Saturday, November 13, 2010

Wasting Time in Chilled Out Luang Prabang

Check out the article below that I wrote for, an online expat magazine out of China. It will be published in their December issue.

Wasting Time in Chilled Out Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang, located in north central Laos, is the country’s most popular tourist destination. Known for its beautifully preserved temples, monks in saffron robes, and pastel colored French colonial architecture, Luang Prabang sits on a narrow peninsula of land formed by the union of the mighty Mekong and Khan Rivers. The old city, where most of the cultural sites, hotels and restaurants reside, is just 300 meters wide by one kilometer long and resembles a thumb in shape. The manageability of the city’s small size, friendliness of the locals, and old-world feel makes Luang Prabang seem more like a small town rather than a major hub of commerce and tourism.

Since Laos opened to tourism in 1989 little has changed in Luang Prabang due to its status as a UNESCO world heritage site. All buses and trucks are banned within the city limits, keeping noise and traffic at a minimum. The city also preserves its traditional feel by continuing to enact a 11:30pm curfew for both residents and travelers. 
Luang Prabang has an assortment of natural and cultural sites which are easily accessible on foot or by bike. Most of the city’s sites are off the two main streets, Th Khen Khong and Th Sisavangvong, which run along the eastern Mekong coast and down the middle of the peninsula. The best panoramic views of the city can be found at the top of Phou Si Hill, a 100-meter high hill at the base of the peninsula. Dotted with small temples and shrines, the trek up Phou Si Hill is well worth the climb, especially at sunset.

Not to be missed is the Royal Palace Museum or Haw Kham. Built in 1904, during the French colonial era, for King Sisavangvong and his family, the last occupant of the palace was his son, crown prince Savang Vatthana, who took the throne after his father’s death in 1959. In 1975 the monarchy was overthrown by the communists and the crown prince and his family were sent to re-education camps, never to be heard of again.  The palace was later turned into a national museum. The palace contains various royal and religious objects including the Crown Jewels of Laos and the Pha Bang, a gold, silver and bronze standing Buddha.
As a religious centre, Luang Prabang has thirty-two temples. Shoes, and often photography, are prohibited inside the temples and it’s recommended that foreigners wear pants and women dress modestly, although it’s not strictly enforced at all locations. The most popular temples are Wat Mai Suwannapumaram, Wat Visoun, and Wat Xieng Thong.

Wat Mai Suwannapumram,a nineteenth century temple, is conveniently located next door to the Royal Palace Museum making it one of the most visited. The temple is known for its gold relief panels covering its front fa├žade.

Near the northern tip of the peninsula is Wat Xieng Thong, the city’s most brilliant temple. This colorful temple is covered in ornate paintings and mosaics of every color of the rainbow. On the temple grounds is the royal funeral chapel which holds an impressive 12-meter high funeral chariot and urns for members of the royal family.

To the east of town center is the Wat Visoun, the oldest continually operating temple in Luang Prabang. The temple contains a collection of 15th and 16th century wooden Calling for Rain Buddhas and ordination stones. If you haven’t gotten your temple fill after visiting the big three, I suggest taking a “temple tour” by renting a bike and hitting the lesser visited temples located outside of Luang Prabang city limits and across the Mekong River.

Luang Prabang is also a great jumping off point for trekking, rafting, and elephant riding excursions. Tours to the popular Pak Ou Caves and Koung Si waterfall are inexpensive and offered by a plethora of tour companies in old town.

The Pak Ou Caves, located on a cliff face, are full of thousands of Buddha statues. The old and disfigured Buddhas are a memorable site as they cover almost every nook of the cave.

Koung Si waterfall, 32-kilometers away, is considered one of the most picturesque in the country and is set in a breathtaking public park. The 200-foot high waterfall cascades down into a sparkling turquoise pool which provides welcome relief after the arduous walk up hill.
If you aren’t looking to see the sites, Luang Prabang offers an assortment of activities such as taking Lao cooking classes, shopping at the famous Hmong night market, or enjoying an inexpensive Lao or Thai massage. Some of my favorite days were spent sitting in open air cafes on Th Sisavangvong and getting lost wandering the streets admiring the beautiful architecture and people.

This picturesque riverside city is the perfect place to kick back and relax and enjoy the famous chilled out Laotian lifestyle. I recommend staying in one of its many quaint guest houses in old town for at least 4 days, anything less and you won’t have the proper time to decompress. I stayed for a total of 6 nights but could have easily stayed longer because time flies when you are doing really nothing at all.

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