The city of Luang Prabang (officially titled 'Nakhon Luang Prabang', but more commonly known locally as 'Muang Luang') is finally beginning to wake up from a long slumber brought on by decades of war and revolution. The population for the entire capital district is 63,000 but the municipality itself has only around 16,000 residents which is not much of an increase over the 10,000 residents registered when August Pavie governed the city under the French. Only a few concessions have been made to the modern world save for electricity and growing numbers of cars, trucks and motorcycles; rush hour occurs when school lets out and the streets are filled with bicycles.
Luang Prabang has become a tourist attraction mainly because of its historic emples - around 32 of the original 66 built before the era of French colonization are still standing - and because of its delightful mountain-encircled setting, about 700m above sea level at the confluence of the Nam Khan and the Mekong River. As well as exemplary half-millennium-old monasteries, such as War Xieng Thong and Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, Luang Prabang also boasts the magnificent Royal Palace Museum.
The city's mix of gleaming temple roofs, crumbling French provincial architecture and the multi-ethnic population (Hmong, Mien and Thai tribal people can often be seen walking around town on their way to and from the markets) tends to enthrall even the most jaded travelers. The availability of reasonably priced accommodation keeps many visitors staying on longer than they had planned.
Much of this may change now that Rte 13 has been paved all the way through to Luang Prabang from Vientiane, allowing same-day road travel between the two cities for the first time in Lao history. Another paved highway will eventually link Luang Prabang with the Chinese border, turning the city into a relay point for China - Laos -Thailand commerce. Luckily a road bypass system has been constructed so that the highway doesn't run straight through the city, and the old iron bridge straight into the heart of the city from the north has been closed to car and truck traffic. The city's 1995 ascension to Unesco World Heritage status may yet save the golden goose
The Preservation of Luang Prabang
Marthe Bassene, a French woman married to 'l colonial doctor, wrote in her published journal of 1909:
'Oh ! What a delightful paradise of idleness this country protects, by the fierce barrier of the stream, against progress and ambition for which it has no need ! Will Luang Prabang be, in our century of exact sciences, of quick profits, of victory by money, the refuge of the last dreamers, the last lovers, the last troubadours ? As if to answer Bassene's rhetorical question with a resounding affirmative, Unesco's World Heritage program and its many independent supporters began lobbying in the early 1990s to have the city added to the World Heritage list. In a preliminary survey Unesco pronounced Luang Prabang 'the best preserved city in South-East Asia' and on 2 December 1995 the organisation placed the city's name on the register, which makes the city eligible for UN funds for preservation. Luang Prabang's future now seems to be relatively assured.
The historical and cultural heart of the city straddles a peninsula measuring 1 km long by 250m wide inside the confluence of the Nam Khan (Khan River) and the Mekong River. Here are found the city's most important religious edifices along with the residences of the former nobility and trading aristocracy. It is a graceful neighborhood of ponds and coconut palms, with old wooden or colombage (bamboo lattice daubed with natural mortar) homes in the traditional Lao style; brick-and-stucco colonial buildings with tiled roofs; and neocolonial houses that mix Lao and French motifs, with ground-floor walls of brick and plaster and upper-floor walls of wood. Although a few French administrative buildings near the Junction of Thanon Phothialat and Thanon Kltsalat date to between 1909 and 1920, most of the old colonial buildings now standing were constructed between 1920 and 1925. Unesco has one French architect, one Japanese architect and five Lao architects working full-time in Luang Prabang. So far they have identified over 700 historic structures in the city and classified them by construction methods and materials. In the next phase, pending approval from the Lao government, the project will develop an architectural typology and each edifice will be granted some degree of legal protection according to its perceived importance to world heritage. In addition to he preservation and restoration of local architecture, the program calls for a careful review of any new construction and for the restoration and conservation of natural wetlands within the city lim- its. So far, Laos has not enacted a single piece of protective legislation.
If the Unesco team is successful in its endeavours to preserve and even enhance Luang Prabang's charm, they will have helped Laos's most important tourist attraction attain a level of sustainability that few places in Asia have been able to maintain. In this the city can truly be called a 'refuge of the last dreamers'.
Proposed Heritage Fee
Authorities in Luang Prabang are discussing a proposed plan to collect a US$2 'Heritage Fee' from all incoming tourists. Such a fee, most likely to be collected by guesthouses and hotels, would be used exclusively for the preservation and conservation of Luang Prabang.
Those behind the plan claim that such a fee could playa significant role in helping tourism con-tribute to heritage preservation. While such funds would undoubtedly help, it would be even more encouraging to see the Lao shoulder some of the responsibility for city preservation by creating and enforcing laws that would prevent greedy developers from building high-rise buildings, such as the New Luang Prabang Hotel, in the middle of the historic district.
When migrating Thai-Lac settled the peninsular junction between the Mekong River and the Nam Khan, they brought with them a new, and seemingly more democratic, form of social organization than had until then been common in mainland South-East Asia. Instead of structuring a city in a radial plan at the disposal of an emperor who presided over the centre with his subjects and slaves at the perimeter (as at Chenla, Funan or Angkor), they organized their meuang by linking small communities of houses, each centered around a Buddhist temple. Rather than bending to a central municipal government, these muu baan (villages) within the meuang set their own rules of civil conduct. Only in times of crisis, eg, war or agricultural shortages, would the villages join together to act as a unit.
