LUANG PRABANG: THE ROYAL BUDDHIST UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE OF LAOS

LUANG PRABANG

LUANG PRABANG (220 kilometers, 11-hour bus ride, northwest of Vientiane on the Mekong River) is the former royal and religious capital of Laos and still regarded by many Lao people as the heart of soul of the nation. Surrounded by lush green mountains and limestone cliffs, it is much more interesting and has an older atmosphere than Vientiane. It is hard to stand anywhere in the town without a view of temple. There are no high rise buildings in the area and the mighty Mekong River beckons off to one side down a slope. Luang Prabang means "City of the Buddha of Peace." Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Luang Prabang is tranquil town filled with quiet streets, Laotian pagodas, sloping temple roofs, sweeping eaves, golden chedis, one-story wooden houses, elaborate gilded carvings, glass mosaics, French colonial mansions, unusual French-Laotian buildings plastered wattle and daub on a brick frame, women in sarongs and conical hats, and Hmong people in black tunics and colorful head scarves.

Luang Prabang lies along the steep banks of the Mekong River, near its confluence with the Nam Khan. Two mountains—Phou Tao and Phou Nang—are visible from the city. Phou Si, a gigantic rock which rises up from the middle of the city, can be climbed for a fine view of the Luang Prabang and the Mekong River, Thirty seven of Luang Prabang's 100 or so temples were designated as UNESCO as worthy of preservation. Many are taken care of by an army of several hundred monks who wear copper-colored robes draped over one shoulder.

The simple and peaceful lifestyles of the local, their friendliness and their architecture topped with an outstanding range of restaurants, cafés, guesthouses, hotels and a gorgeous location all add to the charms of the city. Luang Prabang sees visitors from all over the globe almost all year round. It is especially lively during Lao New Year (Pimai Lao) in early April. If you're planning to visit the town at this time, make sure you book a room well in advance.

P.F. Kluge wrote in National Geographic Traveler, “When you think of Luang Prabang. Picture a scene in a movie that has never been made. A woman, possibly Catherine Deneuve, no beautiful, returns to Indochina, youth, a vanished empire, a long-ago home. Across a gap of miles and years, she seeks out what she remembers, a mighty, muddy river, rice fields and vegetable gardens, temples and palaces and markets, crowded streets and nameless, narrow alleys, and, most of all, one of those unforgettable colonial houses, high-ceilinged, veranda wrapped, surrounded by blossoming trees and tropical gardens. In much of Asia, her search would be doomed. Too many wars have come between hard times and prosperity, remorselessly combining to delete the past. But not here in Laos, in Luang Prabang, where life is marked and measured by the cycle of the moon, the rise and fall of the river, the pattern of the seasons, a place which a resident expatriate, playing off Conrad, calls "the heart of lightness." [Source: P.F. Kluge, National Geographic Traveler, October 2004]

“When travelers speak of Luang Prabang, they speak in whispers and warnings, they trade in dreams. They get proprietary. See it now, they urge. "Luang Prabang gives someone a sense of what Asia was decades ago," says Charles Salmon, a former ambassador to Laos. Now a resident of Hawaii, Salmon ranks Angkor first among Asia's man-made wonders. Pagan, in Myanmar, comes next. Luang Prabang is third, a strong third, for Angkor and Pagan are monuments of the past, daunting relics, and Luang Prabang is a living city. "You have a sense of overwhelming Buddhist presence that transforms and informs everything," Salmon says, "a feeling of peace and calm and [Source: P.F. Kluge, National Geographic Traveler, October 2004]

Luang Prabang has been considered one of Southeast Asia's "must see" destinations for over a decade. Worldwide readers of Wanderlust, a leading British travel magazine, voted Luang Prabang as the best city in the world to visit. Quoted from Wanderlust "This top city isn’t about bright lights and fast living. No, laid-back Laos city Luang Prabang likes to take things slow. Really slow. You can’t get enough of its serene temples and jungle ecolodges." Luang Prabang received the top award for “Top City ” for three consecutive years from 2006-2008. In 2009 it was one of the top 10 in the same category. It won the "Top City" award again in 2010, 2011 and this year (2012) it takes the top spot again for the third year running. Additionally, Luang Prabang ranked 1st in the "Top 10 Travel Destinations for 2012 According to Facebook".

Luang Prabang is surprisingly small for a place with such a long and colorful history. It has only 50,000 residents and sometimes it seems they are outnumbered by tourists. Many worry that Luang Prabang is losing its charms. The quiet tranquility that defined it is being disturbed by construction, a increased number of vehicles and people aggressively in pursuit of money. But for the most part Luang Prabang has weathered the boom relatively well, and locals are glad about having the opportunity to make some money

HISTORY OF LUANG PRABANG

Luang Prabang was formerly the royal capital and seat of the government of the ancient Kingdom of Lan Xang or the Land of Million Elephants. Luang Prabang was established in 1353, at around the same time as the Laotian monarchy. It served as the capital of the Lao kingdom from that time until 1565 when the capital was moved to Vientiane to get beyond the reach of Burmese invaders. In the late 18th century Luang Prabang was sacked by invaders from the Yunnan Province in China. Under the French, it was the royal capital of Laos. Full-rime, round-the-clock power only arrived in 1995.

According to legend. the Buddha smiled when he rested here for a day during his travels, prophesying that it would one day be the site of a rich and powerful capital city. Another legend attributes the choice of the site to two hermits, attracted by its natural beauty, who gave it the name of Xieng Dong (or perhaps Xieng Thong, commemorating the name of the flamboyant tree that was the center of their implantation). It was inhabited first by hybrid beings who became the protectors of the city when they died, and then by human beings, the first of them the Khas, a group coming together from various regions. They were driven out by the Lao, who came down from the north, following their legendary leader Khun Lo, who renamed the city Muang Java, in tribute to the Kha leader whom he had defeated, Khun Java. This legendary account of the city's foundation is borne out by archaeological and toponymic evidence for the settlement of the region. [Source: UNESCO]

A stele from Sukhothai attests to its being known under this name at the end of the 13th century AD. A few decades later it became the capital of the powerful kingdom of Lan Xang ("One Million Elephants"), whose wealth and influence can e attributed to the location of its capital at a crossroads on the Silk Route, as well as the center of Buddhism in the region. It remained the capital of the kingdom until 1560? When this title passed to Vientiane, which was located further from the threatening Burmese armies. It was at this time that it received a new name, Luang Prabang, the name of the famous Buddha image brought earlier from Cambodia. It should be stressed that neither of the "towns" in Laos, Luang Prabang or Vientiane, conformed with the European urban concept: they were essentially defended royal administrative complexes with adjacent temples and monasteries. Around these clustered a number of distinct village communities, supplying their needs but not integrated into a single administrative entity. It was the village that acted as commercial centres, not the town as such, which did not have the large mercantile communities to be found at that time in Thailand or Cambodia.

