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LUANG PRABANG PROVINCE

luang_phrabang_14
The ancient town of Luang Prabang situated in northern Laos, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Considered by many travellers and writers as being the heart of Laotian culture, the tiny town is encircled by mountains and is 700 metres above sea level at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. Here visitors are subjected to an inflamed economic bubble that does not apply to the rest of the country. Being Laos' premier tourist destination and (arguably) Southeast Asia's most beautiful spot, ironically tourists will pay more for the innate pleasures of eating, drinking and sleeping than they would in the country's capital city Vientiane.
 
Luang Prabang was the ancient royal capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom until King Phothisarat moved the administrative seat to Vientiane in 1545. Regardless, it has continued to overlook Vientiane as the destination of choice with its amalgamation of crumbling French architecture, glistening temples and extensive natural beauty. Even the hardest of hearts would have a struggle not to warm to the place. The town's entire historical section is dedicated to tourism, with everything from former royal palaces to over 33 Wats (temples), on the tourist trail. This former Royal capital still remains the main centre for Buddhist learning in Laos and is the perfect location for spiritual contemplation.
 
Cascading waterfalls, scaling peaks and the milky-brown waters of the Mekong River provide ample opportunity to swim, climb and sail your way through Luang Prabang. It is only as recent as 1989 that Laos opened up to tourism and the country that had previously been cut off from the rest of Southeast Asia developed a small but steady economy, based on tourism and regional trade. This small and gentle town where most locals are asleep by 22:00 is now one of the richest and most visited provinces in Laos. It's one of the few places where you feel that this is the genuine article and one that retains its unique ambiance.
WEATHER
Surrounded by jungle, with the Mekong River flowing through, Luang Prabang enjoys a tropical monsoon climate. There are two seasons in this weather: one dry and one wet. The dry season comes from November to May while the rainy season lasts from May to October. Overall, the annual average temperature is approximately 77 degrees Fahrenheit and it is very humid most days, with annual precipitation of approximately 1300 mm.
 
The rainy season can be pretty cold and depending on the day and the altitude, there can be torrential rainfall. During this time, the Laotians anticipate the verdant fields and jungles to be replenished around then. However, for visitors, the monsoon season only has strong rain for small intervals of time. It can rain hard pellets for an hour and then the clouds will clear and the sun will shine. In Luang Prabang, August is the wettest month.
 
When it is coldest in Luang Prabang, temperatures can rest at around 60 degrees Farenheit. During the colder months, it gets chilly at night and in the very early morning (when Luang Prabang is always very much awake…at sunrise).
 
During the hottest time of the year in the dry season between March and May, temperatures can reach 90 to 100 degrees F. The best time of the year to visit is between October to March when the temperatures are in the comfortable 70s.
HOW TO GET THERE ?
By far the easiest way to get to Luang Prabang is by air. Thailand's Bangkok Airways flys almost daily from Bangkok to Luang Prabang. For domestic air travel, Lao Aviation is the only carrier, and flies to Luang Prabang from both Vientiane, Phonsavan and other places. Lao Aviation had a somewhat spotty safety record in the past, but has taken steps to improve the situation and upgrade its fleet. See my review of Lao Airlines as well the guide to Luang Prabang Airport.
 
Road travel used to only for the most adventurous, as few highways were paved for their full distance. The road between Vientiane and Luang Prabang is now completely paved, and there is regular bus service between the two cities, as well as Vang Vieng in between. Note however that even with the roads paved, the trip from Vientiane to Luang Prabang or vice-versa is nine hours.
 
Boats up and down the Mekong are an increasingly popular mode of travel. You can travel downriver from Thailand to Luang Prabang as well as upriver from Vientiane. Although speedboats can make the trip from the Thai border in just a few hours, this is probably a trip best taken slowly. Various operators offer two and three day cruises between Chiang Kong in Thailand and Luang Prabang.
WHAT TO SEE ?
For reasons that are soon become apparent, Luang Prabang is often described as the 'Jewel in Laos Crown'. Even though the town is well and truly on the tourist trail, it has nonetheless managed to preserve its natural splendor and inherent charm, exuding a missed-out-on-modernization vibe.
 
The majority of the city's sights can be reached on foot, so getting a map and making your way to the many temples (33 to be exact) is a good way to soak up the surroundings and observe the way of the Lao people, and the large monk community. The wonder of the ancient temples is apparent at first glance; the gentle and unassuming nature of the locals, given the chance, will also leave a lasting impression.
 