Luang Prabang is the most intact example remaining in South-East Asia of this once-common urban plan. The current village clusters are thought to date back to the 14th century, and many residents still identify more with their village neighborhoods than with Luang Prabang as a city.
Following this 14th-century structure, most of the longer roadways through town parallel the river, while shorter roads - once mere footpaths - bisect the larger roads and lead to the riverbanks, often serving as dividing lines between different villages. Each village is named for its local war, eg, Ban Khili for Wat Khili, Ban Haw Siang for Wat Haw Siang.
A large hill called Phu Si (sometimes spelt Phousi or Phousy) dominates the town skyline towards the middle of the peninsula formed by the confluence of the two rivers. Most of the historic temples are located between Phu Si and the Mekong, while the trading district lies to the south of the hill. Virtually the whole town can be seen on foot in a day or two, though many visitors extend their stay here in order to soak up more atmosphere.
The official street names in Luang Prabang have changed at least three times over the last decade, so you'll find that naming varies widely on city maps and address cards. Until very recently, naming local streets for Lao royalty, particularly the penultimate king (Sisavang Vong) and his son (Sisavang Vatthana), was definitely out of government favor. All of that appears to have changed since the city was granted Unesco World Heritage status, and the city government now seems to acknowledge its royal patrimony.
Currently the main street heading northeast up the peninsula is called Thanon Phothisalat at its south-western end, Thanon Sisavangvong in its middle reach and Thanon Sakkalin towards the north-eastern end. Thanon Sakkalin is also sometimes known as Thanon Xieng Thong. If Unesco had its way it might restore the name to Avenue Auguste Pavie, the street's original French colonial name! The road that runs along the Mekong waterfront is variously known as Souvanna- khamphong, Oun Kham and Suvannabanlang, although most locals call it Thanon
Kham Khong. When giving directions, the locals fortunately almost never quote street names, using landmarks instead.
Easy-to-reach attractions outside of town include the Pak Ou caves to the north, which are usually reached by river, and the' waterfalls of Kuang Si and Tat Sac to the south, reached by road.
Guides & Maps A particularly good French guidebook to the town, though very hard to find, is Louang Probang by Thao Boun Souk (pen name for Pierre-Marie Gagneaux), which was published in 1974 by the now defunct Bulletin des Amis du Royaume Lao. Local tour guides rely heavily on this little book, though local historians question some of its dates in light of new research.
The National Tourism Authority of Laos (NTAL) and National Gcographic Service released a good bilingual co lour map of the city, Luang Probang Tourist Map No 2 in 1994 - it's available at the main tourist hotels for around US$2.
Tourist Offices The tourist office (212019) is opposite Wat Wisunalat on Thanon Wisunalat, near the Lao Red Cross. The sign reaps 'Department of Commerce and Tourists. Opening hours are unspotted and erratic, and the office is of very little use to most visitors. Unesco World Heritage Information The Unesco project maintains an office and information centre in the old customs house on Thanon Sakkalin at the north-eastern tip of the peninsula. Immigration The main immigration office (212435) is on Thanon Pha Mahapatsarnan, south-west of Lao Aviation.
Money Banque pour 1e Commerce Exterieur Lao (13CEL),just north of Lao Aviation, will exchange Thai baht, US, Australian and Canadian dollars, French and Swiss francs, German marks and UK pounds - cash or travelers chouse" - for kip. The bank normally won't change in the other direction because of a claimed shortage of these currencies. They also take Visa credit cards for kip only (same exchange rate as dollars) with a US$100 minimum, charging a 3% commission fee for this service. The bank is open 8.30am to 3.30pm Monday to Saturday.
Lane Xang Bank, at 65 Thanon Sisavangvong near the New Luang Prabang Hotel, offers all the same services. It also has an exchange booth located inside the post office.
Lao May Bank has a small branch on Thanon Sisavangvong next to Healthy & Fresh Bakery. This bank will exchange your cash or travelers chouse and will give cash advances against Visa cards (31/2% fee), Lao May doesn't charge a commission for American Express (AmEx) chouse. It's open Ram to J.30plll Monday to Friday. Post & Communications The old French-built post office was vacated in favor of a gleaming modern edifice on the comer of Thanon Chao Fa Ngum and Thanon Setthathilat, opposite the Phousy Hotel. Domestic and international phone calls can be made at a window inside the post office, down a corridor to the right inside the entrance, and at a phone card booth at the front of the post office; cards may be purchased inside. The post office is open 8.30am to 5pm Monday to Friday.
The modern telephone office around the corner from the post office has been closed for well over a year. PlaNet Online (218972 ) has a branch in Luang Prabang on the corner of Thanon Sisavangvong and Thanon Sisavang Vatthana. It offers Internet access in air-conditioned comfort; free coffee and satellite TV are available while you wait for a terminal. It's open 8am to 8pm Monday to Saturday, 9am to 8pm Sunday. There are a couple of smaller Internet cafes nearby on Thanon Sisavangvong. Travel Agencies Although the Luang Prabang Travel & Tour Company (212198. 212728), on Thanon Sisavangvong would like you to think it still has a monopoly on tourism services in the city (as in the pre - privatization days), it's just one of several tour agencies in town. Others include Diethelm (212277, fax 212032) on Thanon Sakkalin, Inter-Lac Tourism (fax 212034) on Thanon Setthathilat and Lao Travel Service (212725, fax 212252) on Thanon Sakkalin.
