BY ALLAN SEIDEN – The Mekong River, stained a muddy brown with runoff from heavy rains the night before, makes its way quickly past the town of Luang Prabang (LP), a United Nations World Heritage site that was once the royal capital of the Kingdom of Laos. The boats and narrow canoes that travel the river must compensate for the powerful downstream flow of the river, which has long served LP’s primary link to the outside world.
Luang Prabang retains much that is authentically Laotian, but there is also evidence of centuries when Thai, Vietnamese and French overlords dominated the country. While Luang Prabang remains appealingly low-rise and linked to the past, the present has made inroads. Sisavangvong, LP’s main street (named after a revered king), is a narrow paved thoroughfare lined with casual restaurants, internet cafes, and shops that cater to both locals and foreigners taking in the passing scene and happy to be on the road less traveled. It bustles with a mix of cars, trucks, foot-pedaled taxis, sidecar motorcycles (tuktuk), and bicycles.
A mere block away and Luang Prabang presents itself in an entirely different way, with quiet footpaths and one-lane dirt roads fronting country-style homes overhung by towering coconut palms and flowers that scent the tropical air. Women, elegantly draped in sari-like simplicity, walk by, shaded from the sun by colorful, waxed-paper parasols. Quiet prevails, broken by an occasional crowing rooster or barking dog and leaves rustled by a soft breeze.
It was evident that Luang Prabang was someplace special even before our plane, inbound from Phnom Penh, touched down at LP’s Molokai-sized airport. The sense of isolation builds, the densely green, mountainous landscape revealed through breaks in cotton-ball armies of cumulus clouds.
After exchanging $100, instantly becoming a millionaire with 10,500 yip to the dollar, we headed by shared taxi to Maison Souvannaphoum, a lovely mansion in a garden setting on the outskirts of town that provided a convenient base for our five-day stay. Bicycles, provided by the hotel, proved the perfect way to get around, putting most of the city within a 15-minute ride.
Although isolated Laos remains a communist state, Buddhism thrives in Luang Prabang, where monasteries and temples (called wat) are an integral part of the cultural landscape. So are the red- and orange-robed monks, who, seeking enlightenment and an education, flock to LP.
Despite its royal pedigree and numerous wat, Luang Prabang proves a place without pretense. Life is still lived simply, largely outside of a money economy. People are genuinely friendly, their sincerity not yet spoiled by the inroads of large-scale tourism. When they pass you in the street in colorful Lao couture, you are invariably greeted with a soft-voiced Sabadee, hello. Even the bustling markets provide a warm welcome, with bargain-priced native crafts (think colorful silks and cotton textiles, embroidered clothing and bags, and silver jewelry (sold by weight) offered by Lao and Hmong women. The Hmong, a mountain people identified by their black dresses and blue sashes, are at the bottom of the Laotian economy.
The day starts before dawn in Luang Prabang, with a procession of monks making their way through town food bowls in hand. LP’s large community of monks relies on the generosity of those who awaken under a night sky to prepare food, then positioning themselves along of the monks’ processional route. Rice, baked yams, nuts, and drinks part of the ceremonial offerings called tark baat that provide the monks with their one meal of a day spent in prayer, study and service.
Warm days prevail year round, the rising sun brilliantly reflected in the gold leaf and glass mosaic facades of temples and shrines that welcome both visitors and locals. A climb to the top of Mount Phousi, a hill that rises from the heart of the city, reaches a gold-spired wat with a bird’s eye view of LP, with only an occasional temple spire rising above the canopy of trees.
The boats that line the muddy banks of the Mekong include narrow canoes that carry passengers and goods to the quiet villages and somewhat ramshackle wat that line the opposite shore, providing hours of fruitful wandering. Boats can also be rented for the 18-mile day trip upriver to the beautiful Pak Ou Grottoes. Head down river and the river widens, granite mountains rising from the palm-lined lowlands dotted with small riverside villages.
For all its quiet charm, Luang Prabang does have its cosmopolitan outposts-restaurants and guesthouses where the past means a time of French colonial rule, where expats and the newly arrived mingle, yet another part of the mosaic that makes Luang Prabang a place to remember and return to.
When To Go: Tropical temperatures, year-round, with the dry season, and the coolest temperatures from November through March.
Great Guide Book: Moon Handbooks: Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos. Once you’re there, the Tourism Office provides maps and information. Plan a stay of four days or longer.
Getting There: Visas are issued at the airport upon arrival. You can fly in from Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Chiang Mai and Bangkok (Thailand), Vientiane (Laos’ far larger and more modern capital) and several smaller Laotian towns, and Hanoi (Vietnam). The airport is two miles from town, with taxis available. Be sure to reconfirm reservations. In the rainy season, delays are not uncommon.
Getting Around: Luang Prabang is a place for walking or bicycling (bicycles, motorbikes and motorcycles can be rented), with most key attractions within a 15-minute ride. Sidecar motorcycles (tuktuk) are inexpensive and can be hired by the hour. Drivers will wait while you tour.
Not To Be Missed
- Sunset on the Mekong: Memorable sunsets are the rule, most particularly from the promenade overlooking the Mekong, with the sun, setting behind sharp-peaked mountains, reflected in the Mekong’s waters.
- The Royal Palace was completed in 1909 by King Sisavangvong in an eclectic blend of Lao ands French Beaux Arts style. Now a museum, that includes a visit to the royal apartments, it is also is a venue for music, dance and other cultural events.
- A boat trip on the Mekong, either upstream (to the Pak Ou caves) or downstream to visit riverside villages and shrine.
- A pre-dawn wake-up to participate in pindipath. Bring food and join those feeding the city’s many monks. And visit to any and all of LP’s many wats.
Where To Stay: We stayed at the 20-room Maison Souvannaphoum (Maison_ Souvannaphoum_Hotel-Luang_Prabang.html), one of many smaller hotels in converted mansions. At $100 per night our double included breakfast. Other upscale options include the Villa Santi (www.villasantihotel.com), Grand Luang Prabang (email@example.com), and La Residence Phou Vao (www.residencephouvao.com). Hotels at under $20/night, double are another tight-budget option.
Dining Out: In addition to low-cost restaurants, there are several French restaurants that offer more sophisticated dining, this having once been part of French Indochina, with Duang Champa, housed in a lovely old mansion, a winner. Fanciest Laotian restaurant is the Villa Santi, with dinner for two at under $20.
Changing Money: The airport is the easiest place to initially exchange money. At 10,500 yip to the dollar, $100 goes a long way. There are several banks in town.
Next: June 17:
Saxony Resurgent: An Eye-Opening Visit to Dresden & Leipzig
1) Dramatic scenery on a boat ride downriver on the Mekong.
2) Luang Prabang can be made part of a visit a number of neighboring countries.
3) Buddhist monks receiving food in a dawn ceremonial offering called tark baat.
4) Gold-leafed carvings are an element of wat architecture.
5) Sunset: Boats line the shore from a riverside promenade
All pictures copyrighted © Allan Seiden, 2011