intent on relaxing... when suddenly I realized the boy rubbing my feet couldn't have been more than 12 or 13 years of age.


NO!


It was the most awkward moment of my life.

It was creepy.


I couldn't shake the feeling that I was contributing to child labour. I most certainly WAS contributing. I was supporting this parlour... albeit unknowingly. My foot pleasure greed was depriving a child of their childhood... and their DIGNITY. I tried SO hard to convince myself that he was just a young looking adult, but there was no way he was any older than 13. No way at all.


It was awful... and a little too much for me to handle... so ultimately my massages have come to a temporary closure.


So...


That's me now boycotting...

  1. Massages.

  2. Rivers.

  3. Temples.

Shit.


Thank goodness there's still food!!!

bottom of page