All basically offer the same sorts of one- to three-day tours around the province, including visits to hill-tribe villages (though none is permitted to provide overnight village treks). Lane Xang Travel (212793) seems to be the most receptive to individual travelers looking for different kinds of itineraries.
Medical Services The Provincial Hospital, on the western side of Thanon Setthathilat, and a Chinese-funded clinic opposite are the only public medical facilities in Luang Prabang. Neither receive bigh or even average marks from foreign medical observers. Foreign visitors with serious injuries or illnesses are almost always flown back to Vientiane for emergency transit to hospitals in north-eastern Thailand, or put on direct flights to Chiang Mai.
Boua Phanh Pharrnacie across from the old French school on Thanon Sakkalin is one of the better pharmacies in town.
Dangers & Annoyances During the late dry season, roughly from February to May, the air over Luang Prabang can become very smoky due to slash-and-burn agriculture in the hills and mountains around the city. It becomes so bad in March and April that even local residents will complain of red, watery eyes and breathing difficulties. Landscape photography is hopeless, except on the rare day when a strong breeze flushes out the valley. With the arrival of rain in late Mayor June, the air clears and generally stays that way until the following year. One hopes the authorities will get a handle on the situation before all the forests are gone, and extensive erosion and flooding result.
If you're in Luang Prabang on your own, a simple walking circuit around the northeastern quarter" of town will take you to most of the historic attractions and sight- seeing spots. You might want to do this circuit in two stages - one part in the coolness of early morning and another in the late afternoon - with time off in between for lunch and a rest. Most of the highlighted sights mentioned here are described in detail later in this chapter.
An easy morning walk might start at the bustling Talat Dala. The area surrounding this market is Luang Prabang's commercial nerve centre, and you'll find all sorts of intriguing as well as very mundane shops and vendors here. From the market, head southeast along Thanon Setthathilat, passing the Provincial Hospital on the right and more shops on the left.
At the next big crossroads, turn left and continue past the Rama Hotel. On the left about 150m past the hotel stands Wat Wisunalat, one of the city's oldest temples. At the eastern end of the temple compound is the bulbous That Makmo - the Watermelon Stupa. Adjacent to the northern side of the temple is another older temple, Wat Aham, which is known for its two large and venerable banyan trees.
Exiting from the east entrance to Wat Aham, bear left (north-west) onto the somewhat busy road that connects central Luang Prabang with the airport. Continue north-west until this road terminates and bear right, following the road that winds its way between the Nam Khan below on the right and Phu Si above on the left. As you continue north-east along this road you'll pass several views of river life below. If you are hungry, look out for informal eating places along the riverbank nearby. Or you can walk up the steep, zigzagging naga or water serpent stairs to Wat Thammothayalan. one of the few active monasteries on Phu Si, for good views of the Nam Khan.
For the second half of this walking circuit, start at the Royal Palace Museum. From the museum, go north-east on Thanon Sisavangvong towards the eastern end of the peninsula formed by the confluence of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan. Along this road you'll pass several temples of minor note, including Wat Saen, Wat Sop, Wat Sirimungkhun and Wat Si Bun Heuang, all lined up along the left (nor them) side of the street. These are interspersed with a number of charming brick-and-stucco French colonial buildings on both sides of the street, along with some of the traditional wood-and-mortar houses and hybrid French-Lao brick dwellings. Most of the colonial buildings were built during the I 920s and 1930s. When you reach the end of the road, bear left and follow the river bend round to Wat Xieng Thong, one of the town's premier temples and well worth spending some time at. After you've had your fill of this wat, exit towards the river and head west (left) on the river road. On your left you'll pass side streets that lead to small, older temples that the usual guided tour itineraries don't include - Wat Pa Phai, Wat Xieng Muan and Wat Chum Khong. Wat Xieng Muan is home to an arts school for monks.
When you pass the rear side or the Royal Palace Museum on your left, take the next left turn and follow the short road south back to Thanon Sisavangvong, where you'll come to Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham noted for its exterior gilded relief - on your right. On the other side of the street, opposite the front of the Royal Palace Museum, is a set of steps that leads up the north- 'western side of Phu Si. To the right of the steps above the road is the abandoned sim
(ordination hall) or one of Luang Prabang's oldest temples, Wat Pa Huak, whose interior murals are not to be missed - if you can find someone with a key.
If you're ready for a climb, ascend the steps to the summit of Phu Si, where you'll find good views of the town. Sunset vistas from the western side of the hill next to the 19th-century That Chomsi (Large Stupa) can be superb, except in the late dry season when even the sun's intensity is strongly muted,
Royal Palace Museum (Haw Kham)
This is a good place to start a tour of Luang Prabang since the displays convey some sense of local history. The palace (Haw Kham or GoLden Hall; 212470, Thanon Sisavangvong; admission US$1.15; open 8am-11am & 1.30pm-4.30pm daily) was built in 1904 - during the early French colonial era - as a residence for King Sisavang Vong and his family. The site for the palace
was chosen so that official visitors to Luang Prabang could disembark from their river journeys directly below the palace and be received there.