On the death of King Sourigna Vongsa at the end of the 17th century a serious political crisis ensued. The Lan Xang kingdom was divided first into two independent realms, those of Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and then into three, with the creation of the kingdom of Champassak. The Luang Prabang rulers became puppets of the Thai power, especially after 1828, when the Vientiane kingdom disappeared with the complete destruction of the town by the Thai army and the deportation of its Inhabitants. Luang Prabang itself suffered gravely from the attacks of the famous Pavilions Noirs (Black Flags), who subjected it to sack and pillage from 1887 until the arrival of the French in 1893. Its reconstruction and restoration as a religious and royal capital was the work of King Sisavang Vong, aided in this heavy task by his successive viceroys Chao Mana Oupahat Boun Khong and Prince Pnetsarath. Luang Prabang retained its role as the royal capital until 1946, when Vientiane took over as administrative centre.

During the French protectorate, which was created on 3 October 1893 following the signing of the FrancoSiamese Treaty, Laos was not a homogeneous political entity: the Lan Xang Kingdom was no more than a memory. However, although the country was divided into many small kingdoms and principalities, a nation was forged which transcended the feudal structure that persisted. Towns in the western sense developed, alongside the timeless rural organization of the villages, which was opposed to this Intrusion. Luang Prabang provided the nucleus: round its royal residence were grouped the houses of the nobility and the cult centres (temples and monasteries). It did not attract public buildings like Vientiane, which was chosen by the French for their capital, but on the other hand its commercial potential attracted many French businessmen. Henri Mouhot, the Frenchman credited with disovering Angkor Wat died of malaria in Luang Prabang in 1861 and is buried there.

UNESCO ON LUANG PRABANG

Luang Prabang is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its outstanding cultural, historic and architectural values and its harmonious relationship between the natural and built environment. Luang Prabang is an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions. [Source: UNESCO]

The political and religious center of the town is the peninsula, with its royal and noble residences and religious foundations. This is defined by a defensive wall built from one river bank to the other, sealing off the peninsula at its base. The majority of the buildings are, following traditions, built from wood (part of the temples are in stone). The colonial element of the town is characterized by one- or two-storey terraced houses built from brick: they often have balconies and other decorative features in wood.

Orientation: Luang Prabang is easy to get around on foot. It is laid in way that many old Southeast Asian cities used to be organized: with communities situated around wats rather than radiating out from the seat of the monarch. Many streets have had their names changed several times. in the past decades, plus different sections are known by different names, which makes finding a particular address confusing.

Situated in the center of northern Laos, The town of Luang Praoang is situated on a peninsula formed by the Mekong River and its tributaries, the Nam Knane and the Kual Hop, in a Clay basin surrounded by the limestone hills that dominate the landscape. Luang Prabang lies at an elevation of 291 meters above sea level on a fairly wide drainage basin of the Mekong River. Several tributaries, most notably the Nam Ou, enter nearby. The historic and cultrual heart of Luang Prabang lies on a peninsula about one kilometer long and 250 meters wide inside the confluence of the Mekong and Khan Rivers. Here you can find many of the old Lao royal buildings as well the French colonial ones.

Than Xieng Tong—also known as Thanon Photisalat Thanon Sakkalin and Thanon Sisavanvong, is the main thoroughfare in the old part of town. Thanon Khem Kong—also known as Souvanna-khamphong, Oun Kham and Suvannabanlang— follows the Mekong River. During the rainy season waters sit high on embankment. In the dry season you have drops down quite a distance to reach the river

FOOD AND ENTERTAINMENT IN LUANG PRABANG

The area around Than Xieng Tong is filled with restaurants and cafes. At the Royal Ballet Theater (palace grounds; $10), see dances that look like temple carvings come to life. Nonprofit Big Brother Mouse (near Wat Xieng Muan; http://www.bigbrothermouse.com) publishes books and holds classes where tourists help young locals learn English. Buy a pack of books ($7) to hand out.

There is a Laotian tasting menu at 3 Nagas. JoMa, an American-style coffee shop offers lattes and coconut bars. There is delicious ice creams at L'ant. Apsara, another boutique hotel with a good restaurant, come from Paradice, a company in Vientiane owned by a French immigrant.

Gayle Keck wrote in the Washington Post, Performances of the Royal Ballet troupe were “revived after a communist-imposed hiatus. Before the traditional dances begin, members of a group of older Laotians chant a blessing, then fan out into the audience to tie white strings around both wrists of every spectator. This is the basi, a ceremony to ensure that guardian spirits essential for good mental and physical health are bound to a person's body. [Source: Gayle Keck, Washington Post, July 27, 2008]

“The spirits clearly realize that my mental health is tied to dry weather, and when we emerge, the rain has ended. We celebrate with tall bottles of Beerlao at Tum Tum Cheng, a restaurant named for the sound of temple drums and cymbals. We sample Mekong catfish, beef stew made with pungent galangal root and huge bowls of "Secret Soup," packed with chicken and vegetables, including eggplants the size of cherry tomatoes.

There's a French culinary influence here, too, left over from colonial days. In the market, we see baguettes and filled beignets, while bakeries are stocked with oddly evolved pastries, Galapagos versions of French desserts. For authentic Laotian fare at lunchtime, we seek out Tamarind, a tiny restaurant where we pick up bites of sticky rice with our fingers, dipping it into small bowls of vegetables and chili sauce. We sample chewy dried water buffalo and fried, pressed sheets of "river moss" (which I suspect, after investigating the Mekong, starts life as green slime).

There are many restaurant choices. At Tum Tum Cheng (Sisavangvong/Sakkarin Road, near Wat Xieng Thong) you can feast for $20 to $30 for two; Tamarind (across from Wat Nong; $12 for two; http://www.tamarindlaos.com) specializes in traditional Laotian cuisine; and Lao Lao Garden (Kingkitsarat Road; $22 for two), where you barbecue slices of meat on a nifty little grill. Tamarind and Tum Tum Cheng offer cooking classes.

SHOPPING IN LUANG PRABANG

At the intersection of Photisalat and Setthathirtah Road there is collection of stalls, run mostly by Hmong women, where tourist can choose from a wide selection of handicrafts and textiles such as shoulder bags, neck pouches, T-shirts, wood carvings, opium pipes, silverware and hill tribe jewelry. In the evening there is a lively food market here with some delicious snacks, sweets and street food.

Nauvengkhan Market has numerous items on sale including, dried water buffalo lung, water buffalo blood congealed into tofu-size blocks, bamboo shoots, monkey's ear mushroom, banana buds and leaves, papayas, green and red chilies, ginger, lemon grass, watercress, morning glories, snails, several kinds of eggplant, ferns for soups, and whole dried mice and squirrels. Nauvengkhan Market means "Morning Market" even though it is open all day.

Due to its former role as the royal capital, Luang Prabang is home to numerous skilled artisans who produce wonderful textiles from silk and cotton and quality works of silver such as hammered bowls and utensils. Ban Phanm, a village outside Luang Prabang, is home to hundreds of textile weavers who produce everything from hats to blankets.

