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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
While Xieng Thong may be the most prominent wat in the city, Luang Prabang is practically littered with them.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I loved stumbling upon Wat Thammothayalan, which consists of large Buddhas in various positions, strewn across rocky outcrops on the hill.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.