When Sisavang Vong dicd in 1959, his son Sisavang 'Vatthana ascended the throne. According to official Pathet Lao history the 1975 Revolution prevented the prince's actual coronation, though foreign diplomats tell a different story. At any rate, after two years as 'Supreme Adviser to the President', King (or rather Crown Prince) Sisavang Vatthana and his wife were exiled to Northern Laos - where they soon expired in a cave": and the palace was converted into a museum.
A brochure made by the Ministry of Information & Culture and until recently given out at the museum read, 'On his return to Luang Prabang, Sisavang Vatthana moved to his private residence close to Xieng Thong temple and offered the royal palace to the Government'. Today many locals, including Lao military officials, believe the palace to be haunted by the spirits of the last royal family:
Architecturally, the building features a blend of traditional Lao motifs and French Beaux Arts styles, and has been laid out in a double-cruel form shape with the entrance on one side of the lower crossbar. The steps leading to the entrance are Italian marble. Various royal religious objects are displayed in the large entry hall, including the dais of the former Supreme Patriarch of Lao Buddhism; a venerable. Buddha head presented to the king as a gift from India; a reclining Buddha with the unusual added feature of sculpted mourners at his side; an equally uncommon Buddha seated with a begging bowl (the bowl is usually only depicted with a standing figure); and a Luang Prabang-style standing Buddha sculpted of marble in the 'Contemplating the Bodhi Tree' pose.
To the right of the entry hall is the king's reception room, where busts of the Lao monarchy are displayed along with two large gilded and lacquered Ramayana screens crafted by local artisan Thit Tanh. The walls of the room are covered with murals that depict scenes from traditional Lao life. They were painted in 1930 by French artist Alix de Fautereau; each wall is
meant to be viewed at a different time of day - according to the light that enters the windows on one side of the room - which corresponds to the time of day depicted.
In the right front corner room of the palace, which opens to the outside, is a collection of the museum's most prized art, including the Pha Bang. Cast of a gold, silver and bronze alloy, this Buddha stands 83cm tall and is said to weigh either 53.4kg ·or 43kg. Legend says the image was cast around the 1st century AD in Sri Lanka and later presented to the Khmer King Phaya Sirichantha, who in turn gave it to King Fa Ngum in 1359 as a Buddhist legitimizes of Lao sovereignty. Since stylistically it is obviously of' Khmer origin, most likely its casting took place nearer to the latter date. The Siamese twice carried the image off to Thailand (1779 and 1827) but it was finally restored to Lao hands by King Mongkut (Rama IV) in 1867. Persistent rum ours claim that the actual image on display is a copy and that the original is stored in a vault either in Vientiane or Moscow. The 'real' one supposedly features a bit of gold leaf over the' eyes and a hole drilled through one ankle.
Also in this room are large elephant tusks engraved with Buddhas, Khmer-crafted sitting Buddhas and Luang Prabang-style standing Buddhas, an excellent Lao frieze taken from a local temple and three beautiful saew mai khan (embroidered silk screens with religious imagery) that were crafted by the queen.
To the left of the entry hall, the secretary's reception room is filled with paintings, silver and china that have been presented to Laos as diplomatic gifts from Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Poland, Hungary, Russia, Japan, Vietnam; China, Nepal, USA, Canada and Australia. The objects are grouped according to whether they're from 'socialist' or 'capitalist' countries.
The next room to the left was once the queen's reception room. Large 'royal portraits of King Sisavang Vatthana, Queen Kham Phouy and Crown Prince Vong Savang, painted by the Russian artist Ilya Glazunov in 1967, are hung on the walls. Also on display in this room are friendship nags from China and Vietnam, and replicas of 'sculpture from New Delhi's Indian
Behind the entry hall is the throne hall where royal vestments, gold and silver sabers, and the king's elephant chair (or saddle) an; exhibited. Glass cases hold a collection of small Buddhas made of crystal and gold that were found inside the That Makmo stupa. Intricate wall mosaics, placed on a deep red background, took eight craftsmen 3Yz years to complete and are a highlight or the palace's art.
Beyond the throne room are the halls or galleries that lead to the royal family's residential quarters. The royal bedrooms have been preserved as they were when the king departed, as have the dining hall and a room that contains royal seals and medals. One of the more interesting displays in the museum is a room in the residential section that now contains Lao classical musical instruments and masks for the performance of Ramayana dance-drama - just about the only place in the country where you see these kinds of objects on display.
A highly ornate religious pavilion called the Haw Pha Bang - a project planned before the monarchy was abolished - has almost completed construction in the north-eastern corner of the museum compound. Eventually the Pha Bang will be moved from the museum proper to this
Towards the south-eastern corner of compound stands a large, unlabelled bronze statue of King Sisavang Vong.
Visiting the Museum Shoes and other footwear (socks OK) can't be worn inside the museum. No photography is permitted and you must leave all bags with the attendants.
Wat Xieng Thong
Near the northern tip of the peninsula formed by the Mekong River and the Nam Khan is Luang Prabang's most magnificent temple, Wat Xieng Thong (admission US$0.60). King Setthathirat built Wat XiengThong's sim in 1560, and the compound remained under royal patronage until 1975. Like the royal palace, Wat Xieng Thong was placed within reach of the Mekong. The Tripitaka library was added in 1828, the drum tower in 1961.
