In Luang Prabang
Travelling in Laos – 2. Three days in Luang Prabang: a beautiful city where it’s easy to lose the sense of time, but that risks losing its soul
A repetitive, mesmerizing prayer, spreading into the street. It comes from a temple, while the sunset lights up the gilded roof, it sets fire to the colours: those of the red flags, like those of the orange robes of the monks. We lay our bicycles on a wall and approach in silence. Even the loud tuk-tuks stopped for dinner, and the drivers still in the street are dozing, waiting for a client. Our memories of Luang Prabang unravel from these images. A knot of colours, sounds, smells loosens and they slowly glide, like the water of the Mekong and the Nam Khan. The memory becomes sweet, it envelops all my senses.
It’s precisely these sluggish rivers that give its distinct rhythm to the city. You see their waters flowing placid over and over, they pop out from the bottom of a street or after turning a corner. They become a constant company and you find yourself looking for them, you realize you couldn’t do without them and you end up wanting to stop for a coffee in one of the bars overlooking the river, just to let your eyes flow with the water. And with them, your imagination. I don’t know the speed of this water, but I imagine that maybe in a few days in Vientiane, 400 kilometres south of here, I will see again the same water passing in front of me now.
Luang Prabang: the atmosphere
Luang Prabang, the ancient Xieng Dong Xieng Thong, is a city of moments, rather than places. And atmosphere, more than amazement. It has to be understood and savoured slowly, moving on foot or on a bicycle, listening to the silence in a temple, looking for a moment of loneliness at the top of the holy mountain Phu Si, which divides the city in two. Only from there you realize that this city is just a patch of houses and gilded temples, embraced by water and surrounded by a boundless jungle.
Luang Prabang is a city where travelers who can, should stop for at least three or four days. And many will end up staying even more, appreciating a strong coffee in front of the river, a lao massage at the end of the day, the fish cooked in banana leaves, a walk between the lanterns on the main street. Here, among the striking contrasts of the communist flags and the coming and going of tourists, one can still find echoes of the colonial past. And maybe, staying longer, you will also find what’s behind this shining, welcoming facade that this city presents to the tourists.
A city, this is what residents say, that completely changed after 1995 when it became Unesco World Heritage. And maybe, together with tranquility, lost some of its soul. The Italian writer Tiziano Terzani feared this would happen. He wrote about it in ‘A fortune-teller told me’: he feared new invaders would come. And I realize that I one of them.
As a result, with hundreds of thousands of new visitors, the increase of prices filled the city centre with hotels. Some are beautiful, some ugly. And more are being planned, as if the city could receive an almost infinite number of tourists without becoming unrecognizable. This way the city ended up full of money-changers, travel agencies, spa, restaurants. And while the centre changed, a centrifugal movement pushed the residents and workers in dormitory suburbs where life costs less and it’s easier to save some kips, the local currency.
Even the backpackers that once stayed here for weeks now leave earlier, leaving space for large groups of Chinese or Americans tourists: prices are still low for a westerner, but often three times compared to other cities of the country. And when your trip is measured in months — as if it’s often the case in this corner of Asia — staying in a soft, golden cradle like Luang Prabang can quickly eat up the budget for weeks.
Among the temples of Luang Prabang
The growing tourism has left untouched the beauty of this place. It’s still possible to marvel at the sights, here. They are distant cities, and very different, but walking in the streets of Luang Prabang I find the slow pace, and several déja vu of my beloved Kyoto. I can find a connection between these distant places in Asia. The sound of a gong in street, the groups of young monks, the quiet, unmoving gardens are all moments of beauty that are still present in this city.
The biggest buddhist temple is the Wat Xieng Thong, isolated in the eastern tip of the peninsula at the heart of the old city. It dates back to 1560 and is one of the few that were spared by the destructions of 1877 when a violent attack of the Chinese Black Flags ravaged most of the art and the history of the city.
