Serene, hypnotic, charming. These three adjectives are true of Laos World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, once the seat of Laotian Kingship – the Lord of Lives.
Luang Prabang has retained for centuries its elegant and renowned architecture, and was once described as ‘the town that time forgot’ and ‘the sleeping beauty’. Its cultural charm and natural beauties add up to a well deserving UNESCO status.
Nestled on the convergence of the Mekong and the Khan rivers, with Phu Si hill and other mountains as a backdrop, and several high-spire temples dotting the town, Luang Prabang may just be another river town but it can easily be mistaken for a painting.
Luang Prabang was once the seat of Tai-Lao kingdoms, and at some point, under the rule of Chai Fah Ngum, the town was called Chiangthong, until the time when a Cambodian king homaged Chai Fah Ngum of a sacred Buddha statue called Pra Bang, prompting the monarch to change its name.
Inhabitants practice the simple and modest ways of Buddhist teachings. But do not be fooled. While not long ago an American newspaper described the confrontation between a dog and a monitor lizard as the most interesting thing in town, things have definitely changed. Cafes, bakeries, tourist offices, small minimarts and guest houses dot the streets and are the symbol of Luang Prabang slow but constant crawl to modernity.
The roads along the Mekong and the Khan rivers are lined with a fusion of French colonial and Lao traditional buildings, all giving the town a classic look. This is further confirmed by the myriad of brick venelles: alleys and stairs that link up major roads and houses.
The development of Luang Prabang is being controlled and the town does not look as spoiled and unfettered as some of the Asian heritage centers like Hong Kong, where conservation has not even been taken into consideration.
However, despite efforts like making compulsory the use of traditional bricks that adhere to their specifications and mapping out the town center pedestrian walkways, UNESCO has a hard task to balance the town’s development plans amidst a tourist boom, especially as some of the regulations are not being followed.
The Haw Kham, or old Royal Palace, is located between Phu Si hill and the Mekong river. It was once the residence of King Srisawangwong. The Royal Palace museums displays Luang Prabang’s history and hosts the statue of the sacred Pra Bang Buddha. Wat Mai Suwanphumaran is located west of the Royal Palace; along its outer walls, impressive gold-inlaid paintings depict Buddha’s love for Ramayana stories.
Phra That Phu Si is a golden Lao style stupa located atop of the highest point of Luang Prabang. The flight of 328 steps that lead to Phra That Phu Si is mostly under shady trees, so the climb is not a burden at all. From the top, visitors enjoy breathtaking views of the whole town.
The most beautiful of Luang Prabang temples, and a must see, has to be the renowned Wat Chiangthong, with an impressive Ubosot (ordination hall) built in the unique Luang Prabang style. Features making this temple unique include the curved shape of its roof, its golden poles, and a a mosaic representing the Tree of Life made of thousands of small pieces of coloured glass.
Luang Prabang is split in two by the Mekong river, and this split also marks the border between the tourist town with its old quarters, waterfalls and handicraft villages, and the area where to see real traditional village life. Catch a boat at the back of the old palace to find yourself in the charm of old Luang Prabang and taste the friendliness of the local people. The river breeze keeps the air cool, while you observe paddy fields, wooden houses, kids crossing streams.
There are morning markets where locals hailing from hill tribes villages sell their wares, but the most visited market is Luang Prabang night market, open daily from 5pm to about 10pm, where you can find locally woven clothes and fabrics, locally produced drinks, chess games in ornamental stone to silk scarves, passing by embroidery, sculpture, more or less real opium pipes, portrayals of Buddha in all imaginable forms, local paintings. It is of course more and more common nowadays to be faced with Chinese and Vietnamese products, but you can still find a lot of local handmade craftsmanship.
Things were not always like they are today at Luang Prabang night market, with its ever increasing size, with its hundreds of stalls covered with fold-up canvas roofs and lit up with lampshades and bulbs. When it opened in 2002, there was no electricity in town, so craftsmen of the surrounding areas sold their products to tourists using candles to light up their wares!
The best way to visit relatively small Luang Prabang is perhaps a bicycle ride; rent one in one of the shops in the city center and feel the vibe, visiting popular sights but also taking stops to soak up the atmosphere. Alternatively, hop on a boat for a ride along the Mekong to view the town from the river. Longer boat trips take visitors to waterfalls, limestone cliffs and caves such as Pak Ou.
Luang Prabang is not short of restaurants and accommodation for all budgets, and a stay in one of the refurbished colonial houses is recommended.
Luang Prabang is appealing to say the least, and this keeps visitors coming back for more.
- For bicycle expeditions to Luang Prabang surroundings, click HERE
- For an exciting trek to a great waterfall, click HERE
- To learn about the efforts of a non-profit small International Non-Governmental Organization, click HERE
- Asian Itinerary stayed at Le Vang Bua Villa
- BOOK A ROOM AT Le Vang Bua Villa AT DISCOUNTED RATES HERE