WE FOUND UTOPIA IN LUANG PRABANG!
Today felt like our first “real” day in Laos; although we’ve technically been in the country a while, the last 2 days on the slow boat haven’t really felt like we’ve been IN Laos. The slow boat journey down the Mekong was quite surreal really, like we were floating down mystical river in some other world. Arriving into Luang Prabang late yesterday, however, brought us firmly back to Earth and reminded us that we are, in fact, in Laos. Which in some ways IS like another world – things here are so quiet and laid back, that the rest of the world seems light years away. And Luang Prabang is one of the busiest cities in Laos! This really is an unspoilt corner of the world.
We went exploring around Luang Prabang today, keen to see why UNSECO listed this as a World Heritage Site and to understand a bit more about the tiny country of Laos.
What we learned is that Laos is a landlocked, Communist country with population of about 7 million. Sandwiched between China to the North, Thailand and Burma to the West, Vietnam to the East, and Cambodia to the South, Laos traces its roots as a nation back to the 14th century when the Kingdom of Lan Xang (i.e. Kingdom of a Million Elephants) was born. Lan Xang formed when the 3 kingdoms that today roughly correspond to Northern, Central, and Southern Laos united*.
*This is why the symbol of Laos often seen around is a 3-headed elephant – one head for each of the old kingdoms that united to form Lan Xang, the kingdom modern Laos descend from.
Luang Prabang was the ancient capital of the Lan Xang kingdom until the French moved the administrative seat to Vientiane. Its once exalted position means there is a former royal palace here, as well as many temples.
Over the centuries Lan Xang was attacked and occupied by the Burmese and Siamese (i.e. Thai) in turn. Then the French came along and, in 1893, Laos became part of French Indochina, along with Vietnam and Cambodia. The legacy from Laos’s 56 years as a French colony is evident everywhere here in Luang Prabang – from the iconic French colonial architecture to the freshly baked baguettes and croissants sold here, and the ubiquitous French cafés lining the streets.
It’s Luang Prabang’s uniquely preserved French architecture that earned this town its World Heritage Listing in 1995, and makes it such a popular tourist destination. That and its gorgeous natural setting, nestled on a finger of land at the meeting of the Namkhan and Mekong Rivers. All around the city are towering mountains, covered in lush greenery, making for some grand vistas – especially from the top of Mt Phousi, the highest point in the city.
We started our day by climbing Mt Phousi, which rises 150m above the town. From the top we got some great views across the city and its many temples, and out over the surrounding landscape to the mountains in the distance.
There were hundreds of steps to negotiate, but despite the heat and humidity, the climb was worth it. Especially as there was a temple at the peak, and numerous Buddha statues to admire along the way.
From Mt Phousi it was a short downhill walk to the former Royal Palace of Laos, which today houses a museum*.
*Laos became independent in 1949, as a constitutional monarchy. Shortly after independence, however, long civil war ensued which ended with the Communist Pathet Lao party coming into power in 1975. They have ruled ever since. In 1975 Lao royal family was sent to a “re-education camp” in far Northern Laos and have never been seen or heard from since.
The Royal Palace Museum houses a few relics that once belonged to the Laotian royal family, including a selection of fold cars. We couldn’t take any photos inside the palace and, to be honest, there wasn’t much worth photographing anyway. Built in 1904, the former palace was built in the French colonial style and touring through it was quite an underwhelming experience.
Far more interesting was Wat Xieng Thong, one of the best preserved temples in Luang Prabang. Built in 1560 at the point where the Mekong and Namkhan rivers meet, the temple is beautiful. The main hall especially was marvellous, decorated with mosaics, carvings, and gold paintings.
Wat Xieng Thong is famous as the temple where the Lao kings were coronated, and where the royal family celebrated key Buddhist festivals.
A highlight of Wat Xieng Thong was the lovely “Tree of Life” glass mosaic which tells the tale of the founding of the temple. Another interesting feature was the huge funeral carriage we found housed in one of the halls. This enormous golden carriage was once used to carry the ashes of Laotian royalty through the streets of Luang Prabang.
From Wat Xieng Thong we went to see the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre, a small not-for-profit museum established in 2005 that tells the story of Laos’s 49 ethnic groups. On display were various costumes and head-pieces from some of the key tribes that inhabit this mountainous country, as well as a few pieces showing how the tribes live traditionally. We had a paid guide from the museum show us around and it was great – he was really informative and we gave us just enough information to keep us entertained without overwhelming us with details. The museum is tiny but was well worth the visit.
After visiting these key sites, we spent the rest of our day strolling around Luang Prabang, enjoying the mixture of traditional Laotian and French colonial architecture.
Most of the old French colonial buildings have been renovated and turned into guesthouses and restaurants, a use which has at least ensured these beautiful old buildings get preserved.
Along the narrow side streets the buildings were more traditional in style. These were built of wood and plaited bamboo panels, some coated with wattle and daub.
The streets here are relatively clean and the cityscape interesting, though it’s obvious that Laos is a far poorer and less developed country than Thailand*.
*A quick bit of Google research reveals than Laos is, in fact, one of the poorest, least developed, and most corrupt countries on the planet.
After our day’s wanderings we went looking for a place to stop for a rest and a drink, and found Utopia…
Famous for its riverfront “balcony” (more like a large bamboo hut really overlooking the river), this funky bar/restaurant caters to the growing tourist market and serves some great drinks and nibbles. We spent a happy couple of hours there, enjoying the cool breeze blowing in off the river and recovering from our day’s exploring. It was interesting seeing what Luang Prabang has to offer, and though we’re fascinated by the city’s natural setting and some of its architecture, we’re reserving judgement on the town itself. It just seems so very touristy and perhaps a little soulless. We’re here for a couple more days though, so we’ll see what we make of Luang Prabang after that.