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.
Luang Prabang is regarded as Laos's religious center. Phu Si pagoda is said to enshrine Buddha's footprint. Goldsmithing, lacquering, and silversmithing are the town's traditional crafts. 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.
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
See Separate Article SIGHTS IN AND AROUND LUANG PRABANG factsanddetails.com
Charms of Luang Prabang
Jane Kramer wrote in The New Yorker: “Luang Prabang is an ancient Laotian pilgrimage town—three long streets, thirty-two monastery temples, and more than a thousand monks in residence—set on a verdant triangle where the Mekong and the Nam Khan Rivers cross. In 1995, the town was named a UNESCO World Heritage destination (meaning definitely worth a visit) and its wats were restored. Today, it is the kind of place where foreigners come and stay, and eventually get proprietary and protective—and complain about newcomers spoiling the “authenticity.” [Source: Jane Kramer, The New Yorker, July 23, 2012]
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.
Luang Prabang has been considered one of Southeast Asia's "must see" destinations for some time now. It was ranked the eighth city in the world by Travel and Leisure magazine. 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".
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.
Luang Prabang UNESCO World Heritage
The Town of Luang Prabang was designated a a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, according to UNESCO, "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]
”Many legends are associated with the creation of the city, including one that recounts that Buddha would have smiled when he rested there during his travels, prophesying that it would one day be the site of a rich and powerful city. Known as Muang Sua, then Xieng Thong, from the 14th to the 16th century the town became the capital of the powerful kingdom of Lane Xang (Kingdom of a Million Elephants), whose wealth and influence were related to its strategic location on the Silk Route. The city was also the centre of Buddhism in the region. Luang Prabang takes its name from a statue of Buddha, the Prabang, offered by Cambodia.
”After the establishment of the French Protectorate in 1893, following a period of turmoil during which the country was divided into three independent kingdoms, Luang Prabang once again became the royal and religious capital during the reign of King Sisavang Vong. It played this role until Vientiane became the administrative capital in 1946.”
"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 and Layout of Luang Prabang
According to UNESCO: “Luang Prabang is located in northern Laos at the heart of a mountainous region. The town is built on a peninsula formed by the Mekong and the Nam Khan River. Mountain ranges (in particular the PhouThao and PhouNang mountains) encircle the city in lush greenery. The political and religious centre of Luang Prabang is the peninsula, with its royal and noble residences and religious foundations. The traditional urban fabric of the old villages, each with its temple, was preserved by later constructions. The colonial urban morphology, including the network of streets, overlapped harmoniously with the previous model. Formerly the town limits were defined by defensive walls.”
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.
Luang Prabang 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 cultural 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
Entertainment in Luang Prabang
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 are more than a dozen massage spas on Sisavang Vong Road.
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. 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. [Source: Gayle Keck, Washington Post, July 27, 2008] Julie L. Kessler wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “On our final night we took a sunset dinner cruise along the Mekong River. As a parting gift, the clouds gave way as our boat departed and we were treated to a shimmering array of sunset colors. The beer was cold and the traditional food was good. Before we turned around to head back, several children in traditional dress along the banks of the Mekong put on what seemed to be an impromptu dance display. It was a lovely punctuation to our trip. [Source: Julie L. Kessler, Los Angeles Times. September 12, 2014]
Restaurants and Food in Luang Prabang
The area around Than Xieng Tong is filled with restaurants and cafes. 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, At Tum Tum Cheng restaurant "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). [Source: Gayle Keck, Washington Post, July 27, 2008]
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.
Julie L. Kessler wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “We stopped for lunch at one of the many eateries along Sisavang Vong Road. They're a blend of architectural styles and most have only a dozen or so small tables. You can choose from Western fare or traditional Laotian cuisine. I had laab kai, finely chopped chicken salad and noodles with vegetables, and George enjoyed mok pa fok, steamed fish in banana leaves and fried rice. You can eat like a king in Luang Prabang for just a few dollars — our average restaurant lunch for two was $10, dinner about $20 — and it all goes down well with an ice-cold Laotian beer. (Bottled water is readily available and inexpensive.) [Source: Julie L. Kessler, Los Angeles Times. September 12, 2014]
For dessert, we took a calorie-free route and hit one of the many local spas. (There are at least a dozen massage spas on Sisavang Vong Road, more on the many side streets, and most hotels and guest houses also have spa services.) The hourlong foot massage I had that first day (which also included my neck, shoulder and back) was not only exquisite, but at $5 made me rethink what I've often paid stateside for lesser quality.
“At the south end of the night market, the food alley's many stalls offer dollar dinners. For this, you are given a good-sized plate to heap as high as you like for a memorably delicious dinner. We got in line, paid for the two plates and another dollar for a large Laotian beer, and enjoyed various sautéed noodles with chicken and vegetables, several won-ton-like envelopes filled with mysterious though delectable meats and vegetables, marinated salads and fresh tropical fruit. It was one of the best and least expensive meals of the trip.
Where to Eat: 1) Night market food alley. Not to be missed, if only for a photo op. Delicious, traditional Laotian cuisine prepared by each stall's proprietor. Dinner for two, including ice cold Laotian beer, $4. 2) Coconut Restaurant, 5 Sisavang Vong Road, Luang Prabang; 71- 212-617. Both Western and traditional Laotian cuisine. Lunch for two $8, including soft drinks.
3) Le Café Ban Vat Sene, Sakkarine Road, Ban Vat Sene (opposite the Ecole Primare), Luang Prabang; 71-252-482, bit.ly/1nJfdz0. This lovely restaurant has prix-fixe Western and traditional Laotian menus and an excellent selection of a la carte dishes. We had delicious buffalo fillets served with green salad, French fries and sautéed vegetables, coconut flan and Chilean wines ($44 for two, including wine). It also serves thin-crust pizza that rivals that found in New York.
