Laos: Quiet times in Luang Prabang

13 – 16 January 2013

Sitting with Mara by the banks of the Mekong River and watching the sunset was a great yet sad way to end Vientiane. I kept thinking about it even when the bus pulled into Luang Prabang Bus Station at 6am.

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Panoramic view of Luang Prabang from Phou Si: Such a wonderful patchwork of Lao traditional houses and European architecture

Luang Prabang was the capital of the first Lao Kingdom in 1353 and reached the golden age in the early 1500’s. It started to weaken by the late 16th century. The sacking launched by the Chinese in 1887 led the city to accept protection from the French. This is why there are so many beautiful colonial villas in the country. As an independent kingdom, Luang Prabang witnessed dynastic struggles and upheavals especially instability and chaos brought on by WW2. The city was occupied by many foreign forces during the war. So it goes like this, French colonial rule lasted until 1940 when France lost to Thai forces during the Franco-Thai War of 1940-1941. A nationalist group declared Indepedence in 1945 but after just a month, Japanese troops occupied the city and they forced the King to declare Laotian Independence. France came again to recapture Laos. More conflicts and civil war happened  until the Lao communist forces overthrew the monarchy with support from North Vietnam.

SONY DSCLuang Prabang, which literally means “Royal Buddha Image”, consists of 58 villages out of which 33 are UNESCO WHS (it became a World Heritage Town in 1995). There are a total of 56,000 people who live in the city with 24,000 living directly in the UNESCO site. Well known for numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries, the daily ritual of the monks collecting alms from the locals could also be seen everyday at 5am. While many put this up on their to-do list, my main objective was to: get lost and find the most hidden and forgotten wat in the whole city and dub it “My Wat”.

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Map taken from the Internet

Time was on my side and Luang Prabang is ridiculously interesting especially if you love art, architecture, history, culture and staring into space.

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The markets stood by the side of the main road which leads you into some major sites. It is easy to find local restaurants, food stands and souvenir stalls. These all stood against a background of impressive Wats and traditional houses.

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Who wants knives and machetes? They sell it here at a cheap price and safety is not too much of a concern.

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Much of the first day was spent writing postcards and visiting the Former Royal Residence (Royal Palace) of Luang Prabang. Built in 1904 during French rule, the site was chosen due to its proximity to the river and the ease to receive notable guests and visitors. After the monarchy ended in 1975, it became a national museum.  With a mix of traditional Lao designs and Beaux Arts styles, the entrance contains the symbol of the Lao monarchy ( three-headed elephant under a white parasol) and the entrance steps were imported from Italy.

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The golden gateway to a rich era

I stared at the ridiculously beautiful door and wondered what determines the continuation of a monarchy in this modern day and time. While Kings and Queens, a medieval thing of the past, still exists in some country, many more were overthrown and forgotten. I can relate to Royal supporters and those who look up to a monarchy. However, I can’t bring myself to worship the Royal Family or regard them as higher in status than anyone else. I fail to see the purpose of having a monarchy in some countries. It feels more like a PR campaign where a group of people live a life of luxury and use tax payer’s money.

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Inside every Wat are impressive murals and beautiful Buddha statues

Anyways, a few stops inside some lesser-known Wats before the first day ended. Many told me to spend a day each at a cave and Kuang Si Waterfall. PASS! I’d always pick history and culture over nature.

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I took the same road and walked into the heart of the city passing through Luang Prabang Primary School. The kids sat along the brick walls of their school and enjoyed watching all the tourists in their city during their lunch breaks.

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Baguette and fruit smoothie from local food stand

It was rare to wake up late during my travels since I am always racing against time. I was glad to leave an extra day for this trip. Take it slow especially if you are in Luang Prabang! The happy couple made me lunch. Only 3 USD! Cheap and delicious, I offered some tips and they shyly handed me a free banana smoothie.

“Come here again?” they asked

For sure I will.

Before going off to have dinner with Ree and the nice Malaysian family (who were my bus buddies), I decided to spend the entire afternoon at a special place which is not only at the centre of the town but also a location which offers a great view of the once ancient kingdom. Phou Si or Chomsy Hill is a pleasant climb and popular with those who enjoys watching sunrise and sunset. If you want to see more sites at Phou Si, definitely ascend from the Eastern entrance and descend at the North which, on Sisavangvong Road (the long road that takes you straight into the heart of Luang Prabang), is directly opposite of the Royal Palace – an easy place to find both great restaurants and the night market.

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Greenery, rugged mountains and the mighty rivers guards the temple-topped hill and watches over this neat and tidy little kingdom

Determined to see the Wat, I ended up spending more time talking to countless Buddha statues and hanging out with other points of interests along the way. Just like Vientiane, one cannot escape the Naga motif. Instead of just having boring plain steps, several Naga corridors slither at Phou Si.

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The Golden Naga takes you into the Wat

Nagas carry thousands of visitors on its back, showing them the interesting places that waits to be discovered and linking them from one Wat to another.

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The silver Naga took me into a little shrine dedicated to the Buddha footprint carving
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Buddha statues scatters around Phou Si

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Several stone stupas mark the end of the long corridor and it’s hard to imagine that during peak season, one can still be alone for an entire afternoon in one of the most popular sites in Luang Prabang. I leaned against the stupa and read a book whilst admiring the view of this most atmospheric town.