Sandra Ballentine wrote in The New York Times, “The best textile sources are Sandra Yuck's elegant Caruso Lao Home Craft (60 Sakaline Road, Ban Vat Sene; 011-856-71-254-574; www.carusolao.com); Lao Textiles Collection (14/6 Ban Xieng Mouane, Sisavangvong Road; 011-856-71-253-267); and Ock Pop Tok, for antique and new textiles, and its adjacent exhibition space, Fibre2Fabric Gallery (73/5 Ounkham Road, Ban Vat Nong; 011-856-71-253-219; www.ockpoptok.com). Ock Pop Tok also gives weaving lessons in its workshop outside town. The Puang Champa House showcases royal art forms, from embroidery to musical instruments (by appointment; Heuan Chan Road, Ban Xieng Mouane; 011-856-71-254-787; puangchampa@yahoo.com); to commission gold-embroidered scarves and jackets from Prince Somsanith ($1,000 to $5,000), e-mail tiaok somsanith@hotmail.fr The night market sells souvenir-quality Lao silks, but beware of Chinese and Thai fakes. [Source: Sandra Ballentine, The New York Times, September 23, 2007]

Luang Prabang Night Market is a lively and interesting places, arguably offering the most extensive collection of handicrafts in the country. Open daily from 5:00pm to about 10:00pm, it stretches for about one kilometers along Sisavangvong Road from the Royal Palace Museum. More than 300 handicraft vendors sell their hand-made products here every night. The market showcases an extensive variety of handicrafts made by local ethnic groups. On display are many types of textiles, exquisite ceramics, antiques, paintings, coffee and tea, quilts, shoes, silver, bags, bamboo lamps of different shades and sizes, and even rare spices. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com]

The main street is closed to vehicle traffic from 5:00pm for vendors to set up their shops and a kilometer-long stretch of road is turned into a walking and shopping street while the market takes place. The asking price of a lot of the stuff is surprisingly low considering considering most of the items are hand made. So even if you're not good at bargaining, you can be sure that you will get good value. But if you enjoy or want to practice your bargaining skill you can do so, though don't expect huge discounts.

Buying stuff here not only helps the traders to earn a living, but it will also empower the local families who produce goods to further develop their skills and help them get out of poverty. For those who are not into shopping, just wandering around chatting with the vendors is fun. What most shoppers like about the traders here (as well as in Laos as a whole) is that they don't force people to buy anything. If you ask about their merchandise most will be cheerfully accommodate your query. Many local traders in the Luang Prabang night market speak a little English. The market is also filled with T-shirts bearing Luang Prabang iconography, and prints and paintings that capture the town’s characters. Food and drinks are also available. If you want to taste local food, there is a large variety of Lao food ranging from BBQ chicken and sticky rice to a well stocked vegetarian buffet for you to choose from.

Gayle Keck wrote in the Washington Post, the night market “flows over town streets like rivers of woven cloth. Swaths of silk and cotton scarves, old tribal clothing, appliqued pillows and rich, hand-loomed fabrics cover block after block. We negotiate for simple silk scarves ($4) and a fine, intricately patterned shawl ($18). "Lucky, lucky, lucky!" the seller chants, anointing her other wares with our fortune-bearing bills. [Source: Gayle Keck, Washington Post, July 27, 2008]

ACCOMMODATION IN LUANG PRABANG

There are scores of hotels in Luang Prabang, ranging from luxury five-star to those offering basic rooms with fans. Many of the Luang Prabang hotels are located in walking distance from the local attractions like the night market, temples and Royal Palace museum. Some hotels are located outside of the downtown area and near other Luang Prabang attractions. In the narrow roads and alleys between Than Xieng Tong and Thanon Khem Kong as well as on the roads themselves there are a number of guesthouses. There are a particularly high number of them in th old silvermsithing district around Wat That, There are some nice, charming guesthouses along the river. You can stay in a former royal palace.

Gayle Keck wrote in the Washington Post, “ We enjoyed our clean, basic, spacious bungalow overlooking the Nam Kahn River at Thongbay Guesthouses ($27; http://www.thongbay-guesthouses.com; cash only). In town, a number of old wooden homes have been turned into guesthouses. The upscale 3 Nagas (peak season $200 and up; http://www.alilahotels.com/3nagas) often receives kudos.

Sandra Ballentine wrote in The New York Times, “Base yourself at one of the city's stylish hotels: La Residence Phou Vao, just outside town (www.residencephouvao.com; doubles from $254), or Maison Souvannaphoum, a former royal residence in the center (www.coloursofangsana.com; doubles from $140). [Source: Sandra Ballentine, The New York Times, September 23, 2007]

TRANSPORTATION AND GETTING TO LUANG PRABANG

Luang Prabang has an international airport with daily or regular flights to and from Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, with direct connections with Bangkok, Vientiane and Chiang Mai. Travelers looking for a bit of adventure can opt for overland travel from all directions in dry season. There is also regular boat service on the Mekong (a two-day voyage) to and from Houeixai, which borders Chiang Kong in northern Thailand.

Flights Between Bangkok and Luang Prabang: There are a few daily flights from Thailand direct to Luang Prabang. Lao Airlines has one flight daily between Bangkok and Luang Prabang. Bangkok Airways also has one flight daily (more flights in peak season) from Bangkok to Luang Prabang and vice versa. Flight duration: around 1 hour 40 minutes to 2 hours. Price: Varies between airlines and seasons, normally it's around US$120 - US$250 one way and US$260 - US$350 round trip.

Lao Airlines and Vietnam Airlines operate a daily flight. Lao Airlines operates daily flights to and from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap. Lao Airlines and Vietnam Airlines, operate several flights from Hanoi and Luang Prabang daily. From Chiang Mai you can fly into Luang Prabang with Lao Airlines (direct flight) and Bangkok Airways (via Bangkok). Both airlines provide a daily flight. Flight duration: around 1 hour (direct flight) Price: around US$160 one way and US$300 return. Lao Airlines operates three flight weekly to and from Luang Prabang, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.

Luang Prabang Airport is located on Phetsarat Road about 4 kilometers from Luang Prabang. Tel: +856 071 212 173. The airport has only one runway that is 2,200 meters (7,218 feet) long and made of asphalt. The airport serves both domestic and international flights from one terminal building. Airlines that operate flights to and from Luang Prabang international airport are: Lao Airlines, the national carrier, provides both international and domestic flights to and from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Udonthany (temporary suspended), Hanoi, Vientian, and Pakse. Bangkok Airways flies to and from Bangkok, Suvarnabhumi Airport. Vietnam Airlines flies to and from Hanoi, Noi Bai Airport.

