This is my third and final love letter to Luang Prabang. Located on a tropical peninsula – a long finger of land at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, approximately 1km long by 300m wide – the city was tiny but so so beautiful. I wanted to capture everything and took hundreds of photos; squeezing my favourites into two blogs was impossible!
Luang Prabang Old Town…
Along the centre of the peninsula runs the main street, a spine off which stems quieter streets lined with old colonial houses, interspersed with more traditional Laotian buildings such as the temples and royal buildings.
Laos only opened it’s doors to tourism in 1989 and – sat in a European-style coffee shop sipping iced lattes from glass jars – we reflected on the journey that Luang Prabang must have taken within our lifetime. I imagine the wary welcome of the first trickle of intrepid travelers in the late 80’s was a world away from the slightly more polished reception that we experienced – the pace of change in the last 30 years must have been quite a challenge.
As the city grows to accommodate the influx of tourists, it expands outwards from the peninsula to the south and east. Previously most of the tourism stemmed from the backpacker trail, but now there are ample guesthouses and hotels ready to satisfy more affluent customers and our hotel manager told us that learning English was the best way to guarantee a good job here.
The charm of Luang Prabang flows from it’s unique architectural, religious and cultural heritage; imagine grand French colonial villas with wooden-shuttered windows and pastel-coloured pebbledash, sitting side-by-side with gleaming gold and burgundy Buddhist temples. The streets are mouthfuls of ‘s’ and ‘p’ – Phou Si, Sisavangyong, Samsenthai, Phamahapasam – and the delicious smell of spicy smoke drifts from charcoal grills at the front of shops and homes.
Since being awarded UNESCO protected status in 1995 development in the city has been regulated by a strict building code, meaning that the original buildings can be hard to distinguish from the architecturally-sympathetic newcomers; this has helped Luang Prabang to avoid the unfortunate homogenization which developing Asian cities are so susceptible to.
The streets in town are filled with guest-houses, massage-parlors, restaurants and french-style cafes street. It’s nice to cycle around as the majority of traffic is two-wheeled rather than four, although the bikes we borrowed from our hotel had seen better days and so we did more stopping to drink coffee/beer than we did actual cycling.
Luang Prabang was the ancient royal capital of Laos and the surrounding region until King Sisavangyong moved the seat to Vientiane in 1545, and some of the grander buildings are an echo of this provenance; however, the city has also seen more than it’s share of turbulence. Towards the end of the 19th Century it was ransacked by successive Burmese invasions, providing a prime opportunity for the French to sweep in and pick up the pieces, supporting renovations and ushering in Luang Prabang’s ‘French period’.
Buddhism is the main religion here and deeply permeates the Laotian culture. Each morning as dawn breaks over the city, a line of locals wait patiently on their knees to offer ‘alms’ – gifts in the form of rice snacks, fresh fruit and traditional sweets – to the 200-or-so Buddhist monks in a traditional ritual which dates back to the 14th Century. The alms giving starts along Sisavangvong road and then radiates out to the adjoining side streets.
This scared and peaceful ceremony is obviously novel to us Westeners and so it’s unsurprising that tourists flock to watch or take part. After discussion we chose not to go (aside from that fact that I’m grumpy if I have to get up too early, we also felt that the ceremony was for the local Buddhist people, rather than for our benefit); however, for around $5 your hotel or a tour operator will help you to participate in a respectful way.
Wat Xieng Thong
As a Buddhist city in South East Asia, we expected there to be a few temples dotted here and there, although if you’d have asked us how many there were in Luang Prabang I’m certain we would have underestimated. There are 33 Wats (temples) in total, and you hardly walk a few meters without passing one!
16th-century Wat Xieng Thong, off Sisavangvong road towards the far end of the peninsula, is the coronation place of the Lao kings, and also an important gathering place for annual festivities. Truly beautiful, it was described by Auguste Pavie, the first French vice-consul in Luang Prabang, as “famous for its sloping curved roof with three levels overlapping one another, as if it were an immense bird preparing to fly”.
Lhai Heua Fa:, Festival of the Boats of Light
Unbeknownst to us when we booked our flights our time in Laos coincided with the build-up to ‘Boun Ork Phansa’, the last day of Buddhist lent which is celebrated by festive celebrations steeped in tradition. During the day donations and offerings are given at the local temples, and in the evening candlelight processions are held. In Luang Prabang the celebration is most spectacular – hundreds of brightly coloured dragon-shaped boats floats decorated with flowers, incense and candles are set adrift down the Mekong river, to pay respect to the Buddha and give thanks to the river spirits. These boats also symbolise the bad luck from the previous year being swept away, allowing the good luck to flow in. In addition to the big dragons, families make their own small boats from banana leaves and say a prayer at the side of the river before lighting the candle and sending the boat on it’s way.
The consequence of us not knowing about this festival beforehand was that we didn’t coincide our stay with it, and left a couple of days before it took place. The boats were already shaping up though!
And by night…
As the sun sets over the city, a transformation takes place on Sisavangvong Road. From the Post Office roundabout to the Royal Palace, the wide street bisects into back-to-back stalls; brightly coloured merchandise stacked and spilling from the plastic sheets spread along the ground (more of these sheets are deftly hung overhead at the first spots of rain, creating a bazaar-type environment).
The market unfurls each night and underneath the tarpaulin sheets a small community comes to life – the vendors huddle together to slurp noodle soup, share snacks, and entertain small children, occasionally unfolding some of the fabrics and typing the price into a small calculator (this is partly to help communicate to foreign tourists, but also because the exchange rate to the Lao Kip can take some getting used to – 1GBP is about 11,000 Kip, 1USD around 9,000).
The market offers a vibrant miscellany of goods, from traditional hand-made crafts (silk scarves, cloth bags, carved wooden bowls and ornaments, embroidered story-books and childrens toys) to mass-produced backpacker essentials (the obligatory BeerLao t-shirts and elephant-print trousers). You can also buy locally-produced teas, coffee, spices and corked bottles of Lao Lao (the Lao whisky I mentioned in my last blog). The stalls are repetitive (not unusual for an Asian market), but this is one of the best ones I’ve come across – not least for the fact that you don’t feel harassed as you walk around; they seem to be happy with window-shopping.
When the time came for us to leave Luang Prabang I definitely had that pang of “do we have to go?” that accompanies the end of any good holiday, but at the same time we were excited to be moving onto our next destination, having had an encouraging start to the trip.
It didn’t take long for this excitement to be somewhat dampened, when our hotel manager – as he drove us to the airport – inquired as to where we were going next and replied “oh” (in a tone that was somewhere on the spectrum between surprise and disappointment) when we said ‘Vientiane’. He continued: “I studied in Vientiane, but…. I much prefer it here. We have some rooms left if you’d prefer to stay?” We smiled at this, taking it as a polite effort to tempt our continued custom… although in hindsight it was perhaps an option we should have considered more seriously.
If you’re planning to visit Laos, I wholeheartedly recommend that you head to Luang Prabang and spend a good few days soaking it up. It’s the kind of place where you can ‘do all the attractions’ in a short period of time, but there’s such a nice atmosphere in and around and it’s worth staying on a bit longer to make the most of that.