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong is a masterpiece of Buddhist architecture from the 16th century, impressing visitors with its golden facades and mural paintings. The temple was used for the highest royal ceremonies and to temporarily house the bodies of deceased kings. Built in 1560, by King Setthathirat, Wat Xieng Thong remained in royal benefaction until 1975. Placed on the northern tip of Luang Prabang, the magnificent structure is fringed by the river.
 
The sim (main building) is thought to represent classic Luang Prabang architecture with its sweeping roofs. The rear wall of the sim has an interesting 'tree of life' mosaic set on a red background and the temple's interior is stenciled with gold images of the former King Chanthaphanit (of whom no written history exists). A smaller adjoining building, houses a reclining Buddha created in classic Lao style - a rarity.

Royal
Palace Museum 
Built as a residence for King Sisavang Vong and his family in 1904 by the French, like Wat Xieng Thong the palace was built on the riverfront, to be in direct view of arriving official visitors. Displaying traditional Laos motifs fused with French beaux-art styles, many of the rooms have been preserved since the day of the revolution when the royal family was forced into exile by the Pathet Lao.
 
Locals believe the palace to be haunted by ghosts and few will venture inside after dark. Inside, the walls feature murals and paintings depicting typical Laos life. It is advisable to visit the place first to stock up on some knowledge before taking the temple tours, ultimately making them more interesting.

Wat Wisunarat (Wat Visoun)
Built in 1513, this is the oldest temple in Luang Prabang. Originally built with wood the temple was remade with brick and stucco after it was set fire to by Black Haw riders in 1887. The sloping-style of the roof is a distinctive feature due to the fact that it is a not a common Laotian design trait. Inside the building is a stupa that was commissioned in 1503, complete with small Buddha images made from precious materials and sacred objects, many of which were stolen when the Haw invaded the temple.
 
Mount Phousi 
These temples were recently constructed in comparison to the more historic Wat Visoun and Wat Xieng Thong. Situated at the top of 100 metre Phousi, the pinnacle of the hill is host to many temples.
 
The gilded stupor at the top of the hill is built on a huge rock and glistens brilliantly over the horizon. The abandoned temple of Wat Pa Huak resides a short walk away from the top with a wide terrace that overlooks the museum.
 
The Feeding of the Monks
The saffron clad monks in Luang Prabang occupy a generous proportion of conversational and visual space. Watching or taking part in the morning food procession that sees the monks walking through and collecting food donations from locals is a heart-warming and culturally telling experience.
 
Each temple takes a different route around town, making sure that there is a steady flow and pace as the monks receive their alms (food donations). Woman should note that you must always keep your head lower than the monks' and your feet (always bare) should never ever be pointed at anyone. It's considered a grave insult. Also your shoulders and knees should be covered. The novices are happy to practice their English with tourists so feel free to indulge in some light-hearted conversation and perhaps learn something new about Laos culture.

Wat Ho Pha Bang
The Pha Bang is a 83cm tall Buddha cast of a gold, silver and bronze alloy, and is said to weigh 53.4kg. Legend has it the image was cast around the 1st century AD in Sri Lanka and later presented to Khmer King Phaya Sirichantha, who in turn gave it to King Fa Ngum in 1359 as a Buddhist legitimiser of Lao sovereignty. A project planned before the monarchy was abolished in 1975, construction on this highly ornate pavilion began in 1993. Upon completion the highly revered Pha Bang will be moved from palace museum where it currently rsides, to an altar in the centre of the pavilion.
 
Since stylistically it's obviously of Khmer origin, its casting most likely took place nearer to the latter date. The Siamese twice carried the image off to Thailand (in 1779 and 1827) but it was finally restored to Lao hands by King Mongkut (Rama IV) in 1867. Persistent rumours claim that the actual image on display is a copy and that the original is stored in a vault either in Vientiane or Moscow. The 'real' one supposedly features a bit of gold leaf over the eyes and a hole drilled through one ankle.

Phra That Khong Santi Chedi
Phra That Khong Santi Chedi built in 1988, has become a favourite Lao tourist attraction. This large yellow stupa contains three floors inside and an outside terrace near the top with a view of the surrounding plains. The inside walls are painted with all manner of Buddhist stories and moral admonitions.
 
That Chomsi
The 24m-high That Chomsi, erected in 1804 and restored in 1914, stands at the summit, clearly visible from most ground-level points in the city. This stupa is the starting point for a colourful Lao New Year procession in mid-April. If you continue over the summit and start down the path on the other side, you'll come to a small cave shrine (sometimes called Wat Tham Phu Si, although without monks it's not officially a wat).
 
