THE ANCIENT CITY of Luang Prabang in north-central Laos appeared only slightly changed from our last visit, some eight years ago. To be perfectly frank, Luang Prabang has remained virtually unchanged in some respects for centuries but rapidly changed in other ways due to the increase in tourism.. This elegant, former capital sits on the banks of the Mekong River and is known as one of the three seats of Lao culture. After one and a half days of roughing it on a Mekong River boat cruise, the charming colonial vintage wooden houses were greatly appreciated. We came across two fine examples of local architecture in a street opposite the pier: The Sansamone Guesthouse and The Antique House.
The weekend we arrived, the Lao National Youth Games (Gila Yaowachone) were underway in a large fair ground close to the city; all tents and stalls by day, music and neon lights by night. Preparations are underway for the forthcoming Sea Games in 2009, and the people of Luang Prabang are expecting vast numbers of visitors for this prestigious event.
The city has a population of around 25,000; 75% of whom are Buddhist, many representing the 68 tribes in the province who, dressed in colorful costumes, come to sell their wares each day at the city's Phosy market.
We drove to the Grand Hotel, a collection of colonial buildings connected by colonnaded walkways across a courtyard, and enjoying a magnificent panorama of the mighty Mekong. Guests can enjoy a buffet breakfast on the terrace by the riverside, and later wander through a museum in the former home of Lao nationalist hero-Prince Petcharath that sits in the hotel's compound.
That evening, we dined at the beautiful Indochine Spirit restaurant, enjoying fried chicken and mixed vegetables, gaeng orm, pla paad ped, tohmsom gai soup and gluai cheram for dessert.
Taking an after dinner stroll, we wandered down a walking street for shoppers that, in October of 2006, was some 300 meters in length, and is now almost one kilometer long with simple stalls carrying most things that visitors would wish to buy. There are many shops and small bistros where the shopper can take a break with hot coffee and pastries.
Like Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang boasts many beautiful temples. There are 36 temples within the small municipality. Perhaps the grandest of which is Wat Xieng Thong, situated on an embankment of the Mekong. The wat itself is most impressive, with a low sweeping double-tiered roof covering exquisite interior and exterior decoration in classic Luang Prabang style. There are various chapels and other buildings that combine to make this monastery complex an architectural treasure. An ornately carved funeral carriage, for the last king who died in 1965, is housed in one of the monasteries buildings with the compound.
The former royal palace is now the city's museum. There are several large buildings located there. Cameras, personal bags, and purses are not allowed to be carried inside. Hats must be removed. There is an admission charge (and at every wat we visited).On display are many collections of artefacts as well as the gifts presented by countries and visiting royalty until the l970's.
We next visited a co-operative weaving centre at Baan Phanom where visitors can see the variety of the ancient skill of hand-weaving cottons and silks. Another village specializing in weaving and the sale of woven textiles is Baan Sang Hong.
Back in town, we visited the sacred golden Buddha image at the 500 year old Wat Visoun. Our guide explained that the unusual posture of this image, with the Buddha's arms extended toward the ground, his palms open to the worshippers. This, we were told, is known as Buddha opening up the world. Inside this ancient temple, we received the traditional Lao blessing of "Kaw hai kaeng, yai, yao," wishing that each of us achieve strength, positions of power and long life.
We then drove out of the city to inspect the popular Villa Santi hotel with 58 rooms, including three suites, and a massage centre.Guests enjoy cool drinks under wide umbrellas by an inviting swimming pool.
A typical menu and along with prices as of March 2007 was: Lao Beer US$ 3.00 Fruit Shake US$2.50. Pad Thai noodles US$3.00- Lao Fried Rice US$3.00- Tuna Sandwich is US$3.00- (We never ate at restaurants in the market.) Exchange rates were often posted. 1 Baht = 270 kip, 1 US$ = 9500 kip, 1US$ 36 Baht up to 38 Baht.
Following this was a one hour drive south to visit the Kuang Xi waterfall, about 37 kilometers from the city. On the way we passed through villages whose inhabitants are paid salaries by the European Union to ensure that the teak trees in the area continue to flourish.
The spectacular waterfall is located in an ideal area deep in the forest, away from human habitation. It makes a perfect place for rest and relaxation. Also great for the kiddies in the family, is the chance to see the Thapene park housing a tiger and a bear in cages.
Returning to the city we enjoyed massages before taking an evening stroll through the labyrinth of old streets, spotting many fine restaurants on our travels. Both L'Elephant, which Chiang Mai friends had raved about, and the Three Elephants restaurants looked most inviting. The Blue Lagoon and the Couleur Café were also heavily patronized. La Residence Phou Lao offers 32 rooms for lodging and is one of the new boutique places to stay.
Later in the evening we popped into the Pizza Luang Prabang where the topic of conversation was the latest craze among young travelers who visit the remote village of Vang Viang, that of "Tubing".
Participants get themselves into inner tubes and hurtle down a fast flowing river. Vang Viang is a six-hour bus ride from Luang Prabang.
Back at the Grand Hotel, and trying to put those "delicacies" out of our minds, we ate a hearty breakfast on the terrace and watched the several boats slowly travel up the river. Then it was all aboard our Lao Airlines flight for the trip home to Chiang Mai.
Gazing down from the plane, the golden stupa of Vat Chamsi on the Phousi Mount can be seen along with the Mekong river flowing passed. It's a superb view of the many golden stupas shining in the afternoon sun. The next time we visit, we really will have to make the effort to climb the 328 steps to admire the glorious colors of the sunset. We have wonderful memories of our visit to Luang Prabang, and have vowed not to stay away so long next time.
Thanks to: MODERN 9, the travel experts for Laos and Vietnam. Tel. 053208441-2 . They arranged all accommodations, meals and tour itinerary. Lao Airlines provided the smooth flight. Chiang Mai Office, Tel. 053 223 401, Mobile 081-882-7831.
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