Life in Luang Prabang's slow lane
November 08, Pattarawadee Saengmanee The Nation
The ancient royal capital of Laos requires much more than a weekend to explore its charms
RECOGNISING THE potential for border trade along the Mekong River, sharp-eyed Chinese entrepreneurs have flooded into Laos in recent years pouring billions into mega infrastructure projects as well as luxury hotels and shopping malls. Fortunately, though, they have left the ancient royal capital of Luang Prabang relatively untouched and the town has succeeded in retaining its glorious cultural heritage.
Sitting at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers, Luang Prabang has long been a popular holiday destination. Tourists from all over the world come here to drink in the French colonial architecture and enjoy a slower pace of life.
It’s a short hop by air from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang and an hour after taking off, we arrive in the Unesco heritage town just in time to admire the romantic sunset from the top of Mount Phousi.
Although a mere 100 metres above sea level, climbing the 355 steps along a narrow stairway is hard going, especially as we have local young joggers and foreign tourists snapping at our heels.
We take the easy way out and stop halfway up at Wat Tham Phousi, a small cave temple housing several Buddha images in different postures, enshrined in both the interior hall and on open patios along the sides. Practicality meets spirituality with a drinks stall providing some much-needed refreshment.
On top of the hill is a narrow platform with a small Buddhist pagoda and a seven-tiered parasol called That Chomsi that was constructed in 1804 during the reign of King Anourouth. And when the sky is clear, visitors are rewarded with a beautiful sunset and spectacular panoramic views of Luang Prabang surrounded by lush forests and the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.
Going down is a little easier and we are soon in the midst of the much-loved night market at the foot of Phousi Hill, which spreads from Wat Mai all along Sisavangvong Road.
Every night from 5 to 10pm, hundreds of hilltribe and lowland vendors set up shop with an eye-catching collection of Hmong-style costumes, handicrafts and souvenirs, ranging from indigo-dyed woven scarves, Laotian-style hand-embroidered skirts, embroidered bags and bedspreads, pop-up postcards, paintings and local herbal spirits.
Hungry shoppers can walk to the end of the market, where a cluster of old Colonial-style shophouses have been transformed into restaurants, bars, cafes and boutique hotels, serving a variety of local and international delicacies, sweets and drinks.
The next day starts early for us and at 5.30 we join the daily ritual of alms-giving to 100 saffron-clad monks. Local residents wait in front of their houses or the monasteries, the women clad in the local sin (sarong) with a scarf across their left shoulder.
Unlike in Thailand, pilgrims are allowed to sit on a mat or stool and use their hands to scoop up balls of sticky rice one by one. Tradition has it that only sticky rice is offered rather than steamed rice along with some ready-to-eat dishes.
A short walk from Wat Mai, we reach a narrow alley off Sisavangvong Road that is home to Luang Prabang’s biggest morning market. Here too hundreds of local vendors are selling fresh organic vegetables, herbs and meat. We stop to admire, though not buy, the orange crabs, still-croaking frogs, beehives oozing honey, river weed and insects before stopping for a hearty breakfast of curry infused with pla ra (fermented fish sauce), Lao sausage, spicy fried chicken in red curry, kanom krok (Lao coconut pudding) and grilled sticky rice.
Appetites sated, we board a ferry to the famous Pak Ou Caves that sit at the confluence of the Mekong and Ou rivers. Our cruise takes one hour and 45 minutes and offers an amazing view of lush mountains, temples and fishing villages as well as parts of the high-speed railway from China to the Mekong River, which is expected to be complete in 2021.
The two natural grottoes – Tham Ting (lower cave) and the Tham Theung (upper cave) – have been considered sacred since King Setthathirath, who moved the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane 450 years ago, enshrined the first carved wood Buddha images there in the 16th century.
Believing that 15 Nagas lived in the estuary to protect the kingdom, the king would visit this cave during the Lao New Year to wash the Buddha images. Today, the caves are home to a small gilded pagoda and 2,500 Buddha images, most of them donated by local residents.
We climb the 250 steps to the upper cave, where we are greeted by a pair of stone lions standing guard over the entrance. Using our phones as torches, we go deep into the dark tunnel and soon discover a host of gold Buddha images in different postures and sizes and walls covered with faded gold murals.
Back in town later that day, we visit Wat Xieng Thong. Built on the bank of the Mekong River by King Setthathirath in 1560, it is known for its beautiful sim (ubosot), home to a reclining Buddha.
Inside, the walls are adorned with elaborate gold murals on a background of black and red lacquer depicting the heavens where the Lord Buddha and deities live and hell, where sinners are receiving punishments. There are also some familiar scenes from the Jakata tales and motifs of flowers and animals on view.
The temple is also home to a Chariot Hall built in 1962 to contain the funeral carriage of King Sisavang Vong who died in 1959. It features eye-catching carved and gilded teak wood panels capturing scenes from the Phra Lak Phra Lam, the Lao version of the Ramayana epic.
Another must-visit attraction is the Royal Palace Museum. Built in 1904 after the sacking of the city by the Black Flag Army, the complex served as the residence of King Sisavang Vong and the royal family. In 1975, the Laos monarchy came to an end and one year later the palace was converted into the National Museum.
Home to a rare collection of artefacts and historical documents, the compound features the King’s reception room decorated with paintings of daily life in Luang Prabang in the 1930s and the main reception hall boasting the throne of King Sisavang Vatthana . The private zone comprises two French-style bedrooms, a living room and dining space decorated with original furniture and precious souvenirs from several countries, including stationery with gold stencils on black lacquer from China and ceramic vases from Japan.
The Palace complex also houses Hor Prabang (Prabang Temple) built in 1969 by King Sisavang Vatthana. It shelters a sacred Prabang Buddha image, cast in Sri Lanka, a gift from King Fa Ngum of the Khmer Kingdom.