Along with Wat Mai Suwannaphurnaham this was the only Luang Prabang wat spared any damage by the Black Flag Haw sacking of the-city in 1887. The Black Flag's leader, Deo Van Tri (a Thai Khao or While Thai from the north Vietnamese province of Lai Chau), had studied here as a monk earlier in his life, and he used the desecrated, if not destroyed, temple as his headquarters during the invasion.
The sim represents what is considered classic Luang Prabang temple architecture, with roofs that sweep low to the ground (the same style - part of the Lan Xang-Lanna legacy - is found in northern Thailand as well). The rear wall or the sim features an impressive 'tree of life' mosaic set in a red background. Inside, the elaborately decorated wooden columns support a ceiling that is vested with dharma wheels. Other gold-stenciled designs on the interior walls depict the exploits of legendary King Chanthaphanit, about whom there exists no verifiable written history
To one side of the sim, towards the east, are several small halls (haw) and stupas containing Buddha images of the period. The reclining Buddha sanctuary; dubbed La Chapelle Rouge or Red Chapel by the French contains an especially rare reclining Buddha that dates from the construction of the temple. This one-of-a-kind figure is exquisitely proportioned in classic Lao style (most Lao recliners imitate Thai or Lanna styles), with the monastic robes curling outward at the ankle like rocket fumes. Instead of merely supporting the head, the unique right-hand position extends away from the head in a simple but graceful gesture. In 1931 this image was taken to Paris and displayed at the Paris Exhibition, after which it was kept in Vientiane until its return to Luang Prabang in 1%4.
Gold-leaf votives line the upper walls of the sanctuary on either side of the reclining image. In front of the image are several seated bronze Buddhas of different styles and ages, and on either side of the altar are small embroidered tapestries depicting a stupa and a standing Buddha. A mosaic on the back exterior wall of this chapel was done in the late 1950s in commemoration of the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha's attainment of final nirvana, or passing away. The mosaic is unique in that it relates the exploits of Siaw Sawat, a hero from a famous Lao novel, along with scenes of local village life, rather than a religious scene. .
Near the compound's eastern gate stands the royal funerary carriage house. Inside is an impressive funeral carriage (crafted by local artisan Thit Tanh), which stands 12m high, and various funeral urns for the members of the royal family. (The ashes of King Sisavang Vong, the queen and the king's brother, however, are interred not here but at Wat That Luang at the southern end of Luang Prabang.) Glass cabinets hold royal puppets that were once used for performances of la-khawn lek. Gilt panels on the exterior of the chapel depict semi-erotic episodes from the Ramayana epic.
Wat Wisunalat (Wat Vixoun)
This temple (admission US$0.60) to the east of the town centre was originally built in 1513 during the reign of Chao Wisunarat, making it the oldest operating temple in Luang Prabang, but was rebuilt in 1896 to 1898 following an 1887 fire set by the marauding Black Flag Haw. The origin- al was wooden, and in the brick and stucco restoration the builders tried to make the balustrade windows of the sim appear to be fashioned of lathed wood (an old South Indian and Khmer contrivance that is uncommon in Lao architecture). The front roof that slopes sideways over the terrace is another unique feature. Inside the high-ceilinged sim is a collection of gilded wooden 'Calling for Rain' Buddhas and 15th- to 16th-century Luang Prabang slimda (ordination-precinct stones). These were placed here by Prince Phetsarat after the Haw invasion. The Pha Bang was kept here from 1507 to 1715 and from 1867 to 1894.
In front of the sim is the 34.5m That Pathum (Lotus Stupa), which was started in 1503 by order of Nang Phantin Xieng, wife of King Wisunarat, and finished 19 months later. Workmen filled the interior of the stupa with small Buddha images made of precious materials and other sacred items; many of these were stolen when the Haw destroyed the temple (the remainder are on display in the Royal Palace Museum). The stupa underwent reconstruction in 1895 and again in 1932 after a partial collapse due to rain. It is more commonly known as That Makmo (Watermelon Stupa) because of its semi-spherical shape. Wat Aham
Between Wat Wisunalat and the Nam Khan stands Wat Aham (admission US$0.60), which was formerly the residence of the Sangkhalat (Supreme Patriarch of Lao Buddhism). Two large banyan trees grace the grounds, which are semi-deserted except for the occasional devotee who comes to make offerings to the town's most important spirit shrine at the base of the trees. Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham Close to the Phousy Hotel and the post oflice, Wat Mai (admission US$O.25) was inaugurated in 1821 (some sources claim it was built in 1797) and was at one time a residence of the Sangkhalat (succeeding Wat Aham). The five-tiered roof of the wooden sim is in the standard Luang Prabang style. The front veranda is remarkable for its decorated columns and the sumptuous gold relief walls that recount the tale of Vessantara (Pha Wet in Lao), the Buddha's penultimate birth, as well as scenes from the Ramayana and village life. Behind the main sim is a shelter housing two long racing boats. These slender, graceful craft are brought out during Lao New Year in April and again in October during the Water Festival. Heavily decorated with flower garlands, each boat will hold up to 50 rowers, plus a coxswain.
Like Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai was spared destruction by the Chinese Haw, who reportedly found the sim too beautiful to harm. Most of the other 20 or so buildings arc newer.
