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Luang Prabang — the jewel of Indochina. That’s a pretty big title to live up to, and so I was surprised when guidebooks and fellow travelers described the city as a place you go to soak up the atmosphere rather than see the sights. While there is certainly plenty of atmosphere to be soaked, there is also a long list of exotic temples, simple museums, and vibrant markets to be visited. I set off to see the sights of Luang Prabang, eager to absorb everything this intoxicating city had to offer.

Morning Alms

The morning alms procession, known in Laos as Tak Bat, is a beautiful ritual that takes place at dawn all across Southeast Asia. Monks float through the quiet streets, collecting offerings of sticky rice from the devoted. It is a form of meditation for the monks who are living out their vows of poverty and humility; and an act of respect and gaining spiritual merit for the Buddhists who participate.

Tak Bat

Tak Bat

Watching this sacred ceremony is a privilege. Like most things worth having or seeing, it comes with a sacrifice — in this case, waking before dawn. As I mentioned, this ritual takes place across several countries; however Luang Prabang had developed a reputation for it thanks to the heavy concentration of wats within the city limits.

Tak Bat

Tak Bat

Sadly, shots like the ones I have here, where monks outnumber observers, are becoming extremely hard to come by. I had heard rumors of the bad behavior of tourists at Tak Bat, and yet I still managed to be blown away by the lack of respect that was shown. I’ll go into more detail in a future post, but just be warned that you might walk away feeling more frustration than spiritual enlightenment. After the procession, you can head to the morning market for breakfast and live-animal viewing, or you can head back to your guesthouse for a well-earned nap.

Tak Bat

Wat Xieng Thong

My next stop was Luang Prabang’s most renown and visited monastery (admission 20,000 kip). Visitors to Asia often speak of a phenomenon known as being “Templed Out,” which refers to the sensation one feels after visiting their 237th wat, monastery, or temple, when all of the previous 236 start to blur together in one delirious hallucination of Buddha images, gold stupas, and incense. Symptoms include fainting, whining, indifference in the face of unbelievable beauty, and having a complete emotional melt-down in front of a serene and smiling monk.

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

Why do I bring this to your attention? Well, after spending nearly a year total of my life in Southeast Asia, I was beginning to feel the first warning signs of being Templed Out (I have a much higher immunity than the average backpacker, many of whom claim to be thoroughly infected after one day at Angkor Wat). Whatever symptoms I may have been feeling, Wat Xieng Thong cured them. Quite simply, this is the most beautiful temple I have ever laid eyes on.

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

One highlight is the symbolic ‘tree of life’ mosaic shown above. The colors, the materials, the attention to detail — they combine to create the visual perfect storm.

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

The iconic pink walls of the sim (ordination hall of the monastery), are featured on the cover of Lonely Planet Laos, a fact that had this guidebook lover, well, tickled pink.

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

Wat Xieng Thong was built in 1560 and part of its popularity comes from the fact that it is considered a classic example of Laotian design, with low-slung roofs and colorful façades. Despite its status as Luang Prabang’s top attraction, this is an active monastery and monks still outnumber those toting cameras.

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

The mix of materials and textures really made Wat Xieng Thong shine. Sculptures cast in gold sat alongside delicate glass mosaics, set in front of detailed patterns painted on wooden posts.

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

The complex is made up of several stupas and chapel halls (known as haws), my favorite of which housed the funerary chariot for Lao royalty. The ornate, cobweb-filled garage was lined with standing Buddhas and filled by, of course, the seven-snake-headed carriage itself.

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

Other Wats

While Xieng Thong may be the most prominent wat in the city, Luang Prabang is practically littered with them.

Wat Souvannakhili, Luang Prabang

Wat Souvannakhili, shown above, was completely devoid of other humans when I stopped by, aside from a lone monk who looked up from his reading and gave me a smile. The colonial style shown here is a nod to Laos’ historical French influence.

Wat Sensoukaram, Luang Prabang

Wat Sensoukaram’s rich red walls have earned it a repuation as on of the most impressive exteriors of all the city’s temples. This wat is a popular spot for tourists to watch and take part in Tak Bat.

Wat Sensoukaram, Luang Prabang

Wat Sensoukaram, Luang Prabang

See the face below? That is a face showing the early stages of being Templed Out. Time to move on to downtown Luang Prabang’s natural wonder: Phu Si hill.