From Van Veng and Vientiane: There are many VIP, express buses, and minivans daily from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. However, most VIP and express buses are Luang Prabang- Vientiane buses. That means you can board them and be dropped off in Vang Vieng, but pay the price for Vientiane. VIP (Luang Prabang – Vang Vieng): costs 105,000 kip departs 09:30 and 12:30. VIP (Luang Prabang – Vientiane): costs 130,000 kip, departs 8:00, 09:00, 19:30 and 20:00 (sleeper bus). The journey takes 6-7 hours to Vang Vieng and around 10 hours all the way to Vientiane. The VIP buses have more leg room and are more comfortable for a long journey. Express (Luang Prabang – Vientiane): costs 110,000kip, departs 06:30, 11:00, 14:00, 16:30, and 18:30. Note express buses are just normal air-conditioned buses. They are not any faster than the VIP. All these buses depart from Ban Naluang – the southern bus station, around 15 minutes ride from town centre. Phone: (071) 252 066 A tuk-tuk ride to Naluang bus station from the town center costs around 20,000-30,000kip.

Minivan (Luang Prabang – Vang Vieng): costs 100,000 kip, departs 09:00, 10:00, 14:00 and 16:00, it takes around 6-7 hours. Minivans have a separate station close to the VIP and express station in Ban Naluang. Phone (071) 212 979. The prices are direct purchase from the bus station, if you buy tickets through travel agents or hotels/guesthouses they are more expensive. Tickets can be bought at the bus station prior to boarding. You can also buy them at most travel agents, guesthouses and hotels (more expensive, but a transfer to the station is usually included). Tickets for minivans can also be bought at the minivan station prior to boarding (100,000kip). You can also buy them at most travel agents or hotels, pick-up is usually included. If you buy tickets directly from the bus company and request to be picked up at your hotel you will be charged a pick up fee of 5,000 kip (total 105,000 kip). For inquiries call the station at 071 212 979. To Luang Prabang: Minivans depart from Vang Vieng bus station at 09:00 and 14:00, costs 100,000kip. VIP buses leave at 10:00 and cost 90,000 kip.

TOURISM IN LUANG PRABANG

Gayle Keck wrote in the Washington Post, “Luang Prabang is shaped like a tongue, formed by the Nam Khan River as it curves to meet the Mekong. The waters of these two rivers are dense with mud, as if history were dissolved in them and were flowing relentlessly, opaquely past. We're in a thatch-roofed bamboo bungalow set on a high riverbank outside town, overlooking the Nam Khan. There is no TV. From our balcony, lazing against triangular bolsters, we shamelessly gaze down on our neighbors across the river with that fascination modern urbanites have for the simple life. The far bank is patchworked with small plots. Men hoe vegetables, women scrub laundry in the dingy water, a fisherman checks his bamboo traps, kids turn a washbasin into an impromptu boat and skid away from their soap-wielding mom.

Ten minutes away by tuk-tuk, the bargain-priced motorcycle-powered open trucks, Luang Prabang bustles. In 1988, the year Laos reopened to tourists, only 600 of them visited the entire country; there are probably that many trolling Luang Prabang's streets today alone. We see bamboo scaffolding where repairs are being made to colonial-era stuccoed homes with mossy tiled roofs and sagging shutters, efforts to meet the growing demand for guesthouses. Luang Prabang's architecture catapulted it onto the World Heritage list in 1995. The sublime mix of old Laotian wooden houses, half-timbered buildings, stalwart French structures and ancient Buddhist temples can be found nowhere else, UNESCO says. But these days, to spot them on some streets, you need to look among swaths of telephone and electrical wires, restaurant signs, shops stocked with chorus lines of Buddha statues, fume-belching tuk-tuks and tour agents' placards with long, handwritten essays advertising offerings in fractured English. ("If you are interesting please contact us inside.")

“With a bit of sun, everything is transformed. We marvel at the graceful, sloping, tiered roofs of the town's temples, or wats. Teenage novice monks sit outside, intent over their lesson books. For poor boys, wats offer the only chance of education. For tourists, they offer a chance to stalk the perfect monk photo: orange robes and shaved heads artfully arrayed on temple steps. We climb Mount Phousi, the steep, 330-foot-high sacred hill in the midst of town. From the top we can look down on gaggles of slender, long-tail river boats and dozens of temples and also chat up young novices hanging out to practice English. "Do you like Laos?" one asks. "Where are you from?" I might as well be from Mars, I think, wondering how to describe what he might see from my city's hills. "Do you have any books," he asks, "or notebooks?" Those are rare commodities, we learn, and I wish I'd come with a satchel of reading material.

We ease that regret by tutoring young monks at Big Brother Mouse, an organization that prints books and provides a meeting place for local kids to speak English with foreigners. On our stroll, we see racks of rice cakes, loops of sausages and frames of handmade mulberry paper, all set out in the sun to dry. I stop to peek inside a kettle an old woman is stirring over a brazier next to her house. She nods "okay" to a photo and flashes a big, one-toothed smile when we show her the image. Up another street, I hear "Thwack!" as a coconut bangs onto the pavement. "That's a weird coincide-," I start to say, glad we didn't get beaned. "Thwack!" Another plummets. Then I notice a man with a machete, swaying in the top of the palm tree. "Thwack! Thwack!" Two women in the street are acting as coconut crossing guards, calling up to the man when a vehicle comes along. A crowd gathers to watch the spectacle until the man finally shins down the trunk.

SIGHTS AND ATTRACTIONS IN LUANG PRABANG

There are 34 major Buddhist temples among Luang Prabang's colonial and Chinese architectures, all set in a backdrop of lush green mountains. The Mekong River frames the town's western border, and it remains an important commercial and recreational transportation link. Vibrant cultural traditions, rituals and distinctive artwork such as temple murals, woodcarvings and pottery make Luang Prabang an attractive destination for a wide range of interests.

Luang Prabang boasts a variety of Lao, Tai-Lue, Burmese, Chinese and Taui architecture. The Night Market offers a large variety of street food and traditional goods. The town is famous for its unique textiles and beautiful mulberry paper. Famous foods in Luang Prabang are “Aur Lam” (a thick stew made with the forest herb “Sakhan”, meat and eggplants), “Jaew Bong”, a sauce made with hot chillies and buffalo skin and “khai Pan” dried river weed lightly fried with sesame seeds and garlic.

Than Xieng Tong is the main thoroughfare in Luang Prabang. It is filled with cafes and shops filled with backpackers, and shophouses with French colonial windows and door and blue, white and brown paint jobs. King Kitsarath Road follows the Khan River. here you can often see children swimming and leaping into water from overhanging trees.

Phu Si (at the city center opposite the Royal Palace) or “scared mountain” is the 100-meter-high geographical and spiritual focus of the city. Believed to have once been the dwelling plac of a powerful naga, it is regarded as a miniature version of Mt. Meru. At the top is a golden stupa and a recently reconstructed wat. Two other wats are located on its slopes. There good views from the top. Phou Si is one of the major landmarks in the city. It is a good place to catch the sunset or sunrise.