The Pha Bang, which is usually housed in the Royal Palace Museum, is put on public display in a temporary pavilion in front of the sim at Wat Mai during the Lao New Year celebrations. Wat That Luang Legend has it that Wat That Luang, off Thanon Phu Vao, was originally established by Ashokan missionaries from India in the 3rd century BC. However, there is no evidence to confirm this and the current sim was built in 1818 under the reign of King Manthaturat. The ashes of King Sisavang Vong are interred inside the large central stupa, which was erected in 1910. A smaller thiiat (stupa) in front of the sim dates to 1820. Inside the huge sim arc a few Luang Prabang Buddha images and other artifacts.
Although its outer appearance isn't very impressive, Wat Mano (Thanon Samsenthai ) stands just outside the barely visible city walls and occupies possibly the oldest temple site in Luang Prabang. City annals say it was founded in 1375 on the site of a smaller temple established by King Fa Ngum himself. The decaying sim held the Pha Bang from 1502 to 1513 and still contains a huge sitting bronze Buddha east in 1372. This image is approximately 6m high and weighs an estimated two tones - some parts. of the bronze are l5mm thick. Considered an' important city talisman, the image would probably have been moved to another temple by now if anyone could figure out how to move it!
The Buddha's arms reportedly came off during a battle between French and Thai armies in the late 19th century. After the battle the colonialists allegedly made off with the appendages except for a portion of one forearm now placed beside one of the feet. The Lao later econstructed the missing arms with cement. Near the sim are the scant remains of an older temple, Wat Xieng Kang, allegedly constructed in 1363.
The temples on the upper slopes of 100m- high Phu Si (admission US$1 ) were recently constructed, but it is likely there were other temples previously located on this important hill site. There is an excellent view of the town from the top of the hill.
On the lower slopes of the hill are two of the oldest (and now abandoned) temples in Luang Prabang. The decaying sim at Wat Pa Huak - on the lower northern slope near the Royal Palace Museum - has a splendid carved wood and mosaic facade showing Buddha riding Airavata, the three-headed elephant of Hindu mythology (in which he is usually depicted as Lord Indra's mount). The gilded and carved front doors are often locked, but during the day there's usually an attendant nearby who will open the doors for a tip of a couple of hundred kip. Inside, the original 19th-century murals have excellent color, considering the lack of any restoration. The murals show historic scenes along the Mekong River, including visits by Chinese diplomats and warriors arriving by river and horse caravans. Three large seated Buddhas and several smaller standing and seated images date from the same time as the murals or possibly earlier,
Around on the north-eastern flank of the hill are the ruins of Wat Pha Phutthabaht, originally constructed in 1395 during the reign of Phaya Samsenthai on the site of a 'Buddha footprint'. The ruins are of mixed styli but are said to show a definite Lanna or Chiang Mai influence, as well as some later Vietnamese augmentation.
The fee to climb to the summit of the hill is collected at the northern entrance near Wat Pa Huak (you do not have to pay the fee to reach the latter temple, however).
The 24m-high That Chamsi, which was originally erected in 1804 and restored in 1914, stands at the summit, clearly visible from almost any ground-level point in the city. This stupa is the starting point for a colorful Lao New Year procession in mid- April. If you continue over the summit and start down the path on the other side you'll come to a small cave shrine called Wat Tham Phu 51. Since it's really nothing more than one large, fat Buddha image (a form called Pha Kachai in Lao) and a sheltered area for worshippers, it hardly lives up to its designation as a wat. On a nearby crest is a Russian anti-aircraft cannon that children use as a makeshift merry-go-round.
Wat Xieng Muan
The sim at Wat Xieng Muan dates to 1879, though no doubt the monastery site is much older. The sculpture inside is better than average and the ceiling is painted with gold nagas, an uncommon motif in this position - possibly a Thai Lu influence. Also no- table is the elaborate haang thien (candle rail) with nagas at either end.
With backing from Unesco and New Zealand, Wat Xieng Muan has restored the monks' quarters for use as a classroom for training young novices and monks in the artistic skills needed to maintain and preserve Luang Prabang's temples. Among these skills are wood-carving, painting and Buddha-casting, all of which came to a virtual halt after 1975. Today if you wander into the peaceful grounds of Wat Xieng M uun during the day you'll see the monastic residents engaged in learning or teaching these arts.
In the north-eastern corner of town near the meeting of the Nam Khan and the Mekong River is a string of historic, still active tem pies. Facing Thanon Sakkalin just northeast of Villa Santi (see Places to Stay later in this section) is Wat Saen (100,000 Temple) a Thai-style wat built in 1718 and restored in 1932 and 1957. The name reportedly refers to its founding on an initial 100,000 kip donation. The abbot, Ajahn Kharnjan, who was ordained here in 1940, is one of the most revered monks in Luang Prabang, perhaps in all of Laos. Behind Villa Santi near the river road, the simple Wat Nong Sikhunmeuang was built in 1729, burned in 1774 and rebuilt in 1804. South-west of Villa Santi and set back off the street is Wat Pa Phal, whose classic Thai-Lao fresco over the gilded and carved wooden facade is at least 100 years old; the picture depicts scenes from everyday Lao life from the era in which it was painted.
