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
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
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.