Luang Prabang in northern Laos is small enough for exploration by foot. In fact, planning how to get there from the Philippines is an even more difficult task. With no direct flights from the Philippines, we opted to take this route: Manila to Bangkok to Luang Prabang to Hanoi to Manila by air. The choice, of course, depended on flight schedules and the cost. Other options are available, also by air, via Singapore or Siem Reap. For those who have the luxury of time, there are buses from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. But beware, it’s not called nightmare bus or hell bus without a reason.
We took the 1.5-hour Lao Airlines flight from Bangkok to Luang Prabang. The aircraft is as small as the ones flying from Manila to Coron, where the number of passengers is like equivalent to one bus. We arrived Luang Prabang about 30 minutes later than scheduled, not because of air traffic congestion but because of the cloudy weather. Our aircraft went circling for an extended time until it found an opportunity to break through the clouds. I have experienced a combination of small aircraft and turbulence before but I guess this is one thing I’ll never get used to.
(Photo by M. Sicat)
Luang Prabang International Airport – great views outside
Anyhow, we have landed safely and I was happy to be welcomed by the cool weather (went in December). From the airport, the Luang Prabang center is about 5 km away. We saw a van picking up passengers at 25,000 kips (~ 3 USD) each. The arrangement is on a house-to-house basis so we thought, not bad. Besides, we had no other choice because at 7 PM, the airport and its vicinity is already singing to the tune of “Closing Time”. Singharat Guesthouse was our home for our three days stay in LP.
On Day 1, we were able to get to sights at the outskirts of Luang Prabang like the Kuang Si Waterfalls and Pak Ou caves. Our two more days were spent exploring Luang Prabang town proper, one day on foot and one day by bicycle.
Here’s what we’ve covered around this UNESCO World Heritage site in two days:
Phou Si Hill
We found two ways to enter Phou Si Hill: along Sisavangvong Road, just in front of the Royal Palace, or from the Nam Khan side, where the stairs lead up to a dark cave with small Buddha statues and to Buddha’s footprint temple. The entrance facing the Royal Palace is the shorter route. Entrance fee is 20,000 kips.
Stairway to the top coming from the Royal Palace side
Underneath this is a small cave, where more small Buddha images can be found. The cave was too dark for me to capture a decent photo. You will encounter this if coming from or getting down at the Nam Khan side
Believed to be Buddha’s footprint. If this is true, then Buddha must have a giant size foot. (Pardon the poor shot.)
At the top of Phou Si Hill is the That Chomsi temple
Locals offering prayers at the That Chomsi temple
A panoramic view of the city at the top, surrounded by jagged mountains
The Nam Khan River on the left
The Royal Palace, along the touristy Sisavangvong Road, houses the Luang Prabang National Museum, the Royal Palace Theater and the very ornate Haw Pha Bang or the Royal Temple, which I found photogenic on every side.
Royal Palace Garden
The National Museum used to be the royal palace for King Sisavangvong. Entrance fee is 30,000 kips. The museum is open daily except Tuesdays at 8:00 AM to 11:30 AM and 1:30 PM to 4:30 PM. Photos are not allowed so I can only show you the facade of the museum. Likewise, bags and shoes are not allowed, so lockers are provided before the entrance. The museum displays paintings of the Lao monarchy, art collection, the royal family’s rooms and furniture, and classical musical instruments. My favorite part is a large colorful hall covered with cut mirrored tile mosaics, similar to that found in the Wat Xie Thong.
The National Museum
Haw Pha Bang is just at the right of the Royal Palace entrance. It houses the Pha Bang Buddha, which is said to have been the image , offered by Cambodia, used to spread Theravada Buddhism in Luang Prabang. That was where the name Prabang came from, from Pha Bang to now Prabang.
Haw Pha Bang
The multi-faceted roof structure of the temple
Statue of King Sisavang Vong
The Royal Palace Theater is at the left from the Royal Palace’s entrance. Cultural performances are held every Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 6:30 PM. Prices range from 100,000 to 150,000 kips. We bought the 100,000 kips ticket. The theater is old and small, so for me, the 100,000-kip ticket for the back row seat is still a good spot.
They played Episode 4 of the Indian epic, Ramayana, in Lao version during the time we watched. A single episode is played per day for about an hour. A handout of the episode’s summary in English is provided before entering the theater.
There were Lao, English and French introductions before the performance. The performance is composed of dancing and acting, while beautiful music from traditional instruments are played on the background, so understanding of the plot is all that matters. Costumes, performances and music were great. I just find some of the dancing to be too long and dragging…or maybe, I just need a little more ounce of cultural performance appreciation. Hehe. I was also a bit distracted of the mosquitoes biting my legs. You won’t blame me for getting paranoid over these mosquitoes, not after having fought dengue from my country months ago. But overall, I commend all the artists in this performance for keeping the Laotian tradition alive.