Wat Pha Mahathat, two wats south-west of the Phousy Hotel, is named for a venerable Lanna-style thaat erected in 1548. The sim in front - built in 1910 - is quite ornate, with carved wooden windows and portico, rosette-gilded pillars exterior stories of the Buddha's past lives relief’s and a roof in the Luang Prabang style lined with temple bells. The massive nagas along the steps, also Lanna in style, resemble those at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
An easy 3km walk or bicycle ride northeast of town is Wat Pa Phon Phao (open 8am-10am & 1pm - 4.30pm daily), a forest meditation wat famous for the teachings of Ajahn Saisamut. Saisamut died in 1992 and his funeral was the largest and most well attended monk's funeral Laos has seen in decades. The temple's Santi Chedi (Peace Pagoda), built in 1988, has become something of a tourist attraction. This large yellow stupa contains three floors inside plus an outside terrace near the top with a view of the surrounding plains. The inside walls are painted with all manner of Buddhist stories and moral admonitions.
On the Mekong River near the northwestern end of. Thanon Phu Vao is a modem Vietnamese-Lao temple, Wat Pha Baht Tai The temple itself is rather garish but be- hind the temple is a shady terrace overlooking the Mekong; on a hot afternoon this is a good place to cool off and watch the sunset. Across the Mekong River Across the Mekong from central Luang Prabang are several notable temples in the Xieng Maen district. Xieng Maen itself played an important role as the terminus of the historic road between Luang Prabang and various northem Thai kingdoms, eg, Nan and Phayao.
Wat Long Khun, almost directly across the Mekong River from Wat Xieng Thong, is the best place to disembark by boat for Xicng Maen explorations. This wat features a nicely decorated portico of 1937 vintage, plus older sections from the 18th century and a few fading jataka murals. When the coronation of a Luang Prabang king was pending it was customary for him to spend three days in retreat at Wat Long Khun before ascending the throne. A restoration project, which was finished in January 1995 by the Department of Museums & Archaeology with the assistance of the Ecole Francaisc d'Extrerne Orient, has brought new life and beauty to the monastery buildings.
Founded in 1889 and since abandoned, Wat Tham Xieng Maen is in a 100m-deep limestone cave (known as Tham Sakkalin Savannakuha), a little to the north-west of Wat Long Khun. Many Buddha images from temples that have been torched or otherwise fallen into decay are kept here; during Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) many local worshippers come to Wat Tham to pay homage and cleanse the images. The large stone-block entrance built around the mouth of the cave displays good relief work on stair pedestals, and is flanked by two large ruined spirit houses and a couple of plumier trees. An iron grate across the cave mouth is usually locked; inquire at Wat Long Khun for someone to come and unlock the gate and guide you through the cave. A small donation is requested for this service; the cave is very long and dark, and parts of the cave floor are slippery, so it's a good idea to go with a guide. Bring a torch (flashlight). There arc several other caves nearby that are easily found and explored with local help, though none is quite as extensive as Thurn Sakkalin Savannakuha.
At the top of a hill above Wat Long Khun and Wat Tham is peaceful Wat Chom Phet, which was established in 1888, from where there is an undisturbed view of the town and river. A small thaat here contains the bones of Chao Thong Di (wife of King Sakkalin), who died in 1929.
South-west of Wat Chom Phet in the village of Xieng Maen, Wat Xieng Maen was founded in 1592 by Chao Naw Kaewkum man, son of Setthathirat, but it fell into ruin and had to be rebuilt in 1927. The newer sim contains a few artifacts dating from the original temple, including the original doors. This spot is especially sacred to Xieng Maen residents because it once housed the Pha Bang - on its way back to Luang Prabang in 1867 following a lengthy stay in Vientiane - for seven days and seven nights.
Ban Xieng Maen itself is worth a wander since, like Luang Prabang, it has maintained its original urban plan, possibly dating back to the 14th century. Unlike Luang Prabang, for the most part the main roads (paralleling the river) and byways (leading to the river) haven't been paved over, so the plan is technically more intact.
Getting There & Away You can charter boats from Luang Prabang's northern ferry pier to Wat Long Khun or Ban Xieng Maen for US$2 return, or you can wait for the infrequent ferry boats, which charge around US$0.10 per passenger.
A Unesco-sponsored exhibit and information centre called Heritage House (La Mai-son de Patrimoine) has opened in an old wooden Lao house on teak pillars in Ban Xieng Muan. Other than the rather impressive wood and colombage house itself, there is as yet little to take in here. There are plans to add exhibits inside the house, and perhaps have weaving demonstrations, but when we last visited it was completely empty.
Cycling & Rafting Excursions
Indochina Spirit (07 1 -252372 , Thanon Phothisalat, Ban Wat That) has recently begun offering combo cycling and rafting trips on trails and rivers around Luang Prabang. A typical excursion involves pedaling from Luang Prabang to a put-in point on a tributary of the Mekong River or the Nam Ou, followed by whitewater rafting downriver to a pick-up point. Prices range around. US$20 10 US$40 per day, including use of bikes and rafts imported from Germany.
Massage & Sauna
You can take a traditional herbal sauna and/or an hour-long Swedish - Lao massage at the Lao Red Cross (Thanon Wisunalat; sauna US$1.15, massage US$1.70; sauna open 5pm-9pm, massages 9am-9pm). The Lao Red Cross is housed in a nicely preserved Lao-French building with half- timbered walls. Several places in the historic temple district also offer massage, often cheaper - but rarely better - than at the Lao Red Cross.