LUANG PRABANG OLD TOWN

LUANG PRABANG OLD TOWN is one of the most charming and best preserved old towns in Southeast Asia. There are many French colonial houses scattered in every corner of the city and small alleys. Some have bougainvillea flowers in front of the houses, cafes with dim lights and cute outdoor terraces. Haw Kham, the former royal palace, (now the National Museum) is among the most well-known historical sites in the city.

The commercial buildings are grouped along the Mekong, interspersed with private houses. The temples and royal residences line one side of Avenue Pavie, which runs the length of the peninsula, the other side being occupied by traditional and colonial houses. The administrative buildings are for the most part at the crossroads with Rue Gernier. The monasteries generally consist of: the cult buildings (shrine, chapel, library, stupa, stone post), ancillary buildings and buildings for inhabitants or visitors (monastic communal buildings, cells, refectory, etc.). Most are simple shrines with three aisles and a single porch. Their interior furnishings comprise a pedestal or throne for the main Buddha image, a pulpit, a terrace and a lamp. Most are elaborately decorated with carved motifs but the wall paintings are relatively simple. The Luang Prabang chapels are simple structures for housing images; they may be open or walled. [Source: UNESCO]

The traditional Lao wooden houses are basically divided into spaces: the private rooms and the public terraces. They are usually raised on wooden piles, giving a space beneath for working and for shelter for both men and animals. Walling may be of planks or plaited bamboo on a wooden frame. A developed form of this house makes use of brick, following the French introduction of this material, but conserving the general layout and appearance of the traditional house. Finally there are the administrative buildings, which more or less successfully blend traditional elements with European materials, techniques and uses.

''Luang Prabang was preserved because there was no money to change,'' a local historian told the New York Times. ''People didn't have money to fix a door, so the door stayed the same.'' The city was named a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1995, so many of the doors will remain unchanged. But when the money from tourists did start coming in the late 1990's, Luang Prabang began struggling with the same issues of cultural integrity that many Southeast Asian cities now face. The new capitalism has brought with it silk shops and Internet cafes, in which you will find tourists and monks side by side, tapping away at the computers. [Source: Amanda Hesser, New York Times, July 13, 2005]

ROYAL PALACE

ROYAL PALACE (Sisavangvong Road, between Than Xieng Tong and Thanon Khem Kong) is rather modest for a royal palace and is still lived in by members of the royal family, who occupy the relatively small sleeping quarters. The public courtyard is huge; the reception areas glisten with gold and brocade; and the gilded reliefs that adorn the palace walls depict scenes from everyday village life as well court life in palace. The monarchy was outlawed by the Pathet Lao in 1975. From time to time the wife of the crown-prince performs the bocci ceremony for foreign visitors.

The palace mixes French colonial and Lan Xang styles, and features an entrance shaded in palm trees. It was the home of the royal family until the Revolution in 1975 when the Pathet Lao turned it into a museum.

The palace was started in 1904 for King Sisavang Vong and his family during the French colonial era. The bulk of it was built after 1920. After the death of King Sisavang Vong, the crown Prince Savang Vatthana and his family were the last to occupy the palace. They occupied it until they were was taken to re-education camps in 1977. The palace was neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair until the 1990s when the government began promoting tourism and realized the benefits of making the mansion a tourist attraction. The palace was then converted into a national museum and opened to the public in 1995.

Located in the city on the other side of the road from Phou-Si mountain, the palace is in walking distance of all main hotels and guest houses. In the palace compound, there are several buildings including the Royal Barge Shelter, a conference hall, and Haw Pha Bang (a ornate pavilion) that houses the standing Buddha statue called Prabang. In the pass the Prabang statue and many other religious artifacts were housed in the palace, the front wing.

At the entrance gate is a pagoda. The two golden serpents that form the balustrades are representations of Naga, the serpent king that protected Buddha when he sat under bodhi tree before his enlightenment. At the Royal Palace don't miss the town's most famous resident, the ancient, 32-inch-tall gold Pra Bang Buddha; it's behind a door on the building's right-front corner.

Gayle Keck wrote in the Washington Post, “More than a hundred soggy, muddy shoes cluster around the main entrance. Etiquette forbids footwear inside most buildings. The parked shoes provide an instant tip-off to who's inside. Exploring the royal palace is a bit eerie because the government has never revealed the fate of its former occupants. The early-20th-century building is a mash-up of Laotian and western architecture, highlighted by a throne room crusted with royal bling: thrones, swords, regalia, the monarch's howdah (a chair for perching atop an elephant) and spectacular mosaics of multicolored pieces of mirror set onto deep-red walls. The royal bedrooms are austere, furnished with drab, vaguely deco furniture. Backstage life in this monarchy had all the appeal of a two-star hotel room. [Source: Gayle Keck, Washington Post, July 27, 2008]

ROYAL PALACE MUSEUM

ROYAL PALACE MUSEUM (within the Royal Palace) contains a respectable collection of furniture, wooden drums, wooden and gold-leafed Buddhas, crystal Buddhas, golden murals inlaid with semiprecious stones, a golden sword with a Naga head handle owned by the king, elephant tusks engraved with Buddhas, embroidered silk screens, classical musical instruments, an elaborately decorated fly whisk, gifts from heads of state (including some moon rocks given by Richard Nixon in 1972), a metal chair used for riding on elephants, and objects owned by the royal family.

The museum also houses the city’s most sacred Buddha image, known as Prabang, which is source of the city’s name. This Buddha is 83 centimeters tall and weighs 43 kilograms and cast from gold, silver and bronze allow. According to legend it was made in Sri Lanka in the A.D. 1st century and given to the Khmer king Sirichantha, who in turn gave it to King Fangum, the founder of first Lao kingdom. The statue has Khmer features and more likely it was produced around the 13th or 14th century. Twice it was carried off by the Siamese 1779 and 1820 and was give back to the Lao monarchy in 1867 by the Siamese King Momgkat (Rama IV).

The most interesting thing in the museum is a room whose wall are covered entirely with a glass mosaic of mythical images and scenes from everyday life. The room was built for the coronation ceremony of the king in 1963. The mosaic took eight people three years to make. There is also a an Art Nouveau wooden bed used by the king. It has images of three royal elephants carved into the headstand. In the relatively modest royal car collection are mostly American cars from the 1950s to 1970s. Behind the garages is another building which has a gallery for rotating exhibitions.

The Royal Palace Museum is also known as “Haw Kham”. It can be roughly divided in three main parts: The front wing, consisting of reception areas; the throne hall (in the middle); and the back wing that was once residential area. The King’s reception hall at the right of the entrance now displays busts and paintings of the Lao monarchy along with two large gilded and lacquered Ramayana screens. The walls of the room are decorated with murals depicting scenes of traditional Lao lifestyles, painted by a French artist back in the 1930s. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com]

The room next to the right of the King’s reception hall displays a collection of the palace’s most prized art including a cast of the prized Pha Bang buddha statue in gold, silver and bronze. On the left of the entrance hall the former secretary’s reception area now houses gifts from various heads of state to the Lao monarchy. Displayed objects are grouped by “socialist” and “capitalist” countries. The room to the left of the secretary’s reception was once the Queen’s reception room. It now displays paintings of King Savang Vatthana, Queen Khamphoui and the crown Prince Vong Savang. Also displayed are friendship flags from China and Vietnam, and replicas of sculpture from the National Museum in New Delhi.

