HEMMED IN by sprawling mountain ranges and the Mekong and Khan rivers, Luang Prabang has long been able to shut out the outside world and focus on sustainable living.
Famous for its cultural traditions and striking French colonial architecture, this former royal capital has however far more to offer visitors than glided temples and classic buildings.
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A 30-minute drive along the road leading to Kuang Si Waterfall, the Laos Buffalo Dairy farm is today a popular spot with foreign tourists. It owes its existence to what marketing expert Susie Martin, her husband Steven Mcwhirter, financial expert Matthew and chef Rachel O’Shea laughingly describe as a collective mid-life crisis and a passion for cheese.
The guided tour buffalo feedings are priced at kip 50,000 (Bt190) and kip 100,000 (Bt380). There are three milking demonstrations a day.
Recognising the potential for a dairy business in Laos and hoping to generate extra income for local farmers, the four set up the farm two years ago, a move that no doubt pleased the Lao government, which has been working to build up exports of buffalo and cow meat. The aim is to produce 500,000 tons of meat a year, though at the moment Laos is only covering five per cent of that target.
“Laos doesn’t have a dairy product culture – not cows, buffaloes or goats. This is the first and only buffalo dairy in the country,” says Susie Martin, the dairy’s chief executive.
“I worked for a multinational company in Singapore and five years ago my family travelled to India, where we sampled delicious yoghurt curds made from buffalo milk. When I came to Luang Prabang and saw so many buffaloes, I assumed local farmers were doing the same. But nobody even knew what yoghurt was. Most yoghurt for breakfast in the hotels was made with fruit not milk.”
These days, 90 per cent of the buffaloes on the farm are rented from 150 farmers across 17 villages. The dairy pays around one million kip (US$100) for bringing and milking buffaloes at the farm for six months.
“Initially, we wanted to buy buffalo milk from farmers to make some cheese. But it’s taken a long time for farmers to trust us and learn how to milk. It became obvious that no one understood us, so we decided to change the idea around by renting the buffaloes from them,” Martin says.
Almost all the buffaloes at the Laos Buffalo Dairy Farm are rented from local farmers and their milk used to make a selection of premium cheeses, yoghurts, ice cream and desserts.
“Most buffaloes in Laos are primarily raised for meat though a few are still used for ploughing the land in preparation for rice planting even though the farmers now prefer to use tractors. In Laos, a buffalo is like a worker but if the farmers have to pay medical fees, for a wedding or to educate their kids, they can sell their buffalo.”
When arriving at the farm, the buffaloes will spend four weeks in quarantine where they undergo a disease testing and vaccination programme created by four veteran vets from Holland, England, Vientiane and Thailand, who call in at the farm every six months.
The farm offers three milking demonstrations a day and visitors can have fun giving the buffaloes a shower and feeding them with grass and milk. Other livestock includes rabbits, chickens and pigs, which the children are welcome to feed. The porkers all eat corn mix, rendering their flesh meatier and with less fat.
“After the month in quarantine, we move the buffaloes to the main farm, where they are milked by machine at 6am and 5pm. Buffalo milk is more creamy and aromatic. It has only four per cent of fat compared to cow milk, which has 10 per cent,” Martin says.
“A few years ago Laos joined with China to create a breeding programme to resolve allergenic problems that arise as a result of inter-breeding. This involved bringing different species of buffalo from China to breed with the local beasts.”
Laos Buffalo Dairy’s cheeses are famous for their smooth texture, light fragrance and great taste.
The farm also boasts a cafe where visitors can sample the creamy buffalo cheeses and desserts such as smooth cheesecakes, ricotta cakes and ricotta donuts paired with ice cream, thick milk shakes and coffee.
Back in downtown Luang Prabang, visitors can take time out at the Living Crafts Centre by Ock Pop Tok (East meets West), which boasts a wide collection of hand-woven Lao-style textiles created by blending modern innovations with local wisdom.
Aiming to earn more income for Lao women and conserve the country’s centuries-old weaving culture, Veomanee “Veo” Douangdala teamed up with her English friend Joanna “Jo” Smith to set up Ock Pop Tok in 2000 and the shop quickly become the centre of social enterprise and ethnic fashion in Luang Prabang.
Perched on the bank of the Mekong River, the company has now expanded its base to the Living Crafts Centre to educate visitors about sericulture and traditional weaving. It works with more than 500 residents throughout the country in developing designs and techniques for clothes that are both modern and functional.
“In the past, villagers wove only traditional skirts. We have provided them with a standard loom and expanded our product line to include home decor items, bags and other fashion apparel. We use two species of silkworms from both here and India,” says Vin, the sales and marketing coordinator.
The Living Crafts Centre by Ock Pop Tok offers demonstrations of silk weaving, sericulture, naturally dyed textiles as well as batik classes.
“It usually takes 45 days to raise the silkworms and produce the thread. After the eggs are laid and the larvae emerge, we feed them with tomato and papaya leaves and then harvest the threads of the spittle they produce when they form their cocoon.”
Luang Prabang is populated by several hill tribes like Hmong, Phu Tai and Tai Lue and each has a different signature pattern such as mat mee (similar to Thailland mudmee) and nam lai (interlocking tapestry weaving). All textiles are organically dyed with extracts of plants and flowers – ebony produces grey black, lac red, sappan tree pink and tumeric vine yellow.
Visitors can join a batik workshop to make their keepsake or check out the latest collection of trendy hand-woven outfits, home furnishing and silver jewellery at the boutique.
Avani Plus Luang Prabang offers five-star hospitality in elegant French colonial-style accommodation.
Luang Prabang is home to several boutique hotels and guesthouses, as well as more luxurious accommodation. The newest of these is the Avani Plus Luang Prabang Hotel, a five-star resort built on the land that once hosted the French army quarters. It became the Phousi Hotel in 1961 and closed in 2014 when the old structures were razed.
Last year, the Azarai Hotel took over the land with the rebranding as Avani Plus completed in March. Designed by veteran French-Canadian architect Pascal Trahan, this brand-new hotel boasts a contemporary French neo-classical style.
Between trips into town or into the countryside, guests can relax by the pool under the canopy of an ancient banyan tree or head to the spa for a pampering session.
“The Avani Plus is the first hotel in Luang Prabang to receive official five-star ranking from Ministry of Information Culture and Tourism,” hotel manager Andrew Jansson says proudly.
The Mekong Kingdoms Luxury Cruises offers sunset, dinner and overnight sails along the river Prices start at US$34 (Bt1,080), inclusive of canapes and drinks.
And while the upstairs bar with its street-side veranda offers the ideal perch from which to observe the daily rhythms of Luang Prabang life, visitors should make for the river to admire the sunset and board one of the Mekong Kingdoms Luxury Cruises for a two-hour cruise. Furnished with colourful lounge sofas and a sundeck, guests can drink in the romance of the colonial era while enjoying spectacular views of verdant mountains and fishing communities on the banks.
Those desiring a more intimate private cruise can take advantage of the ultra-exclusive two-cabin cruiser and enjoy a one or more night stay on the river.
The writer travelled courtesy of Avani Plus Luang Prabang and Bangkok Airways.
IF YOU GO
>> Bangkok Airways has two daily flights between Bangkok to Luang Prabang. Check out the best rates at www.BangkokAir.com.
>> For reservations at the Avani Plus, visit www.MinorHotels.com/en/avani/luang-prabang