Plopped down in the middle of the cave is a large, fat Buddha image - called Pha Kasai in Lao - and a sheltered area for worshippers. On a nearby crest is a Russian anti-aircraft cannon that children use as a makeshift merry-go-round.
 
Wat Aham
Between Wat Wisunarat and the Nam Khan stands Wat Aham, formerly the residence of the Sangkharat (Supreme Patriarch of Lao Buddhism). Two large banyan trees grace the grounds, which are semideserted except for the occasional devotee who comes to make offerings to the town’s most important spirit shrine at the base of the trees.
 
Wat Chom Phet
At the top of a hill above Wat Long Khun and Wat Tham is peaceful Wat Chom Phet, built by the Thai army in 1888 and offering an undisturbed view of the town and river. A small thâat here contains the bones of Chao Thong Di (wife of King Sakkarin), who died in 1929.
 
Wat Choumkhong
Wat Choumkhong is a small but very pretty temple with one of the loveliest gardens in town. In November and December it's awash with colour courtesy of poinsettia trees.
 
Wat Long Khun
Wat Long Khun, almost directly across the Mekong River from Wat Xieng Thong, is the best place to disembark by boat for Xieng Maen explorations if you’re chartering a boat. This wat features a nicely decorated portico, vintage 1937, plus older sections from the 18th century and a few fading Jataka murals. When the coronation of a Luang Prabang king was pending, it was customary for him to spend three days in retreat at Wat Long Khun before ascending the throne. A restoration project, completed in 1995 by the Department of Museums and Archaeology, with the assistance of the Ecole Française d’Extrême Orient, has brought new life and beauty to the monastery buildings.
 
Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham
Inaugurated in 1821 (some sources claim 1797), Wat Mai succeeded Wat Aham as the residence of the Sangkharat until that position moved to Pha That Luang in Vientiane. The five-tiered roof of the wooden sǐm follows the standard Luang Prabang style, but the roofed front veranda, with its gables angled towards the sides of the chapel rather than towards the front, is an anomaly. This unusual plan may have been influenced by local vernacular architecture, as exemplified in the old wooden house just across the street from Wat Mai. The front veranda is also remarkable for its decorated columns and the sumptuous gold relief walls that recount the tale of Vessantara (Pha Wet in Lao), the Buddha’s penultimate birth, as well as scenes from the Ramayana and village life.
 
Wat Manolom
Although its outer appearance isn’t very impressive, Wat Manolom stands just outside the barely visible city walls and occupies possibly the oldest temple site in Luang Prabang. City annals say it was founded in 1375 on the site of a smaller temple established by King Fa Ngum. The decaying sǐm held the Pha Bang from 1502 to 1513 and still contains a sitting bronze Buddha cast in 1372. This image is about 6m high and weighs an estimated two tonnes – some parts of the bronze are 15mm thick. An important city talisman, the image would probably be moved to another temple if anyone could figure out how!
 
Wat Pa Huak
The decaying sǐm at Wat Pa Huak - on the lower northern slope of Phu Si, near the Royal Palace Museum - has a splendid carved wood and mosaic façade showing Buddha riding Airavata, the three-headed elephant of Hindu mythology (in which he is usually depicted as Lord Indra's mount). The gilded and carved front doors are often locked, but during the day there's usually an attendant nearby who will open the doors for a tip of a couple of hundred kip.
 
Inside, the original 19th-century murals have excellent colour, considering the lack of any restoration. The murals show historic scenes along the Mekong River, including visits by Chinese diplomats and warriors arriving by river and horse caravans. Three large seated Buddhas and several smaller standing and seated images date from the same time as the murals or possibly earlier.
 
Wat Tham Xieng Maen
Founded in 1889 and since abandoned, Wat Tham Xieng Maen is in a 100m-deep limestone cave called Tham Sakkarin Savannakuha, a little northwest of Wat Long Khun. Many Buddha images from temples that have been torched or otherwise fallen into decay are kept here; during Bun Pi Mai Lao many local worshippers come to Wat Tham to pay homage and cleanse the images. The large stone-block entrance built around the mouth of the cave displays good relief work on stair pedestals, and is flanked by two large ruined spirit houses and a couple of plumeria (frangipani) trees. An iron gate across the cave mouth is usually locked; inquire at Wat Long Khun and someone will come and unlock the gate and guide you through the cave. It’s very long and dark, and parts of the cave floor are slippery, so it’s a good idea to go with a guide; bring a torch (flashlight).
 