Wat Sensoukaram, Luang Prabang

Phu Si Hill

At 100 meters (330 feet) tall, Phu Si is Luang Prabang’s most prominent landmark. Three hundred and twenty nine steps from the North-side street-level sits That Chomsi (admission 20,000 kip), a gold stupa that can seem a bit anti-climactic after an exhausting climb.

Phou Si, Luang Prabang

However, the real attraction is not the stupa but the views around it, which stretch from beyond the city to mountains and the Mekong River.

Phou Si, Luang Prabang

Phou Si, Luang Prabang

Leaving the summit, the East-side descent crosses through a serious of hidden-away mini-wats and shrines that leave you with the sensation that you are discovering some previously lost civilization.

Phu Si, Luang Prabang

I loved stumbling upon Wat Thammothayalan, which  consists of large Buddhas in various positions, strewn across rocky outcrops on the hill.

Phu Si, Luang Prabang

I would have walked straight past a tiny, dark opening in the rocks if not for a crude, handpainted sign that declared it a “BUDDHA CAVE.” After scanning the area for other signs of human life (none), and giggling like a madwoman (nerves), I ducked into the narrow cave and found a small shrine illuminated by a natural skylight.

Phu Si, Luang Prabang

Last but not least was sideshow-reminiscent shrine of Buddha’s footprint. Quirky Phu Si Hill and its myriad of charms had quickly won over my heart.

Phu Si, Luang Prabang

Phu Si, Luang Prabang

Phu Si, Luang Prabang

The Royal Palace Museum

When backpacking through Southeast Asia, you quickly find that there are two types of travelers: those that go to museums and those that stare at you with bewilderment bordering on horror when you tell them you spent the day going to museums. I am in the minority, being part of the former group.

Luang Prabang Royal Palace Museum

Of course this isn’t the Western world, where you would be visiting world-class museums like the Louvre or the Smithsonian. Even in major cities like Bangkok, the majority of museums tend to be somewhat provincial and less ambitious. But they have an intangible charm, a lack of crowds and a unique insight into fascinating cultures and topics.

Luang Prabang Royal Palace Museum

The Royal Palace Museum (admission 30,000 kip), built in 1904, was once the main residence of the Lao king. Note that like many attractions around Southeast Asia you must be dressed modestly to enter, meaning no shorts or exposed shoulders. The interior of the residence itself is surprisingly modest, at least when it comes to royalty digs. Also onsite is a small gallery and a Royal Palace Car Collection.

Luang Prabang Royal Palace Museum

I found the most fascinating aspect of this museum to be the hall displaying diplomatic gifts from other nations. Each gift was symbolic of both the giver and in a way, the receiver. The United States’ offering? A piece of the moon, handed down generously from Richard Nixon.

Luang Prabang Royal Palace Museum

Handicraft Night Market

The perfect way to end a day of sightseeing in Luang Prabang is to head to the Handicraft Night Market. This is one destination where tourists certainly outnumber locals, and yet it does not detract from the charm. I’ve been to markets all across Southeast Asia, and this one stand head and shoulders above the rest. Offerings are unique, sales pressure is non-existent, prices are reasonable and smiles are free.

Luang Prabang Night Market

Luang Prabang Night Market

Had my bag not been bursting already, I could have snapped up a few million kip worth of souvenirs. But even as a simple browser, the night market is a must-visit destination.

Luang Prabang Night Market

Believe it or not, I only scratched the surface of things to do in Luang Prabang! Those with a mind for learning can take classes in cooking, massage or weaving, while those who love to shop can check out the morning market and the endless chic boutiques lining the streets. Those with relaxation in mind can head to any of the city’s stylish spas, or bliss out on the riverfront. Whatever it is you are looking for, Luang Prabang will hand it over with a smile.

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25 Comments...
  • Amazing amazing amazing!!!!!!!! Love everything about this post! Take me there now please. And that last photo is an award-winning shot!
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..Hong Kong: NOBU InterContinental Hong Kong

    • Alex
      July 15 2012

      Thanks so much Andi! I think you would love Luang Prabang, kick it to the top of your destination list!

  • Matthew Karsten
    July 14 2012

    Beautiful shots Alex! Those temples are incredible. I think it would take me a while to get “templed out” also.
    Matthew Karsten recently posted..The Day I Was Kicked Out of a Panamanian Village…

    • Alex
      July 15 2012

      Thanks Matthew! Yeah, I feel like I have a much higher capacity for temples and such than the average backpacker, but I guess I love photography so that helps keep me interested.

