Luang Prabang, Laos
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Luang Prabang, Laos

 Luang Prabang, Laos

Orange-robbed monks padding through the morning mist, wending their way past magnificent temples and aging French-colonial buildings, stopping now and then to receive food in their alms bowls from women kneeling on mats.

In the background palms sway as the muddy water of Mekong flows silently past. Here and there a rooster crows as the sound of chattering children grows in intensity. This is how a day begins in Luang Prabang, a Laotian town of immeasurable beauty and charm.

At one time the capital of a Kingdom that covered all of present day Laos and parts of northern Thailand and southern China, Luang Prabang is now a charming backwater sort of place (population approximately 20,000) that encourages a relaxed investigation of its numerous attractions.

In 1995, UNESCO designated the town as a "World Heritage" site worthy of protection and development. The numerous temples, many of them hundreds of years old, provided the primary impetus for the designation. However, they are only part of what makes Luang Prabang so attractive. The examples of French colonial architecture, the different ethnic groups strolling the streets in traditional garb, the green of the surrounding mountains and the general absence of the hectic pace of modern life all add to the general appeal.

Located at the confluence of Mekong and Nam Kam Rivers, the main part of Luang Prabang is built on a peninsula that juts out into the water. The major roads that parallel the peninsula are bisected by smaller roads that extend from the banks of one river to the other. Since Luang Prabang is so small, many of its sights can be investigated on foot. For places beyond walking distance, most visitors take a "jumbo" - a motorbike with a couple seats on the back.

The most impressive of the temples is Wat Xieng Thong. Built in 1560, its main building (sim) has roofs that sweep low to the ground in the classical style of Luang Prabang temple architecture. The rear wall is covered with a magnificent mosaic in the form of a "tree of life." The interior walls depict exploits of a revered king and elaborately decorated wooden columns support the roof. A smaller adjacent building houses a rare reclining Buddha done in classic Lao style. Another building house impressive funerary carriages that are elaborately carved and gilded in gold.

There are 31 other temples in Luang Prabang, but the most frequently visited are Wat Wisunalat, Wat Aham, Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, Wat That Luang and Wat Manolom. To get the most out of visiting these temples a good guidebook is a must.

Before starting a tour of Luang Prabang's temples, a visit to the Royal Palace Museum will add perspective and knowledge to make the tour more interesting. The museum is housed in a former royal residence that was built in 1904. The architecture combines Lao and French motifs and is almost as interesting as the artifacts contained within it. The museum is open daily from 08:00-11:00 and 13:30-16:30. Shoes are not permitted inside and photographs are prohibited.

There are numerous things to see outside of Luang Prabang town. Of these the caves at Pak Ou are the most popular. Reached by boat traveling along the Mekong, they are 25 kilometers from Luang Prabang at the mouth of the Nam Ou river. The interiors of the two caves overlook the river and are packed with Buddha images.
The village of Ban Phanom is another popular side trip. Only a few kilometers out of town, it is known for its weaving. Although woven silk from the village is now cheaper in Luang Prabang itself, a visit to the village provides an opportunity to watch weavers at work on their hand looms.
The mountains surrounding Luang Prabang contain numerous waterfalls and some of them are worth visiting. Jumbo drivers in town will be more than happy to arrange a trip to one of the falls. The falls at Tat Kuang Si are probably the most popular. There are two tiers of falls, but most visitors stay at the base of the first tier. The second tier, which can be reached by a sometimes slippery trail, has a pool in which people swim. There is a cave behind the falls and another trail that can be slippery and dangerous leads to the top of the falls.

Luang Prabang Essentials

Getting There

The airport at Luang Prabang has been enlarged and modernized and now accepts international flights. Bangkok Airways has daily flights from Bangkok by way of Sukhothai and other regional carriers are reportedly getting ready to follow suit. Although several international carriers fly into Vientiane, the connecting flights to Luang Prabang on Lao Aviation are avoided by many because of safety concerns. The highway from Vientiane to Luang Prabang is now secure and several buses ply the route each day. The adventurous often arrive in Luang Prabang by boats that travel along the Mekong, beginning at Huay Xai a Laotian border town opposite the town of Chiang Khong in Thailand.

Visas

Visas can be obtained at Laos Embassies throughout the world, but a fifteen day visa can now easily be obtained on arrival at Luang Prabang Airport for US$30 or 1400 baht. A passport-sized photograph is required and the payment can only be made in dollars or baht.

Currency

Although the official currency of Laos is the kip, US dollars and Thai baht are widely accepted. The kip is currently being exchanged at a rate of approximately 10,300 kip to a dollar. Businesses rarely accept traveler's checks and credit cards often aren't accepted. The Lane Xiang Bank, however, will cash traveler's checks and make cash advances on Visa Cards, but not on MasterCharge Cards. ATM's are not available.

Accommodations

There is a wide range of lodging available in Luang Prabang, ranging from charming and inexpensive guest houses to a growing number of hotels that meet international standards with standard amenities. Reservations can be made through travel agents or via the Internet.

Food and Drink

Luang Prabang is one of the easiest places in Southeast Asia for foreign visitors to eat. The French left a significant culinary imprint so baguettes and freshly brewed coffee are as common as tea and rice. The local food is excellent and often includes dishes made from wild boar, venison or fish from the Mekong. Most hotels and guest houses have restaurants and a growing number of independent dining spots line the banks of the Mekong. Beer Lao, the local brew, is excellent and many visitors enjoy the local rice whiskey and numerous rice wines. Weary sightseers often take a break by enjoying a fruit shake made with the fresh tropical fruit that is always available.
Shopping: Luang Prabang is an excellent place to shop for handicrafts. Hand woven textiles of cotton and silk are of excellent quality and are on virtually every visitor's shopping list. They are available at the city's markets and in the small shops found on virtually every street. Handmade works of silver are another favorite and can be obtained directly from the silversmiths who make them. Baskets, embroidery work, and wood carvings are also excellent buys. Fixed prices are unheard of in Luang Prabang so don't forget to bargain when shopping.



 

- October Issue, 2002

   
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