A three hour minibus ride away from Nong Khiaw is Luang Prabang, the first capital of Laos and a UNESCO World Heritage city.
There are still many French colonial buildings and most have been converted into fancy restaurants, cafes and bakeries. In combination with the Lao buildings and a lot of temples, it's a very nice city to walk around.
With an early start it's possible to see the almsgiving ceremony with tens if not hundreds of monks collecting gifts of sticky rice from kneeling worshippers. It's amazing to see but unfortunately has become overrun by tourists, many acting rude and disrespectfully. While posters around town advise in five languages to "respect our culture" this seems to be too much for some people, who stand directly next to monks taking pictures (with flash!) - it's a real shame and not pleasant to watch.
It is possible to find a few quiet spots though and by covering your knees and shoulders, being lower than the monks (so sit or squat) and watching from across the street, it's possible to see the ceremony and be respectful - it's really not that difficult.
Besides walking around there are 320 steps up to Mount Phousi and its stupa, Wat Chom Si. From the top you have an almost panoramic view of the town. It had nearly this exact picture as my desktop wallpaper at work for months so it was an extra bonus to finaly make it here!
As mentioned there are a lot of temples and two of the most touristed stand out, though for good reason. Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most impressive and until 1975 was a royal temple where Lao kings were crowned. There are many buildings on the grounds but the temple's roof draws a lot of the attention.
Second, on the grounds of the Royal Palace museum is Wat Ho Prabang that houses the Royal Buddha image - the cities namesake - the Phra Bang. It isn't possible to go inside the temple but the image is visible from the open doors.
Wat Xieng Thong (above). Wat Ho Prabang (below).
From my guidebook I learnt of Big Brother Mouse, a Lao literacy charity based in Luang Prabang aimed at teaching children across Laos to read. They produce their own children's books which they distribute directly to remote villages and sell to tourists, with the aim that they can gift them in places they visit (rather than useless items like sweets).
In addition they host an English practice class every night 5-7pm for locals and tourists to meet. Locals get a chance to practice their English and tourists get to speak to locals and ask questsions they might not otherwise get a chance to do.
I spent most of the two hours with Silee, a college student from a Hmong village, living in Luang Prabang to study medicine. He'd written a letter to his college asking for a grant (fees are expensive for a family of farmers) so we went through the letter, correcting some spelling and grammar and improving it a little. His English textbook was interesting and had some slight cultural differences - like learning the English words for the animals cat, dog, fish and....dragon!
The night market gets a lot of visitors but there isn't much for sale that stands out. For me, time was better spent at the cheap stalls that line the river. The plastic tables and chairs are basic but you'll get the best view of the sunset and Mekong.
Photos on Flickr soon, internet is way too slow to upload them all. Also trying to catch up on posts before Cambodia!