The pace in Lao PDR’s premier tourist destination is as gentle as the current of the river flowing through it
Departing from Chiang Mai International Airport, Lao Airlines offers direct passage to the city of Luang Prabang, in the northern part of Lao PDR. The flight time is about one hour, with gorgeous rugged highland scenery visible from the airplane window as you approach this elevated mountain hideaway. Positioned at the sacred confluence of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan (Khan River), this UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to more than 30 gilded wats, hundreds of saffron-clad monks, faded Indochinese villas, and wonderful Gallic-influenced cuisine—a tasty holdover from the city’s French Colonial era. It’s also a very laid back little enclave, where bicycles make the best mode of transport and not much goes on after midnight.
Giving Alms to Monks
You’ll need to be up mighty early if you want to take part in this daily ritual of giving alms, but as there’s not much late night action in Luang Prabang, getting up at 5am isn’t such an onerous task. By joining in, or merely observing this captivating daily ritual (known as Tak Bat), visitors will get some insight into the spiritual life of the locals. Each day, starting at around 5:30am, hundreds of saffron-clad Buddhist monks walk in a row to receive offerings. They walk single file, oldest first, carrying their silver alms bowls in front of them. The people waiting for them, kneeling or sitting, place food—usually handfuls of fresh sticky rice—into their bowls, as well as flowers, incense sticks, and/or other items. About 800 monks take part in the morning alms round, and tourists are welcome to participate. Sisavangvong Road is the most well-known spot to witness this procession.
After observing the giving of alms, it’s easy to make a side trip to the morning fresh market, which gets going at around 6am and continues till about 10am. Each day, in the web of alleys off Sisavangvong Road, vendors set up their makeshift stalls selling a wide variety of edibles—from fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, to freshly butchered meats, catch-of-the-day seafood, and exotic local delicacies such as frogs, bats, and insect larvae.
Wat Xieng Thong
Located on the northern tip of the city’s peninsula Wat Xieng Thong (or “Temple of the Golden City”) is one of the most beautiful and revered monasteries in Luang Prabang. Originally built in 1559 by King Setthathirath, it was formerly under royal patronage and many kings were crowned here. It’s also one of the few temples that was not destroyed during the Black Flag Army invasion of 1887, which adds to its historic importance. The central sǐm (ordination/congregation hall) has a gorgeous sweeping three-tiered roof that extends almost to the ground. On top of the building sits a gilded Dok So Faa, an ornamental element consisting of 17 miniature stupas, each covered by a 7 tiered parasol, and on the exterior of the back wall there’s a colourful mosaic of the tree of life, created during the 1960s. Meanwhile, the sǐm’s interior is as impressive as its exterior, with intricate gold stencilling on black lacquer decorating both the walls and the massive teak wood pillars supporting the roof, and a principal Buddha image seated on an elaborate pedestal surrounded by many smaller images.
There are two entrances to the temple—the road entry and the river entry (which used to be the main entry point that the King used when arriving by boat from the palace). All the buildings and structures within the temple grounds are visually stunning, and many are decorated with colourful mosaics, but one building that rivals the beauty of the main ordination hall is the Royal Funerary Chariot Hall, which was constructed in 1962 and boasts a two-tiered roof adorned with Naga finials. It contains the elaborate carved wooden funeral carriage of King Sisavang Vong who died in 1959. The carriage is decorated with large Naga snakes at the front, and inside are three very elaborate urns that used to contain the ashes of the King, his father, and his mother. Entrance to Wat Xieng Thong is 20,000 Kip, and it is open daily from 6am to 6pm.
Luang Prabang National Museum
The Royal Palace in Luang Prabang was built in 1904 during the French colonial era for King Sisavang Vong. When the communists came to power in 1975 they took over the residence and sent the royal family to re-education camps. The palace, built in French Beaux-Arts style, was renovated and converted into a museum in 1995, which is open to the public. The exhibits within stretch back several centuries, telling the story of the of the Lane Xang kingdom’s turbulent past, as well as the colonial and modern day eras.
Admission is 30,000 Kip, and the museum is open daily, except Tuesday, from 8am to 11:30am, and from 1:30pm until 4pm (unfortunately, however, taking photos inside the palace museum is strictly prohibited). The grounds surrounding the museum are beautifully manicured, and the property is also home to a number of other buildings, including a spectacular ornate Buddhist temple, the National Theatre, and an imposing statue of King Sisavang Vong.
The panoramic city view from the top of Mount Phousi is magnificent, especially at sunset when the hills in the distance recede in gradated layers of mist and haze. The 150-metre high hill is easy to climb, and there are two paths leading up—one of which leads right into the popular Luang Prabang Night Market, which takes over much of the length of Sisavangvong Road on a nightly basis. Enjoy the sunset view up top and then shop for handicrafts, souvenirs, and other assorted odds and ends below.
Pak Ou Caves River Cruise
The mighty Mekong River is central to life in Luang Prabang so taking a cruise along this historic waterway is an obvious attraction for any visitor. Many organized tours take tourists on guided expeditions to the Pak Ou Caves, where thousands of Buddha images are housed at the base of a limestone cliff facing the river. It takes about two hours to reach the caves, travelling 25 km north by river barge, but the waters are usually calm and the scenery is stunning along the way. Arriving passengers disembark from the boats, and then climb up a paved flight of stairs that lead up to the main cave—which, according to legend, was discovered in the 16th century by King Setthathirath, one of Laos’ greatest kings. The main cave and the upper cave were both used during this time period to hide precious Buddha statues from being destroyed by invaders.
Over the centuries the two caves here have gained prominence as a sacred religious spot and today 2,500 Buddha and Buddhist-related sculptures are located in the lower cave alone—having been added, one-by-one, in the ensuing years by visitors. The sculptures vary in size and style, from ancient looking stone carvings, to more modern plastic and wood-carved figures. Meanwhile the upper cave, which is unlit so you need a flashlight to see anything, contains about 1,500 Buddha statues, many of which are quite large. It requires a short jaunt uphill to access this next level, but walking around in this darkened space is very atmospheric. Entry to the caves is 20,000 Kip, and kids under 10 are admitted free.
Wining & Dining
L’Élephant Vert: This stylish eatery is one of the first ethno-botanical “living” cuisine restaurants in Southeast Asia, and well worth a visit. Many of the ingredients are locally grown, most of them organically, and the menu showcases traditional Lao cuisine in vegan, vegetarian, and meat and fish formats.
Coconut Garden: This two-storey restaurant offers plenty of seating—indoor and out—and the menu selections include many delicious Laotian specialties. It’s a popular casual dining spot located on Sisavangvong Road.
Icon Klub: Set in a beautiful white vintage-looking building just off Sakkarine Road, this late night drink spot—one of the few in Luang Prabang—first opened in 2009. The interior has a 1920s vibe and features both indoor and outdoor seating, as well as a variety of crafted cocktails, great music, cool staff, board games, books of poetry, and plenty of art. Open from 5pm till 11:30pm, six nights a week.
Words and photos by Bruce Scott