The two most important annual events in Luang Prabang are Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) in April (see the boxed text 'Pi Mai Lao') and the boat races during Bun Awk Phansa (the End of the Rains Retreat) in October.
Places to Stay - Budget
Near the Mekong The old silversmithing district near the Mekong, a neighborhood known as Ban Wat That (named for nearby Wat Pha Mahathat, or 'Wat That' for short), and the adjacent Ban Haw Sieng, have become a centre for a cluster of modest guesthouses.
Rattana Guest House (252255, 412 Ban Wat That) Singles & doubles with fan & shared bath US$3.I5/3.75 low season high season, with bath & air-con US$3.75/5. Off Thanon Phothisalat near Indochina Spirit restaurant, this modem guesthouse has six very clean rooms. The two upstairs rooms are quieter. There's a pleasant outdoor sitting area and a clothesline if you'd like to do some laundry.
Viradessa Guest House (252026, 1312 Thanon Khem Khong ) Dorm beds US$1, singles US$2-3, doubles US$3-5. In the heart of Ban Wat Thai, a two-storey post independence house contains the friendly Viradessa. Some doubles have more than two beds, and some have attached bath. The good mattresses here are a plus.
Vanvisa Guest House (fax 212925, 4212 Ban Wat That) Rooms without/with bath US$6/8. Vanvisa features six rooms at the back of a shop selling textiles, antiques and handicrafts. The owner, a cultured Lao lady, sometimes makes breakfasts and family-style dinners for guests and can even arrange an informal cooking workshop.
Wat That Guest House (212913,2127 Ban Wat That) Dorm beds/singles/doubles US$1.70/3.40/4.50. The fairly new Wat That Guest House offers clean rooms with shared hot-water bath and a basic garden restaurant. The owner speaks English.
Chanthy Banchit Guest House (252538, 2612 Ban Wat That) Doubles without/with bath US$1.70/2.25. Near Wat That Guest House, this two-storey wooden house is fairly well kept, and offers basic rooms and the use of a safety-deposit box.
Suankeo Guest House No 2 (252804, Ban Haw Siang) Singles/doubles US$2/4. In a white two-storey house with blue shutters and a terrace, friendly and efficient Suankeo No 2 has nine rooms with shared hot-water showers. Breakfast and laundry service are available.
Souksavat Guest House (212043, Ban Haw Siang) Rooms US$2.50. On a lane off Thanon Phothisalat just past the post office, this guesthouse has basic rooms with shared hot-water showers.
Historic Temple Distri,ct In the most concentrated area of colonial architecture and historic monasteries on and off Thanon SisavangvonglThanon Sakkalin are a few places with cheap rooms.
Tum Tum Cheng Guest House ( off Thanon Sakkalin) Rooms US$2-1 O. A Hungarian woman and her Lao husband offer three clean rooms in the upper floor of their house, close to Wat Xieng Thong, to guests. The cheapest of the three rooms is dorm style, while the most expensive has private hot-water shower and toilet. All rooms have ceiling fans. ,
Phoun Sab Guest House (212975, Thanon Sisavangvong ) Rooms with fan US$4, with fan & hot-water bath US$7. In an old shop house between the Royal Palace Museum and the Luang Prabang Bakery, Phoun Sab offers simple but clean two-bed rooms. There's a basic cafe downstairs and rental bikes are available. Some English is spoken here.
Bou Pha Guest House (25240), Thanon Sisavangvong ) Rooms with & without bath US$3.40. Between Phoun Sab Guest House and the Scandinavian Bakery, Bou Pha offers a similar standard to the Phoun Sab at lower rates.
Phousi Guest House (212973) Rooms US$3-4. On the road that runs along the northern side of the Royal Palace Museum, this guesthouse occupies a nice-looking two-storey colonial-style building with a restaurant downstairs serving Lao and vegetarian food.
Pa Phai Guest House (Paphay /fax 212752, Thanon Sisavang Vatthana) Singles/doubles US$3.40/ 6.80. Situated opposite Wat Pa Phai, the friendly Pa Phai occupies an historic two- storey French-Lao house and has a small garden at the front. Bamboo walls separate the rooms.
Heritage House (252537, fax 252562, Thanon Sisavang Vatthana ) Rooms with 2 beds, hot-water bath & fan/air-con US$7.50/8.15. Almost opposite Pa Phai Guest House, this colonial-style place with wood shutters is friendly and clean; the upstairs rooms have polished wood floors.
Mekong Guest House (212752, 57 / 7 Thanon Khem Khong ) Rooms with 2 beds without/with bath US$1.7012.25. Rooms here occupy a large two-storey, post independence house, a couple of blocks away from the Pa Phai Guest House towards the Mekong.
Chaliny Guest House ( 252377, 53 / 7 Thanon Khem Khong ) Rooms without/with bath US$3.40/6. Next door to Mekong Guest House, Chaliny offers good rooms in a building with a wooden upper storey, and a brick and stucco lower storey. Near Talat Dala Opposite Talat Dala and behind the Phousy Hotel is a quiet street with a few newer guesthouses of good standard. The neighborhood is known as Ban Thong Chaleun.
Phonethavy Guest House (Ban Thong Chaleun) Rooms without/with bath US$2.25/ 3.40. Situated on a dirt road behind the Phousy Hotel, this new one-storey guest house has 10 clean rooms with either shared or attached bath; all bathrooms have hot water.