Wat Long Khoun
Situated across the river, this charming spot can be reached after a short boat ride. The small district of Xiang men houses the once-important temple of Wat Long Khoun.
 
Neither the most awe-inspiring nor grand of temples but definitely worth taking a look at. Few tourists and locals venture over so expect it to be a quiet affair even by Laos standards.
 
Pak Ou Caves
Formerly used for the worshiping of the River Spirit until Buddhism spread in to Laos. Frequented by locals for thousands of years, the caves can be accessed by taking a river boat some 25 km from Luang Prabang downstream. Alternatively, the more adventurous (and brave) can take the land route via a jumbo (an open air taxi) that will drop you at the small village.
 
A short walk to the edge of the village leads visitors to a spectacular view of the Mekong's chocolate-coloured streams. When you arrive, the striking limestone cliffs and thousands of Buddha images that have been erected over 60 decades will not fail to disappoint.
 
Tad Sae Waterfall
35 minutes south of town, situated at the meeting of Nam Khan and Huay Sae rivers are the multilevel limestone formations that cascade into numerous pools.
 
Less impressive than Tad Sae, they're still worth a visit. The ride to reach them is quite spectacular and a great way to see more of the Laotian countryside.
 
Kouang Si Waterfall
29 Kilometers south of Luang Prabang (about one hour) are the Kouang Si Waterfalls where you can hike, swim and soak up the beauty of the surrounding area and picnic. Before entering the park there are the usual street vendors selling local arts and crafts and delicious fare.
 
The waterfalls are definitely worth a visit with their soaring limestone surfaces and cascading drops they make for some memorable views and fun activities. Travellers can also visit hill-tribe people en-route to the cave. Beautiful scenery, flora and fauna surround the area.
 
Nong Khiaw
This market town on the west bank of Nam Ou in northern Luang Prabang Province is surrounded by mountains and caves. Experience rural Laos were children give away flowers and the local fisherman go about their daily business.
 
A walk through the paddy fields and then climbing a bamboo ladder to reach the limestone interior of the nearby cave is recommended.
SHOPPING
Much like Vientiane, Luang Prabang trades in handicrafts, art, textiles and jewelry. Be sure to explore the night markets such as Thalat Sonpao or Thalat Dalat, where the Northern ethnic hill-tribe people sell handicrafts and creative textiles such as hand-sewn bedding, bags and many other distinctive souvenirs.
 
The numerous gift shops around the town are good for picking up couture-style textiles and quaint household objects. For fresh produce like meat, vegetables and herbs, drop into the Thalat Naviengkham market. The market culture of Laos, unlike more raucous Thailand, is devoid of hard selling so don't expect badgering and bartering of the same degree.
 
The Night Market
The Night Market is a nightly event that takes place between 17:00 and 23:00 near Wat Mai along Phothisarat Road at the town center. The street is closed off to vehicles and the hill-tribe traders emerge with their various apparels, ceramics, bamboo, lamps, blankets, handicrafts and silk scarves.
 
Kopnoi
Kopnoi produce handmade fabrics from natural materials. Meaning 'little frog', it took the eco-conscious company over four years to develop the eco-dyed cotton apparel and put it on the market. The range includes clothes, jewelry, silk, accessories, spices and delicacies. Situated in Ban Aphay on the back side of Mount Phousi by the Nam Kham River, Kopnoi follow an ethical and tangible ethos, respecting the principles of fair trade.
 
CAMA Crafts
CAMA Crafts is a non-profit, self-help project that markets handicrafts made by Lao artisans, providing a sustainable method of income for village women that may otherwise be unavailable.
 
The products are handmade using traditional patterns and techniques, which helps preserve the traditional needlework skills of Hmong and Lao women such as applique, cross stitch, embroidery and batik.
 
Lisa Regale
Lisa Regale Fusion Gallery sells silk garments that are an original fusion of Lao traditional patterns and European styles. The shop opened in 2003 and was inspired by the beauty and potential of the silk Laos has to offer. Near Wat Siphouttabath, just arond the corner from Saynamkhan Gusthouse.
 
Ban Lao Natural Products
Situated on the Mekong River front, Ban Lao Natural Products, produce hand-made silks, handicrafts, clothing, and naturally made soaps and beauty products, like many of the local traders Ban Lao promise fair trade with its local producers to help increase sustainable development.
 

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