4) L'Elephant Restaurant Français, Ban Vat Nong (behind Hotel Villa Santi), Luang Prabang; 71-252- 482, elephant-restau.com. French-Laotian fusion restaurant. I had an incredible, traditional Laotian eight-course prix-fixe tasting menu and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. George chose Western fare: grilled pork filet accompanied by garlic-infused mashed potatoes, sautéed vegetables, fresh, homemade baguette and South African Cabernet. ($50 for two, including wine.) The most beautiful and expensive restaurant in Luang Prabang, but memorable and reasonable by Western standards.
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. Jane Kramer wrote in The New Yorker: “We woke early and...watched the sunrise procession of monks and novices, who emerged from their monasteries, barefoot, to cross the city, collecting food from the pilgrims and townspeople waiting with bowls and baskets of rice and fruit. In their saffron robes, they made a ribbon of color, weaving through the streets. No one spoke to the monks. None of the monks said thank you. The exchange was solemn. Buddhists call it “earning merit,” because they give food in order to speed their path through the next world.
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.”
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; firstname.lastname@example.org); to commission gold-embroidered scarves and jackets from Prince Somsanith ($1,000 to $5,000), e-mail tiaok email@example.com 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
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]
Julie L. Kessler wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “We visited Luang Prabang's night market along Sisavang Vong Road. It's a colorful cornucopia of gorgeous textiles (silk scarves, embroidered table runners, quilts) and carved ornamental silver, for which the Hmong women are famous. Good-natured bargaining is expected, and a fair ending price is about half the original quote. The heat made buying scarves almost unthinkable. Putting mind over matter, we bought more than three dozen for about $8 each. I also purchased a 15-pound sterling silver necklace. Incredibly, Hmong women wear these for several days during the new year celebration; I turned mine into wall art. [Source: Julie L. Kessler, Los Angeles Times. September 12, 2014]
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]
Julie L. Kessler stayed at My Dream Boutique Hotel & Resort, Ban Meung Nga Village, Meung Nga Street, Luang Prabang; 71-252-853, www.mydreamresort.com. Lovely hotel with marvelous staff and swimming pool in tropical setting on a residential street. Doubles $60 a night, including buffet breakfast and airport pickup and drop-off. She wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Although there are several guesthouses and hotels a stone's throw from the town's main Sisavang Vong Road, we chose, given the 90-degree heat, a hotel with a pool that was a 10-minute walk from the riverfront. The downside: To get to town we had to cross a single-file, somewhat-nerve-racking footbridge over the Nam Khan River. (Don't mind the creaking and movement of the floor boards as you walk and certainly don't look down, unless of course being 90 feet above fast-swirling, muddy waters floats your boat.) [Source: Julie L. Kessler, Los Angeles Times. September 12, 2014]
Transportation and Getting to Luang Prabang
Route 13 links the city with Vang Vieng and Vientiane. The road is mountainous in some sections. Route 1 links the city to Muang Xay. The Mekong River is a heavily used transportation route. The city is in north central Laos on the Mekong River and is the capital of Louangphrabang Province. Public buses from the Northern Bus Station provide transport to Nong Khiaw. Only public minibuses provide transport to Muang Xay. Tourists must join a tour in order to rent a quality bicycle. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT)]
There are three bus stations just outside the city. Purchase tickets from a travel agent, at the bus station or when boarding. Price is higher from an agent. VIP buses are air-conditioned. However, they often have a poor suspension, are generally crowded and tend to breakdown. Even so, VIP buses provide better service than public buses. Luang Prabang International Airport is just north of city center. It is a 10-minute ride from the airport to the main riverfront area. Taxis provide transport to the city.
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.
Spending Time 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."
Luang Prabang Preservation and Restoration
According to UNESCO: All of the significant elements, especially the urban fabric and major monuments (temples, public buildings, traditional houses), have been preserved. However, there are some threats to the site due to the rapid development of the town and strong economic pressures, many of which are related to tourism (transformation of use of buildings, departure of residents, illegal construction).
”The landscapes and urban fabric retain a high degree of authenticity, and the site is not disturbed by any major construction. The religious buildings are regularly maintained; monks teach young monks restoration techniques for their heritage. Moreover, the Buddhist cult and the cultural traditions related to it (rites and ceremonies) are still alive and practiced diligently. However, the degree of the authenticity of materials and construction techniques of many houses is low, since, for a long period, unsuitable modern techniques and materials (concrete, in particular) have often been used to replace traditional materials.
“The protection of the monuments and religious buildings of Luang Prabang is ensured by Decree No. 1375: 1978 of the Ministry of National Education and Sports, under the responsibility of the national and provincial administrations of the Lao Buddhist Federation. ..The authorities have developed the tools necessary to manage the property... The religious authorities are particularly sensitive to the value of their heritage, with the support of the population. To counter the negative effects of rapid urban development, the regulations of the SEP include measures that the Department of Heritage must apply under the responsibility of the Local Heritage Committee and the National Committee.
”To respond to the new challenges (sustainable tourism, preservation of landscapes and surrounding agricultural areas), a wide buffer zone of 12,500 hectares has been defined in the context of the revision of the Urban Plan that was approved by decree of the Prime Minister in February 2012. Large projects (new town, big hotels) are deferred until their impact can be assessed in regard to the Plan. In addition, public buildings (primary school, Fine Arts School) will not be conceded to the private sector, but they will be restored and will retain their cultural vocation.”
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.
Last updated August 2020