Saffron robes and gilded temples in Luang Prabang

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January 13th 2010
Published: April 7th 2010
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We both loved our few days in the gorgeous city of Luang Prabang! After leaving Vang Vieng by bus, a 5 hour winding trip through beautiful mountain scenery took us to the UNESCO listed city. This city was placed on the World Heriatge list in 1995 (only 6 years after Laos opened to tourism) and this has played a large part in preserving the traditional architecture. Enroute we passed dozens of tiny roadside villages, each one full of bare bottomed kids, hairy black pigs and palm leaf houses. We were dropped at the usual edge of town bus station where we caught a tuktuk to the tourist area of the city. Leaving Jerry in a cafe I started wandering the narrow cobbled side streets (once all dirt paths), which led down to the Mekong River, in the search for a guesthouse. Behind us I could see a large hill (Phu Si) which was actually in the centre of a peninsula - the historic area of Luang Prabang sits on a peninsula formed by the confluence of two rivers, the Mekong and Nam Khan. The hotels were much more expensive then many we had stayed in but I eventually found a comfortable room in a family house for fifteen dollars a night. It was also just down the road from a bakery with wifi which we decided would be an ideal breakfast venue! Surprisingly guest houses and hotels with wifi weren't as common as other towns in Laos. After spending the afternoon sightseeing - we enjoyed a long slow walk along the riverbanks which was edged with many up market cafes and guesthouses - we knew that we were really going to enjoy the next few days in this beautiful city.
That evening we headed off to find the night market which was renowned for the handicrafts it sold. It wasn't hard to find as it was enormous - the entire length of the main street was full of dozens of tents, all stacked with Hmong applique pieces, bags, scarves, silver, paper products - it was a mass of colour! There was no hard selling - very unusual in a tourist market - so that made it a pleasure to browse in. The city looked even prettier lit with many bamboo lanterns, strings of tiny lights and candles. There were many tourists shopping and enjoying meals at the many cafes in the renovated French houses lining the market edge.
Next morning we visited some of the magnificent wats which dotted the streets. Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham had a five tiered roof line and a gorgeous ornate gilded verandah - red ceiling, gold walls and black and gold pillars. And that was just the outside! Inside was even more spectacular - all red and gilt. The next wat we visited is considered Luang Prabang's most magnificent - it was built in 1560, was spared (thankfully) during a war in 1887 and today it's exterior is covered in sparkling mosaics - the most beautiful depicting the 'tree of life'. Again it was a riot of gold and black stencilled walls, golden Buddhas and elaborately carved wooden pillars. Totally overwhelmed by this splendour we spent the rest of the day sitting in various street cafes watching the constantly changing procession of locals, tourists and saffron robed monks. Everywhere you looked you saw monks, of all ages, walking around the streets. One of the highlights of any trip to the city is to get up early and watch the morning procession of monks collecting alms from the local people.
Next morning we did just that - we got up in the dark and headed out into the streets to watch the morning procession of monks collecting alms. All along the footpath locals had set up bamboo mats and were kneeling on them waiting for the monks to arrive. Each person had bunches of lotus flowers, baskets of sticky rice and other packaged grocery items ready to hand to the monks as they filed passed. What an amazing spectacle it was! There were hundreds of monks in the procession which walked quickly down the streets as dawn broke. Each one was carrying his metal alms bowl on a strap across his body and he bowed his head as a portion of food was placed into his bowl. In turn every so often a monk would scoop out a handful of rice and place it in buckets that some street children were collecting food in as well. As you can see from the photographs the glorious orange robes literally glowed in the morning light. It was certainly a highlight of our time in Luang Prabang.
The streets were made for bicycle riding so after our bakery breakfast we hired bikes and set off pedalling up and down the many paths and narrow roads, checking out the morning markets (as fascinating as usual - though we were surprised to see squirrels - dead - for sale). We cycled across the river into one of the smaller villages but the roads were pretty rough and there being nothing there that we hadn't seen before soon came back into the town proper. It was a fabulous day - lots of stops to check out interesting shops (full of stunning craft and jewellery), enjoy fruit shakes and explore the Royal Palace Museum. The building was a mix of Lao and French architecture, built in 1904 on the banks of the Mekong, and today the locals think it is haunted by spirits of the royal family who were exiled by the government in 1975. They died, whilst imprisoned, from lack of food and medical care between 1977 and 1981- to this day the whereabouts of their bodies has never been released. The King's reception hall was the highlight of the tour - the walls (red) are covered in murals depicting traditional Lao life - brightly painted and inset with mosaics. They were quite beautiful. They took 8 craftsmen three and a half years to complete. One room contained diplomatic gifts presented to the Royal family during their reign. As well there were many silver, gold, bronze and crystal Buddha images. That evening we attended a performance of dancers wearing vivid coloured silk and gold costumes as they danced the traditional dances. The music played as they danced was particularly enjoyable. The performance was in the Royal Theatre which was in the grounds of the Palace.
We couldn't resist another early morning next day watching the monks' procession again before catching a tuk tuk to the river and boarding a boat with four other people for a two hour trip up the Mekong River to visit the Pak Ou Caves. We enjoyed the trip - the scenery was very pretty, lots of villagers fishing in small boats, water buffalo and farms, plus more beautiful limestone karsts lining the horizon. We stopped at a very commercial village - there were far too many stalls selling scarves.... Upon arriving at the caves we were a bit disappointed as they weren't very exciting - it contained hundreds of Buddha statues, many of them broken. Certainly nothing that we hadn't seen before. Were we getting a bit travel weary??
Our visit that afternoon by taxi to the many tiered Tat Kuang Si Waterfall, 32 klms south of the city was worth the trip though. It was a very pretty, though very busy, spot - pretty gardens, turquoise pools and even a bear rehabilitation centre, The bears were fun to watch - you could get very close - I thoroughly enjoyed one little one swing in a bamboo hammock!
Our last day in Luang Prabang was spent apart - Jerry had a quiet day (and a massage) and I spent the day with our New Zealand friend Ruth who had arrived in the city the day before. We had a great day checking out the shops and generally catching up with each others news. We enjoyed a meal together that evening before going our separate ways - hopefully to meet again some day!
What a stunning city Luang Prabang was - it was a place I've always wanted to visit and it certainly didn't disappoint me. But we couldn't stay for ever and next day caught another bus further north into the country - we were headed to the town of Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing (a region close to the Chinese border where 23 ethnic minority groups live) - and a eight hour bus trip away!

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