Two things that were immediately apparent to me – the unfamiliar traveller who set foot in Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos, for the first time – was the interesting mix of French colonial architecture and a culture steeped in Buddhist tradition.
It is for this very reason that the town was made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995. I admit, I did not know much about Lao tourism beforehand, perceiving the nation as overshadowed by that of its neighbours, so this trip was quite the journey of discovery for me.
Local hospitality is evident in the fact that there is a local custom for welcoming and bestowing blessings upon tourists. On our first night at the hotel, we were invited to a rather profound Baci ceremony where a group of elders prayed over us and recited Buddhist chants before tying white strings around both wrists. We were to keep them on for about three days and they must not be removed by cutting, lest we attract misfortune.
Luang Prabang prides itself on the architecture of its numerous Buddhist temples. There are no less than 30 in the city, each with its own unique history, decorations and religious significance. Most of these temples are pretty close to one another, making it easy for any tourist to cover at least half a dozen temples in a day on foot.
Wat Xieng Thong is among the more iconic temples in the city. The grounds house more than a dozen shrines and structures in various sizes, some adorned with beautiful emerald green motifs.
The Haw Pha Bang is another stunning landmark temple in the city, located on the grounds of the Luang Prabang National Museum, though it is deceptively new. According to our guide Kham Pheang, construction of the shiny golden temple was officially completed in the last decade, in contrast to the other temples that have been around for a few centuries.
The adjacent Luang Prabang National Museum is actually the former royal palace, where the royal families of Laos used to reside. The building is the best example of the fusion of traditional Lao and colonial French architectural styles here. The museum houses many artefacts relating to old Lao culture and belongings of the former royal families. The throne room, in particular, is quite a sight to behold.
Just across the road from the museum is a set of stairs leading up to one of the best vantage points in the city – the summit of Mount Phousi. There are 328 steps to reach the top (for reference, Batu Caves has 272 steps, albeit much steeper ones) but it is the best place to watch the sun setting over the Mekong River, as evident by the huge crowds of European and Asian tourists alike gathered there daily.
There’s a little something for tourists at sunrise, too. Every morning, at the crack of dawn, Luang Prabang residents and tourists line up on stools along the stretch of Sakkaline Road and wait with a pot of sticky rice or other food in hand. Right on cue, hundreds of orange-clad monks walk down the street single file, accepting these alms from the residents and tourists. There are just as many tourists standing around, eager to get photographs of this daily spectacle.
If you love to see a city on foot, as I do, Luang Prabang’s large street markets are worth exploring, even if you only intend to take pictures. The morning market occupies a long stretch of a back road that runs parallel to the main street, Sisavangvong Road, with one entrance near the National Museum. This is where many locals go for fresh produce and other groceries but there are also local snacks and trinkets that tourists can go for.
When the sun goes down, the main street itself comes alive with the famous night market. Unlike the morning market, the night market focuses more on handicrafts and other trinkets that tourists might buy. Handmade textiles are widely produced in Laos, so there is an abundance of traders selling handmade scarves, local clothing, bags, tablecloths, blankets and more.
Crafting a tale
To get a better glimpse of Luang Prabang’s handmade textile industry, one should travel out to the villages, away from the city. Our group made a trip down the Mekong River by boat to Ban Xang Hai, a village that is well-known for one other homemade product: whisky. Tourists can observe how the villagers distill what is essentially rice wine into earthen jars, and even get a taste.
Walking further into the village, we noticed that every house has a loom that is operated by the woman of the house. Our guide Kham Pheang told us that in Luang Prabang, every girl must learn how to weave as it has been their culture for many years, and it gives women another means to make a living, especially in rural areas.
In villages such as Ban Xang Hai, tourists can haggle for the best prices on handmade textile products, some for as low as 25,000 Lao kip (RM13.90) for a simple cotton scarf. The use of silk and the incorporation of more intricate patterns raises the price of the product. Scarves sold in the city go no lower than double this price. A pair of cotton scarves that I later bought at a craft centre cost me 100,000 Lao kip (RM55.60).
Those travelling on a bigger budget can even spend the day at the Ock Pop Tok crafts centre near the city to learn how to make and use natural dyes, and weave their own silk scarves or Hmong-style batik.
Further down the Mekong River, the Pak Ou Caves is another attraction that’s popular with tourists. The caves contain over 4,000 miniature Buddha statues and were traditionally used as a place for prayer and meditation. To explore the pitch-black upper caves, tourists can borrow torches.
A special moment for me on this trip was the visit to one of the local elephant sanctuaries. The Luang Prabang Elephant Camp is one of several located in the province, nearly an hour’s drive from town. This one is home to more than a dozen rescued elephants, all female. We were greeted by the friendly two-and-a-half-year-old baby of the camp, Noi, a name that means “small”.
Some of the elephants were bathing down by the Mekong River, and visitors can help scrub the elephants’ heads and backs. The one I approached, a gentle giant named Mae Kham Mum, has very rough skin and is covered in scars. According to the camp’s supervisor Mr Tha, she was rescued from a logging camp.
Climbing onto her back was not easy, nor was it easy staying up there. Mae Kham Mum loved dipping in and out of the water, and all that movement eventually threw my accompanying mahout off her back. But for me, I felt a profound connection interacting with such a gentle giant.
The rural areas of Luang Prabang hold just as much charm as the city, and nothing is more scenic than the serene waterfalls of Luang Prabang. Kuang Si Waterfall is the more famous one, great for photography as well as swimming in its icy-cold pools downstream.
Another notable but lesser- known one that we visited was the Hoy Khua Waterfall. The area surrounding this much taller waterfall has been developed into a recreational park with a treetop rope course and a 1.3km treetop zipline course that ends in a beautiful flower garden. Visitors can also go jungle-trekking or swimming in the pool at the base of the waterfall. Fair warning, though, the water here is very deep.
When it comes to the local food scene, tourists will immediately notice that Luang Prabang is not short of Western (especially French) restaurants and cafes. Local Lao cuisine bears some similarities to Thai cuisine, though it is not nearly as rich in flavours. Sticky rice is the staple food for locals and Lao pork sausage is a fairly popular dish. Much of what restaurants offer are local varieties of salads, though tourists who would prefer to give street food a try will find many types of grilled meat or fish easily available at street markets.
The trip was sponsored by AirAsia. AirAsia has direct return flights from Kuala Lumpur to Luang Prabang, four times weekly on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.