The throne hall connects the reception wing with the residential wing where the royal family’s bedrooms and living quarter were. The walls of this room are decorated with cut mirrored tile mosaics similar to those seen in the town’s oldest temple, Wat Xieng Thong. Displayed in the throne hall are the throne of the king and queen, the king’s elephant chair and glass cases containing many crystal Buddha images that were removed from Wat That Makmo.

The back wing was the royals’ residential area and includes bedrooms, a dining room, a library and a music and dance exhibits area displaying Lao classical instruments and masks. The residential area has been preserved more or less as it was in 1975 before the royal family departed.

Opening Times: 08:00am-11:30am, 1:30pm-4:00pm. Open daily except Tuesday. Entrance Fee: 30,000kip (US$4), Children under 10 free of charge. No photography is allowed inside the museum. No bags allowed, so you must leave yours in lockers provided near the entrance Shoes must be removed before entering the museum. Dress conservatively. Women with short shorts or skirts are required to put on a Lao skirt before entering (Lao skirts are available for hire on spot).

MONK OFFERING IN LUANG PRABANG

MONK OFFERING IN LUANG PRABANG is one of the highlights for visitors to the city. In the early morning procession hundreds of monks from the various monasteries who walk through the streets collecting alms. It means getting up early, but it’s worth the effort. Gayle Keck wrote in the Washington Post, “On our final morning, we wake before dawn to witness the daily gift of alms to the monks. Our tuk-tuk driver says he'll take us to two spots: one nearby, with a few monks and no tourists; the other in town, with lots of monks and lots of tourists. As we hop out of the tuk-tuk, through the 5:30 a.m. gloom I see local women kneeling along the curb, clutching baskets. A line of monks passes by, each monk holding out his food bowl, into which each woman deposits a pinch of cooked sticky rice. [Source: Gayle Keck, Washington Post, July 27, 2008]

“The last woman motions me over. She and the two next to her scoop rice onto a basket lid and offer it to me, demonstrating how to pull off the proper amount. I kneel next to them and shape little bites, silently depositing one into each man's bowl as it pauses in front of me. As the last of 30 or so barefoot monks pads off into the dark, I turn to thank the women for their generosity. "Khap jai, lai-lai," I say, raising my hands in the praying motion called a nop, the Laotian gesture of greeting, gratitude and farewell. "Thank you very much."

“A few minutes later, on Luang Prabang's main road, bleary-eyed tourists are thronging, surrounded by vendors hawking cheaply prepared foods, some wrapped in leaves, to offer to the town's monks as they pass by. Despite guidebook cautions against these substandard offerings, which the monks often throw away, people are buying. Lit by the hard rays of dawn, the monks' procession takes on a parade atmosphere, with packs of paparazzi tourists snapping away. The spiritual magic has evaporated. Morning alms is a sacred ritual in which monks pass through the streets collecting cooked rice for their daily meal. Your lodging can help you with where, when and how to see them.”

WATS IN LUANG PRABANG

By one count there are 34 major Buddhist temples (wats) in Luang Prabang. Other say there are over a hundred. They include Wat Mai (New Temple), which has a bright red five-tired roof and 18th century gold relief doors and embraces a shelter for two long racing boats that were spared during the 19th century Chinese invasion; Wat Pa Ke , with golden frescoes depicting the arrival of the Dutch in 17th century; That Chomsi , a golden pyramid, surrounded by nine ritual umbrellas, emblems of the royal family. Wat Xieng Muan has a workshop where young monks carve Buddhas from wood. It's a UNESCO program to revive traditional arts that were squelched in the early communist era. At the small shop visitors can buy lithe Luang Prabang-style Buddhas to support the monastery's work. The Lonely Planet Guide to Laos has descriptions of some of the other wats.

Wat Xieng Thong (northern tip of the peninsula formed by the Mekong River and Nam Khan) is Luang Prabang's most famous temple. A classic example of northern Lao architecture, it was built in 1560 by King Saisetthalit and spared by the Yunnan invaders, whose leader was reportedly so overcome by the temple's beauty he became a monk. The complex contains 20 buildings, most of which house stunning Buddha images. The tiled roof of the main temple slopes downward at a steep angle and almost touches the ground. It has three levels which overlap one another. Opening Time: 08:00am-5:30pm. Open daily. Entrance Fee: 20,000kip (US$3).

Wat Xieng Thong means the Golden City Temple. The ridge of the roof has a golden Cho Fa , which is a model of universal belief. Its walls are decorated with murals, sculpture of local legends and colored glass art. On the exterior is a wildly colorful mosaic of the “Tree of Life.” Locals often pray inside and bang gongs. Nearby is a golden building called the rong mien kot (place to keep the urns) where there are many ancient woodcarvings of Buddha and a royal chariot with seven naga heads, and teakwood panels carved with images of Rama, Sita, Ravana and Hanuman, and other characters from te Lao verson of the Ramayana.

Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most interesting examples of Buddhist art and architecture in Luang Prabang and arguably one of the most beautiful temples in Asia. The ornate carved and gilded funeral vehicle of the former king is kept in one of the buildings in the temple grounds. This temple was used for the most important Royal ceremonies and houses the bones of King Sisavangvong. Gayle Keck wrote in the Washington Post, “The main building, the sim, sports dazzling exterior mosaics similar to those in the palace throne room; inside, Buddhas large and small, sitting and standing, await worshipers amid regal, gilt-stenciled surroundings. Another temple structure holds the ornate, gold-leafed royal funeral carriage and a clutch of life-size standing Buddhas with the eerie aspect of exotic department-store mannequins. [Source: Gayle Keck, Washington Post, July 27, 2008]

Wat Visounnarath was built in 1503 to house the prabang, which is now in the Royal Palace. It features a watermelon-shaped pagoda, dome-topped roof which resembles a budding lotus flower, a finely-carved wood, Xieng-Khong-style doors, and numerous Buddha images.

Wat Long Khoun (across the Mekong River from Luang Prabang) is where the Lao monarchs mediated in solitude for three days before their coronation. Reached after a one hour hike, the well-preserved temple is beautifully set among fruit trees. It contains original interior wall murals and two frescoes on a gold-stenciled facade. There is a beautiful view of Luang Prabang from the veranda.

PLACES NEAR LUANG PRABANG

LUANG PRABANG PROVINCE lies in the heart of the mountainous region of northern Laos. It shares border with Oudomxay and Phongsaly Provinces and Vietnam to the north, Vientiane and Xayaboury provinces to the south and southwest, and Xieng Khuang and Huaphan provinces province to the east. The main ethnic groups are the Hmong, Khmu, Tai Lue, and Lao. Natural Protected Areas: Nam Et and Phou Louei National Protected Areas. For those planning to visit an ethnic village in Luang Prabang, start or end your trip at the Traditional Art's and Ethnology Center. There are many other areas of Luang Prabang Province that have yet to be traveled by tourists, including the Nam Et/Phou Louei National Protected Area and the province’s northeastern region near the border with Vietnam, a remote rural area with many traditional Hmong communities.