Colored mirror mosaic tiles inside the theater
Fusion of Lao and French Architecture
One cannot escape the hints of European occupation in Luang Prabang. A stroll around town will show you traditional Lao structures made of wood mixed with French-style buildings. Many guesthouses lining the street along Mekong river and Sisavang vong Road have brightly painted doors and shuttered windows that are reminiscent of French colonial era.
Traditional Lao buildings made of wood
Unique ATM booths in Luang Prabang
Shuttered doors and windows are typical in Luang Prabang
Aside from architecture, what makes this small town charming is the cleanliness of the streets and the tranquility in the absence of buses or trucks (only bicycles, tuk tuks, some mini vans and even electric vehicles). The place is touristy, but for me, it still retains the authenticity that is Laos. The main streets are lined with guesthouses, cafes and small restaurants, but at least there are no noisy pubs that run until the wee hours (sorry for the party-goers).
The Mekong River and Nam Khan River stretch
The main street along the Mekong River is lined with riverfront restaurants on one side and guesthouses/ hotels on the other.
Walking further at the point of confluence of the Nam Khan River to the Mekong River, at the tip of the peninsula, is a bamboo bridge. However, there is a fee of 7,000 kips to cross the bridge. Before the bridge is a sign that the fee goes to Mr. Bounmee and his family who builds the bridge every year at his own cost. It could be that the bridge is washed away every year during rainy season when the level of water is high.
A man building a boat at the side of the bamboo bridge
We crossed the bridge, walked a little more until we found Wat Xiengleck. The sign before the bridge says that the bamboo bridge leads to the paper village, where one can see paper making, textile galleries, weaving and wood carving. However, we have been walking for quite a number hours by the time we reached Wat Xiengleck and our brain directs our feet to go back to the main street and search for a place to eat, instead.
There is another bamboo bridge along the Nam Khan river, near the entrance to Phou Si Hill. We didn’t cross this though.
Luang Prabang Temples
The town is dense with temples that it’s impossible to stroll around Luang Prabang without bumping into one. To my untrained eye, the temples or Wats in Luang Prabang look almost standard in terms of design. Most have multi-tiered golden roofs, and are richly decorated with sculptures or engravings.
Because of the many temples in the area, I am dedicating a separate blog on this.
Morning alms or Tak Bat
Many temples equals many monks. During early morning, around 5:30 AM, hundreds of bright orange-cloaked monks line the streets of Luang Prabang to collect morning offerings. We waited along Sakkaline Road near Wat Sensoukharam. Before the procession, we already saw a long row of mats and stools lined on the side streets, as well as vendors selling rice in basket bowls, candies and biscuits. I even saw tourist guides coaching their paying tourists the right way of giving alms, as if they are performers practicing for their once in a lifetime performances.
Donations for sale
Sadly, there were more tourists than locals, I think, giving alms to the monks. The silent procession of bright orange-clad monks, walking barefooted, seems endless. It might have been a more sincere and authentic scene if not for the number of tourists swarming around the line of monks. Well, I did not participate in the alms giving nor desired to take a selfie showing myself giving out alms, but yes, I was guilty of being just like any other tourists taking a lot photos of the scene. I was cautious, however, to not get into their way or fire a flash on them. It is also bothering how the locals had resorted to use the alms as commodities. We also saw some pails at the side of the queue where other monks would “dispose” some of the goodies given them. I am not sure if that means they do not want them or they already have excess of those. What also comes to mind is, “Who takes these pails of “rejects”? Maybe resold to tourists? The dark side of recycling…
The Night Market is located along the stretch of Sisavang vong Road, also known as the Tourist Street because of the major sites, guesthouses, restaurants, convenience stores and of course, the Night Market, that can be found here. The vendors set up their tents at around 6 PM and close at about 10 PM. The tents are set up in two or three long rows along the street. The tents stand so close to one another that you have to complete walking in one row until the end for you to take a turn to the other rows. For those searching for souvenirs, the Night Market is the best place to get it. After all, the night market was intended for tourists.
Night street food
The Night Street Food is located close to the night market, near the Tourist Information Center. I always find it hard to be judgmental about foods because I am not so critical about tastes or flavors. As long as I get my stomach satisfied, it’s good. All I can tell is that street food in Luang Prabang is tasty and satisfying. You will find a variety of foods like spring rolls, noodles, grilled fish and meat, fried rice, fruit shakes and desserts.
Just a note, most if not all of the food stalls serve food in polystyrene packs. I do not know about the solid waste management situation in this town, but disposable items converts to more solid wastes. That said, it would have been better to use reusable or washable plates and utensils.
That’s our banana crepe, the making
Coconut cream cakes
Capturing Luang Prabang locals on the streets
I enjoyed taking photos of the locals on the streets of Luang Prabang, doing their daily activities. I find the traditional clothing of elders especially interesting.
Kids playing after school
Bagets selling baguettes
Overall, I find Luang Prabang charming, with its cultural sites located within a small town, surrounded by mountains and nourished with two rivers forming its peninsula.
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