The monks can be seen walking in a line between the various buildings. The novices are many, some really young, and sometimes it’s possible to chat with them. Some like to practice their English as they sometimes are in a temple precisely to do that. Most buddhist lao nationals (about 65 per cent of the population) become monks at least for a few months or years of their life. It’s a way to acquire merits, but also to get an education.
The temples are numerous, and the shining roofs, the spires of the stupas pop out everywhere. It can be clearly seen from the Phu Si mountain. And it’s from these points scattered around the city that the lines of monks leave at sunrise for the famous morning alms ceremony, the Tak Bat, that recently has become some sort of circus. It’s not the monks’ fault. They try to ignore the noisy, disrespectful crowd of tourists getting too close to them, blocking their way, taking selfies, often prompted by local guides. The government has posted notices in temples and hotels, asking tourists to be respectful. Some of the points listed sound absurd (until you see it in reality), and are something like “please don’t follow the monks with a bus”. Hardly anyone, it seems, pays attention to these notices.
The temples where the monks come from are many and beautiful. Some are along the Nam Khan, like the That Pathum and Wat Wisunalat, less visited by the crowds, immersed in a quiet garden. And then there is the Wat Ho Pha Bang, with the most sacred Buddha of the city. You can’t miss it as it’s on the main street. And, eventually there is the famous Phu Si on the top of a hill, in the centre of the city. It requires some effort from the visitor, who has to climb an apparently endless series of steps. But the temple rewards with one of the most beautiful views that will be taken home from this trip.
Luang Prabang: how to get there and away
Flights land in Luang Prabang from many cities of South East Asia. There are national flights from Laos, Vientiane and from Bangkok. The airport is very small and just four kilometres from the city. A tuk-tuk to the centre shouldn’t cost more than 60.000 kip (6 euro, 8 dollars), better if less.
Night buses of various types connect Luang Prabang with Vang Vieng and Vientiane, south, and Udomxai, Luang Namtha and other destinations up north. Most of the roads are in a really bad shape and accidents do happen from time to time. But it’s practically the only way of travelling long distances in Laos. The departure (and arrival) times are approximate. It can happen to wait two hours and it will still be normal; it’s Asia, after all. Taking the night bus you won’t see the beautiful scenery. But the trips can be so rough, long and boring that I find night buses a much better option. Please be aware that sometimes it will feel like being thrown into a full speed mixer (no joke). So there is no guarantee that you will actually sleep. Roads are slowly getting better, though, so in a few years it might be a much better experience.
Boat transport on the Nam Ou and the Mekong has been seriously disrupted by dam construction on the rivers over the last few years. The only boat link to and from Luang Prabang is with Huay Xai, on the Thai border. It takes two days with a stop in Pakbeng. The large boats, for 50-60 passengers, are almost exclusively for tourists and backpackers. Sometimes, it really depends on the type of passengers, it can become like a travelling backpackers’ party with a lot of booze (also sold on board). I haven’t done it, but this is what I have read (and also read some worse reports). Please note that the boats don’t stop in Luang Prabang like they did until a few years ago but they leave the passengers ten kilometres before. From there you will have to take a tuk-tuk.
I really loved travelling on a smaller boat on the Nam Ou, a relatively narrow river that leads up north, but it can’t be normally done from Luang Prabang as the river is blocked upstream by a Chinese dam. I arranged the trip through an agency and it was beautiful.
Three days in Luang Prabang: accommodation
There are hotels for every budget. From the costly boutique hotel on the Mekong to more affordable places. I stayed three days in Luang Prabang. We really loved for a couple of days the medium range Khoum Xienthong guesthouse. It had a beautiful garden, free bicycles and a helpful host. We also tried Villa Pumalin, just behind the night market: it’s more expensive and more beautiful. But I really liked more the cheaper guesthouse.
On Laos also read Hiking in the Jungle
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All pictures and texts by Patrick Stephen Colgan. Pictures, when not otherwise specified, are licensed under the Creative Commons licence by-nc-sa. For commercial uses please contact me. Translated post from my italian blog, Orizzonti.