There are some good treks in Chomphet district located close to Luang Prabang Town. Kwangsi Waterfall, typically visited by car, now has an alternative walking route that follows a foot path through forests, fields and ethnic villages. Ngoi Kao Village is a new, relaxing destination reached by a trek operated by the villagers themselves. They offer bungalow accommodation on a peaceful, remote stretch of the Nam Ou River. From Ngoi Kao you can also take overnight excursions through mountainous terrain to nearby ethnic communities. For those looking for a scenic alternative to bus travel, boats can be taken downriver from Muang Ngoi to Luang Prabang.

Near Luang Prabang: If you are into natural travel, there are numerous lovely sites to visit and many activities where you can get at one with nature. Falls and caves are just about an hour away from the city. You can see a cave in the morning and swim at one of the falls in the afternoon if you're tight in time. However, to fully enjoy what this charming city has to offer you should allow at least a few days. Numerous of operators offers tours, treks and river trips. Tiger Trail (Sisavangvong Road; http://www.trekking-in-laos.com) has a reputation for socially responsible tourism. Elephant ride, visit to Tad Sae waterfall and a so-so lunch was $35 per person; add kayaking or rafting for $10. Tad Sae is not as impressive as Kung Si Falls but still nice. It is only a 30 minute tuk tuk ride from Luang Prabang.

Elephant Village and Camp is a government-approved camp where rescued or retired elephants are cared for humanely. Have an easy going scenic elephant ride around the village and through the river. Get closer to the elephants by bathing them. You may get to learn words of command and use them to guide the elephants. You can go there on a tour (half-day, one-day, two-day or three-day), or just get to the village independently.

Ban Phanom (three miles east of Luang Prabang) is a Thai Lu village, famous for its cotton and silk weaving. The stilted wooden houses contain wooden looms which the female members of each household use to make weaving that sell from $5 to $25. Nearby is the tomb of Henri Mouhout, the “discoverer” of Angkor Wat. He died of malaria in Luang Prabang in 1861.

WATERFALLS NEAR LUANG PRABANG

Kuang Si Falls (30 kilometers from Luang Prabang) is one of the most popular sites in the Luang Prabang area. It is a lovely terraced waterfall with many swimming holes in the upper terraces. Carved out of limestone rock and built by limestone deposits, the falls are a wonderful place to spend the day relaxing. Adventurous visitors might try to climb to the top of the falls. At the very bottom of the falls there are several blue pools of water and small cascades (3-5 meters high); some of the falls are multi-tiered. Most of the pools are open for swimming (one is closed as being a sacred site) though the water is a bit cold because this area is shaded by big trees. This makes the falls a popular cool-off place among locals and tourists alike during the hot season.

There are small wooden huts to change in. Picnic benches are also available all around the park. The whole park area is shaded and cool that makes it perfect for a relaxing family outing and picnic. Sitting under the shade watching children swimming or jumping up and down in the pools can be relaxing and enjoyable. Jumping in the pool yourself can be fun too. The site is well maintained with walkways and bridges to guide the visitors.

There are also trails to climb to the top of the falls where there are more natural pools for swimming. The trails are steep and can be extremely slippery, especially in rainy season…so you’ll need proper shoes to climb to the top, but the climb is well worth the effort. However it not suitable for unfit people or small children. Don’t forget to take a bottle of water with you; I’m sure you’ll need it. If you climb up to the top at the left hand side (of the entrance) trails you’ll arrive at a huge and very impressive pool and its source. At the top you actually cross the top of the falls and this is a great place to get a good view down. If you want to recharge your energy after exhausting yourself exploring the trails or swimming, there are many stalls selling food and drinks near the picnic area at the entrance to the falls.

The road to the falls winds through hills with spectacular natural views, including terraced rice fields, which make the trip a memorable one. On the way to the waterfalls, there is a Hmong village where the old ladies still wear Hmong traditional costume. It is famous for its hand-woven handicrafts.

To get to the falls there, you'll have to travel by songthaeaw, tuk tuk or by boat and tuk-tuk. The fee varies ranging from around $5- $10 per person and the journey takes about 50 min – 1 hour by tuk-tuk or songthaeaw. Everywhere in cafes and travel agents in town there are signs advertising group trips to Kuang Si falls. If you prefer to follow your own schedule rather than have to fit in with others, you can hire your own tuk-tuk for around $15 for half-day rental. Most travel agents can help you with this though it could be more expensive than dealing direct with the tuk-tuk drivers. Walking through street you may be approached by tuk-tuk drivers offering their services, if not you can ask your guesthouse or hotel, I’m sure they can recommend someone.

There are two mini buses daily, running between Kuang Si Falls and Naluang Mini Bus station (opposite side of the road to LPB southern bus station). You can board the bus at the station or in town (no pick up fee). If you buy your ticket at one of the many travel agents in town it is usually more expensive, though they arrange a pick up at your hotel or somewhere that is convenient for you. You'll go to the falls and come back to town by the same bus. The bus waits at the falls. They usually give you around two hours. If you prefer to stay longer, you'll have to find a transport back to town by yourself. Departure time (from the Naluang station): 12:00 and 14:00 Cost: 40,000 per person round trip (more expensive if you buy tickets through travel agents) You can charter a mini bus for 350,000kip (max 6 people), or 400,000kip (max 11 people). This way you can stay as long as you want at the falls

If you hire your own tuk-tuk or mini van you can ask the driver to stop there on your way. It's worth to stop by to see the Hmong village, its handicrafts or the way of life of the villagers. If you fancy taking photos of girls in Hmong costume, beware that you might be asked to buy their stuff in return and some can be a little too pushy. When you get closer to the falls you will feel that the weather cooler and fresher, because the area is high and covered with forest. To enter the Kuang Si Park everyone must pay an entry fee (20,000kip). From the entry you can walk through a forested area where there are enclosures housing Asian black bears rescued from poachers.

Kwang Si Waterfall Walk (accessible from Luang Prabang town) is four to five hour walk to Kwang Si Waterfall that passes through Hmong and Khamu villages, green forests and mountain tops before arriving at the falls. Trekkers depart Luang Prabang in mid-morning for a 30-minute drive to Ban Nong Heo, a Khamu village where the village guide joins the group to lead the trek. Hike through community forests and farming fields for 1.5 hours to Ban Long Lao, a Hmong village. After lunch and learning about traditional Hmong textile production, trekkers climb through thick forests to the top of a mountain offering excellent views of the surrounding area.Descend from the hills to a natural spring for a brief rest and afternoon swim. The trail then arrives at the famous Kwang Si Waterfall, Luang Prabang's most popular natural site. Return to Luang Prabang by car in the late afternoon.

