For reasons that are soon become apparent, Luang Prabang is often described as the ‘Jewel in Laos Crown’. Even though the town is well and truly on the tourist trail, it has nonetheless managed to preserve its natural splendor and inherent charm, exuding a missed-out-on-modernization vibe.
The majority of the city’s sights can be reached on foot, so getting a map and making your way to the many temples (33 to be exact) is a good way to soak up the surroundings and observe the way of the Lao people, and the large monk community. The wonder of the ancient temples is apparent at first glance; the gentle and unassuming nature of the locals, given the chance, will also leave a lasting impression.
These temples were recently constructed in comparison to the more historic Wat Visoun and Wat Xieng Thong. Situated at the top of 100 metre Phousi, the pinnacle of the hill is host to many temples.
The gilded stupor at the top of the hill is built on a huge rock and glistens brilliantly over the horizon. The abandoned temple of Wat Pa Huak resides a short walk away from the top with a wide terrace that overlooks the museum.
Royal Palace Museum
Built as a residence for King Sisavang Vong and his family in 1904 by the French, like Wat Xieng Thong the palace was built on the riverfront, to be in direct view of arriving official visitors. Displaying traditional Laos motifs fused with French beaux-art styles, many of the rooms have been preserved since the day of the revolution when the royal family was forced into exile by the Pathet Lao.
Locals believe the palace to be haunted by ghosts and few will venture inside after dark. Inside, the walls feature murals and paintings depicting typical Laos life. It is advisable to visit the place first to stock up on some knowledge before taking the temple tours, ultimately making them more interesting.
The Feeding of the Monks
The saffron clad monks in Luang Prabang occupy a generous proportion of conversational and visual space. Watching or taking part in the morning food procession that sees the monks walking through and collecting food donations from locals is a heart-warming and culturally telling experience.
Each temple takes a different route around town, making sure that there is a steady flow and pace as the monks receive their alms (food donations). Woman should note that you must always keep your head lower than the monks’ and your feet (always bare) should never ever be pointed at anyone. It’s considered a grave insult. Also your shoulders and knees should be covered. The novices are happy to practice their English with tourists so feel free to indulge in some light-hearted conversation and perhaps learn something new about Laos culture.
Wat Wisunarat (Wat Visoun)
Built in 1513, this is the oldest temple in Luang Prabang. Originally built with wood the temple was remade with brick and stucco after it was set fire to by Black Haw riders in 1887. The sloping-style of the roof is a distinctive feature due to the fact that it is a not a common Laotian design trait. Inside the building is a stupa that was commissioned in 1503, complete with small Buddha images made from precious materials and sacred objects, many of which were stolen when the Haw invaded the temple.
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong is a masterpiece of Buddhist architecture from the 16th century, impressing visitors with its golden facades and mural paintings. The temple was used for the highest royal ceremonies and to temporarily house the bodies of deceased kings. Built in 1560, by King Setthathirat, Wat Xieng Thong remained in royal benefaction until 1975. Placed on the northern tip of Luang Prabang, the magnificent structure is fringed by the river.
The sim (main building) is thought to represent classic Luang Prabang architecture with its sweeping roofs. The rear wall of the sim has an interesting ‘tree of life’ mosaic set on a red background and the temple’s interior is stenciled with gold images of the former King Chanthaphanit (of whom no written history exists). A smaller adjoining building, houses a reclining Buddha created in classic Lao style – a rarity.