  • Ashley Bruckbauer
    July 14 2012

    More lovely photos! SE Asia is so photogenic, and you have a great eye!

    I love your description of “temple fatigue.” I still haven’t picked it up, and happily hop from one to the next. My boyfriend, who suffers from a chronic case, has had put limits on the number he will go to with me in any particular city. Guess that’s what alone time is for. 😉
    Ashley Bruckbauer recently posted..Strolling around Penang’s Georgetown

    • Alex
      July 15 2012

      Ha, yes, sometimes its good to take a day apart to just do your own things 🙂

  • Gram
    July 14 2012

    Fantastic post today, Alex !! Beautiful photos.
    Thanks for opening my eyes to the other side of the world—again !

    • Alex
      July 15 2012

      You are so very welcome! 🙂

  • Kathryn
    July 15 2012

    OK, that does is. Laos is now officially on the top of my must-see destinations. These photos…..!!!!!

    • Alex
      July 15 2012

      You would really love it! Thought of you while I was there.

  • Amanda
    July 15 2012

    Is it weird I miss Laos when I’m in Thailand? It is such an amazing country! Did you go to the Kuang Si waterfall when you were in Luang Prabang? Hope you didn’t miss it, so beautiful
    Amanda recently posted..7 Reasons Why I Love Bangkok

    • Alex
      July 15 2012

      I did! It was amazing… and it’s coming up in my next Laos post 🙂 It’s going to take me ages to cover my trip… so many amazing photos to share!

  • Camels & Chocolate
    July 15 2012

    The last shot is my favorite! Though I LOVE the hold-out photo of you. New headshot/avatar? 😉
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..Photo Friday: Puerto Ayora, Ecuador

    • Alex
      July 15 2012

      Thanks! I have a vertical of the last shot and not to get too big-headed but I can seriously see it as a Lonely Planet cover. And thanks re: the selfie! (As my sister would call it, ha.) I really like it too, with the temple in the background and my fave sunglasses and all, but I fear that I look a bit too glum?

      • Camels & Chocolate
        July 15 2012

        Not glum, I was thinking “chic” or maybe even “fierce.”

        And yes, you’re absolutely right: the vert of that shot is totally an LP cover!
        Camels & Chocolate recently posted..Country Dog, Vol. XII

        • Alex
          July 17 2012

          Okay, I like your interpretations better 🙂 Thanks!

  • Dad
    July 15 2012

    I agree with everyone else – this was fascinating. Who knew all of the neat things to see in Laos. Well written with beautiful photographs

  • Racheal Morgan
    July 19 2014

    Wow Alex! I’m so glad to see you have things here about Laos, as I hope it to be my next trip! Thank you for giving us such detailed information! I totally understand the feeling of being templed out, after my visit to China some years ago. Hopefully while in Japan I don’t experience it so quickly. There’s plenty to see!
    I hope you don’t mind I’m gathering little tips from your blog about how to better do my own up. More pictures, mainly!

    • Alex
      July 20 2014

      I loved Laos, and I can’t imagine how anyone wouldn’t! I’m sure you’ll have a great trip 🙂 And definitely inspiration gather it up! Happy blogging!

  • lisa
    February 7 2016

    Hi Alex,
    I’m planning my trip to Luang Prabang as part of a two month trip next fall.
    How much time would you give to Luang Prabang?
    As always I am grateful for your posts…they are so helpful.
    I hope to cross paths with you one day!
    Lisa
    🙂

    • Alex
      February 9 2016

      Hey Lisa! I spent three days there. I saw the major sights but could have stayed longer, actually. I rushed a bit as I only had less than two weeks in Laos. It’s a great city to just relax in.

  • lisa
    February 9 2016

    Thank you!

  • Aoife
    May 4 2016

    Hi,

    I’m going to be in Luang Prabang this July and was wondering if you any hostel recommendations?
    Also thank you so much for all the detailed posts, they have been such a great resource for planning/daydreaming my trip to Southeast Asia this summer!

    • Alex
      May 7 2016

      You’re so welcome Aoife! But apologies, I can’t recall anything about where I stayed other than I booked on Agoda 🙂 I recommend checking there!

      • Aoife Tiernan
        May 9 2016

        No problem, thank you!

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