MEKONG RIVER TRIPS FROM LUANG PRABANG

Pak Ou Caves (20 kilometers south of Luang Prabang on the Mekong River) contains thousands of Buddha statues, many of them sitting on little ledges overlooking the confluence of Mekong and Nam Ou Rivers. One of the holiest places in Laos, it contains images that may date back to the 14th century. Local people visit the caves during the Laotian new year, a tradition that was probably started 500 years ago by King Setthathirat (1520 to 1548).

The lower cave is a sloping, partly-open space with fine views of the river. Most of the Buddhas here are made from wood and bronze and are under a foot tall. There are thousands of them and they are clustered in groups. Some are inlaid with glass and semi-precious stones. During the Lao New Year pilgrims flock to the site to bath the Buddhas to earn merit.

A flight of stairs leads to the dark upper cave. Illuminated with flickering candles and perfumed by incense, this caves has several life-size Buddhas. Many of the statues have been stolen. Australian excavators counted 8,000 statues in 1989; today there are less than 3,000. The dominant feature is a gold, medium-size pagoda. Small candles are lit and placed at the base of the pagoda, They light up the dark cave.

Across the river from the caves is Ban Pak-Ou a beautiful place situated at the mouth of the Ou river. Surrounded by sheer thousand-foot-high limestone cliffs, it has an 18th century pagoda with some of the finest wall murals in Laos.

Mekong River Boat Ride to Ban Pak-Ou Caves passes by the Whiskey Village, with some beat-up distilleries where you can get Laotian moonshine, mountains, pine and bamboo forests, sandy islands, and men and women in straw hats panning for gold. A long-tail speed boat ride cost around $20. This can be split among however many people take the boat

Mekong River Boat Ride Between Bam Houei Sai and Luang Prabang covers 300 or kilometers. The downriver journey from north to south begins in Bam Houei Sai peacefully enough with glimpses of rich vegetable farms on the rivers banks, bathing women and children and fishermen working from canoes. After a couple of hours, the current quickens and the journey becomes dicier as the river passes through a narrow valley and heads east away from the Thailand border.

Travelers can travel between Bam Houei Sai and Luang Prabang in one day at 30 miles per hour in long-tail speed boats or in two days at 10 miles per hour in wooden cargo boats that are around 65 feet long and have an eye painted on the bow for good luck. The cargo boats carry things like palm sugar, sesame seeds, tobacco, mulberry tree bark, water buffalo and other farm animals. Passengers often sit on the roof of the cabin because that is only place with adequate space. On the speed boat passengers sit on wooden benches and wear life jackets and crash helmets.

The pilots of the cargo boats keep their eyes peeled on the river for much of the entire journey for submerged rocks and sandbars that can sink or ground a boat. Churning water and dips in the water indicate obstacles that should be avoided. There are no navigational markers and the channels are always changing, particular after a period of heavy rain. For spiritual guidance pilots keep pictures of Buddha and special monks and alters with offerings to the river gods in their cabin.

LUANG PRABANG AREA TREKS

Hill Tribe Villages Near Luang Prabang include those occupied Lu, Yao, and K'mu tribes. The nearby Yao village contains a rusted Soviet-built tank.

Chomphet Trek (accessible from Luang Prabang town) is a challenging two-day trek into the hills of Chompet district across the Mekong River, with some difficult climbs on the way to green forests, views of Luang Prabang, farmers' fields, a cave and three ethnic groups: Hmong, Khamu and lowland Lao. Day 1: Ban Moungkham - Ban Houaypong - Ban Phuluang Tai: Depart Luang Prabang in the early morning for a 30-minute boat ride up the Mekong River to Ban Moungkham in Chomphet district. From here, walk 2 hours on a forested trail to Ban Houaypong, a Khamu Rok village. After lunch, the trek begins an uphill climb to Ban Phuluang Tai. The trail is steep for 2 hours, before reaching a ridge. The path follows the ridge for 2 hours, and offers sweeping views across the mountain range and valleys below. Arrive in Ban Phuluang Tai, a Hmong community, by late afternoon. Phuluang Tai also has beautiful night views of the lights of Luang Prabang in the distance. The village offers optional services such as drum and kaen musical performances and selling traditional embroidery. Visitors spend the night in the village guesthouse, which is constructed in traditional Hmong style and managed by the community.

Day 2) Ban Som - Tam Nang Anh Cave: The a trek down to Ban Som that takes a little over 1.5 hours. The steep downhill trail passes the Hmong village, Ban Mok Prai. The path leads to Ban Som, an idyllic Lao Loum village surrounded by rice paddies, a creek, and mountains. Trekkers then leave their bags behind for the 30-minute uphill hike to Tam Nang Anh Cave and a swim at a small waterfall at the base of the mountain. After lunch in Ban Som, the final 3-hour hike back to Ban Moungkham os on an easy road and trail. From here, a boat returns the group to Luang Prabang for an early evening arrival.

Muang Ngoi Trek is a two-day trek from Ban Ngoi Kao on the Ou River that involves spending the night in a Khamu village guesthouse. Day 1) Leave Ngoi Kao by foot at about 1:00 pm and hike to Tam Gang and Tam Pha Keo Caves, which are situated about 30 minutes from the village. These cool, water-filled caves are several kilometers in length with waterfalls and rock formations inside, and were used as bomb shelters during several wars. Leaving the caves, the trail continues for 1.5 hours through fields and towering limestone cliffs before arriving at Ban Houay Sens. After a short break at a village rest house the hike continues to Ban Kiew Kan on a two-hour climb through primary forest with beautiful views of the limestone peaks. At Ban Kiew Kan, a friendly Khamu village, visitors watch baskets being made, take photos of the traditional Khamu homes, bathe in the natural spring, eat a locally-prepared meal, participate in a baci eceremony and sleep community guesthouses, constructed in the Khamu style.

Day 2) Trekkers journey three to four hours to Ban Hadsapeuy on the Ou River. From Ban Kiew Kan, the trail makes a brief climb before descending through the forest and fields to arrive at a stream. The next hour is spent on a shady walk in the river, before emerging to hike a small group of hills to Ban Hadsapeuy. After a fresh coconut trekkers a local boat for a stunning 30-minute trip down the river to Muang Ngoi. Kayaking back to town can also be arranged.

Nam Pa that is a small river that meanders through rugged mountains north of Luang Prabang and has some excellent rapids as well as opportunities for birdwatching. This Nam Pa is ideal for short, one-day trips into some remote villages and forest. Most people paddle the Ou just above Luang Prabang but its upper reaches near the Chinese border are more pristine, cutting through the undisturbed Phou Den Din NPA in which there are few villages. This is the longest inbound river in all of Laos is well known for its spectacular karsts formations and natural scenery.

Nam Xeung is a river takes you through limestone landscapes northeast of Luang Prabang with some swift rapids. It is best from July to October. Rafting is possible in the rainy season only between June and September.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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