Luang Prabang in northern Laos was the ancient royal capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom until King Phothisarat moved it to Vientiane in 1545. It is located at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers and is truly a land that time forgot. It has its own slow and calm pace. There is an old colonial French saying that “The Vietnamnese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow”. The ancient town of Luang Prabang has been designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and is a fusion of Laotian traditional architecture and colonialism. The city is famous for its 33 or so gilded wats or temples, hence the name “City of Gold”, as well as its faded colonial villas, and aquamarine waterfalls. We stayed at the Sofitel Luang Prabang which was built as the French Governor’s residence in the 1900s and now a restored 25-suite hotel.
Sofitel Hotel Luang Prabang
Swimming pool at Sofitel Hotel Luang Prabang
The highlight of our visit was getting up early to observe the Alms Giving Ceremony in the streets of Luang Prabang. This is a venerable tradition where monks come out of their temples before daybreak each morning and receive alms, usually in the form of glutinous rice, from the devotees. Worshippers believe that by offering to the monks, they are gaining good karmic points for their next life.
5:30am and worshippers are already waiting on the streets of Luang Prabang
The temples are especially beautiful at this hour of the day.
Local woman waiting for the monks with her glutinous rice.
Monks in their saffron robes and metal alms collecting vessels slung over their shoulders outside Wat Sene.
Monks walking past Wat Sene
Of the 33 temples in Luang Prabang, the best known is Wat Xieng Thong, also known as the “Golden Tree Monastery”. Until 1975, the wat was a royal temple where the Lao Kings were crowned with the sim or ordination hall being the most important structure on the grounds. It is a perfect example of Lao temple architecture with the two-tiered roof sweeping low to the ground and intricately carved walls and ornate mosaics like the “tree of life” montage on the rear wall. Golden dharma wheels cover the ceiling inside. Umbrella like spires called nyawt chow faa stand along the roof ridge while the edges are adorned with a long flame motif called chaw faa. It is said that these hook-like flame motifs are for catching evil spirits that descend onto the sim. Another building of interest here at Wat Xieng Thong is the Red Chapel of the Chapel of the Reclining Buddha. The exterior is covered with mosaics on top of reddish stucco that illustrate scenes from everyday Lao village life. There is also a remarkable funeral carriage on display here which used to carry royal ashes through the streets of Luang Prabang.
Wat Xieng Thong
Tree of Life mosaic at Wat Xiang Thong
Red Chapel mosaics
Funeral carriage used to carry the royal ashes
Another temple worth visiting is Wat Wisunlat, also known as Wat Visoun. It is the oldest temple in Luang Prabang and was founded in 1512 but the temple burned down in 1887 and was rebuilt in 1898. The That Pathum or Stupa of the Great Lotus is built in Singalese style and is 35 meters high. It is the only stupa of its kind in all of Laos. The sim of Wat Wisunalat houses the largest Buddha statue in Luang Prabang.
The stupa of Wat Visoun
Largest Buddha statue in Luang Prabang
Another place of interest is the Royal Palace, built in 1904, for King Sisavang Vong and was converted into a national museum after the monarchy was overthrown by the communists in 1975. The royal apartments are restored and can offer a glimpse into the life of the royal family. Hwa Pha Bang which translates to Royal Temple is considered one of the most attractive monuments in Luang Prabang and can be found here on the palace grounds. Haw Pha Bang was built to house Lao’s most sacred Phra Bang Buddha statue measuring 83 cm tall.
Hwa Pha Bang at the Royal Palace
Hwa Pha Bang
Across from the Royal Palace is Mount Phousi overlooking the centre of town. It is a popular place to watch the sun set over the Mekong River. Here you can enjoy a panoramic view of the city, its temples, and the mountains in the distance. There are several temples on the way up along the 335-steps Thanon Phousi staircase. Halfway up the hill is Wat Tham Phousi shrine with a large-bellied Buddha in a grotto as well as a reclining Buddha. En route, one can often hear the monks from the nearby Wat Thum Thao beating on drums, cymbals, and gongs. Legend has it that a monk found an immense treasure in a pit and the villagers seized the treasure and buried the monk. Miraculously, the monk was able to crawl his way out and when news of this got to the King, he condemned the villagers as punishment to beat the drums and gongs every three hours to keep the dragons and monsters at bay. At the top is Wat Chomsi built in 1804 and is the symbol of Luang Prabang’s spiritual significance to Laos.
Wat Chomsi atop Mount Phousi
View of the city and Mekong River from the top of Mount Phousi
Love these stairs with the dragon back on both sides
Stroll along the banks of the Mekong River
With dusk, the main street Sisavangvong in Luang Prabang becomes a large night market made up of hundreds of stalls selling handicrafts, textiles, and all kinds of souvenirs many of which probably made in China. There is a side street nearby that is a food street for locals. Food stalls selling sizzling meats on sewers, noodles, stews and other local foods with makeshift tables set up on the side.
Zoom around town in a tut tut
One of the many local food stalls
After a few days here in Luang Prabang, you get used to the super chill vibe where each day just rolls into the next. It is so peaceful to explore the historical part of town on foot or by bicycle, stopping by and peeking into the different temples and shops. This is a place I would definitely return :)
I will talk about the two excursions we did outside the historical part of Luang Prabang in the next post. Stay tuned!
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