SONY DSCI love finding the tallest point in a city to gain an overall view of the place. I soak up the atmosphere like a thirsty sponge. The beauty and emotions that I feel at that precise moment brings me to tears. I would often whisper to myself: “Wow, this is stunning. You can see this, you can hear the sound and your feet are firmly planted on XXXX soil. Enjoy this moment and remember this since this can always be your last.”

I stood on the rocks and looked out at the town. I don’t want to leave.

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Merci a mille fois Catherine et Gilles!

Before my emotional trip up Phou Si, I met a lovely French couple. I was happy to see them again outside a small Wat to the left of the North entrance. We conversed away in French about life and travels and even after my trip, I still remember their words:  “We are happy that you are living your life in reverse. Often, you only get the chance to travel, enjoy and see the world when you reach our age. It’s great that you are constantly travelling and exploring the world. Keep this adventure up!” They kindly invited me to visit La Reunion- I hope I’ll have the chance to see it one day.

Seeing Ree and the lovely Malaysian family was a nice way to end Day 2. I was most happy to see that the tiger balm worked on grandma. She was feeling much better. Thank goodness that the awful headache and pain that accompanied her during the night ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang has since been long gone!

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Waking up late in a foreign city makes me feel like a local. I felt like an expat… chillin and starting my day later than usual.

“Why hello LP! It’s day three and noon already. What should I do today?”

I followed the path that was taken by countless official guests and friends of the Royal family and poopoo me crossed the Mekong river so that I could check out the white Wats that I saw from yesterday’s adventure on Phou Si. As a distinguished guest of LP, it’s my royal duty to keep the lonely Wats in company.

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Being a lone traveller offers you the freedom to do whatever you want. I plan my own itinerary and activities. Yet, it is hard to bargain for a cheaper boat-ride so after much back and forth with the owner, we settled on a much more reasonable price and I had the entire boat to myself. One step closer to Vat Longkhoum and Wat Chomphet (10,000 Lao Kip).

After 300m up some stairs and stops at the stupa, Wat Pahouak caught my eye.

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Love the handwritten sign

Built in 1860, the murals inside this Wat can only be found here. Unique to Pathouak, it contains the usual Buddha images, symbols and motifs.

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Right beside the Wat is another temple which contains a Buddha statues who waits patiently for visitors who make it this far over the river.

“You have my blessings dear…” it whispered to me

I have a soft spot for this particular temple since I absolutely adore its wooden ceiling. I see peace and tranquility from the golden motifs and white walls.

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I meditated quietly in the corner for some time and watched as locals paid her a visit. For a good 40 minutes or so, I sat there listening to nothing but the wind and the birds. I had lunch outside the temple and soaked up some sun before walking along the muddy path and saying goodbye to the quiet place.

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Always a part of me LP ~ My piece of heaven

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SONY DSCI took my sweet time walking down the stairs and poked my head into a temple before taking one last photo with the Wat behind me.SONY DSC

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The end of my boat journey

Before the long journey back to Vientiane then Bangkok, I must see a few more Wats. Thus began one more day of adventure in LP.  I got up at 5am and rushed to the main Wat to watch the alms ceremony. People line up along the sides of the street and offers white rice cake to the awaiting monks. The rice baskets, the plastic stools and kneeling villagers and tourists joined in the daily morning ritual. I watched on quietly from the other side of the road. Another one of those priceless moments.

After waking up 5 hours later, I visited Wat Hosian Voravihane, an active temple and school building.SONY DSC

Temple of the Golden City or Wat Xiang Thong (20,000 kip) is the oldest monastery in Luang Prabang. Entering its ground is like opening up a treasure chest filled with religion, art, architectural and Lao motifs.

SONY DSCIt is such a relaxing place and like the city, it is atmospherically charming and pleasant. The shrines, sims and statues built during the mid 1500’s saw the crowning go the Lao King and everything about the Wat, from the windows to the wooden doors depicts the story and symbols of Buddhism. The pillars, golden doors and carvings are also impressive.SONY DSC

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Thank goodness for low tourist numbers, or else I wouldn’t have the Wat to myself. Like every other Sim with its statues and murals, the best thing I like about this Wat are the walls which depicts Lao legends.

SONY DSCThis glass mosaic depicts the “Tree of Life” while others contain religious motifs as well as animals and people.SONY DSCI’m going to steal this idea when I get the chance to design my own house and maybe add in an elephant fountain?

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As I prepared for the next adventure in Myanmar with a stop over in Bangkok, I distracted myself with some parting thoughts on Laos and Luang Prabang.

It was such a honor to have the chance to stroll down the tidy streets in Luang Prabang. Seemingly mundane, it is in fact rewarding especially when taking into account the history and all the events that had unfolded here- the wars, the start and the end of an era. I wondered about the people whose spirits still linger in this place they call home. They must be proud of it. In fact, despite the turbulent times surrounding the end of the monarchy and the French rule and the inevitable poverty that followed, I’m glad that poverty helped to save Luang Prabang. City planning heated up during the 20th century and with developments, capitalism, developments and opening up policies + focus on economic growth, many ancient and culturally distinctive towns have been transformed forever. Because it was poor, the town was allowed to remain unchanged and untouched by modern city restructuring. Laos especially my honeybun LP underwent positive changes after tourism was promoted in 1989. I sincerely hope that UNESCO, the government and locals will continue to keep a close eye on development and sustain this balance between cultural protection and mass tourism.

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Goodbye Laos..Goodbye my darling Luang Prabang!