U T O P I A

Luang Prabang - Laos' Ancient Royal City
by John Goss

all images and text are copyright 2001 by Utopia.
Morning mists rise from lush emerald hills. An orange ribbon of young monks carrying begging bowls winds slowly along ancient streets. They pause to collect alms of rice and vittles from residents dressed in traditional sarong and sash. Chickens and geese wander through gardens of dewy blossoms, as the rising sun pokes fingers of light through the Earl Grey-scented haze from wood-burning stoves.

Luang Prabang - royal capital of Laos, French colonial outpost, World Heritage Site and Wonder of Asia - seems almost frozen in time, its clocks wound back on a daily basis to preserve a life of peaceful harmony, natural beauty, and reverent worship. Perched on a peninsula between the peaceful Khan and mighty Mekong rivers, this small and walkable city is home to more than 30 active temples and hundreds of architectural treasures from an Orient lost to modernity and progress.

The morning market bustles with stalls opening for business and hilltribes villagers in ethnic costume arriving with colorful fabrics, hand-sewn quilts, and intricate needlework goods. Vendor carts hawk mountains of fresh-baked French baguettes stuffed with sweet and savory spiced pork. It is fun to simply wander about, watching the city come alive through each doorway and window. Teenage girls pound mulberry bark into mulch, to sun dry into sheets of hand-made paper. Artists decorate the paper with vibrant colors, dried leaves, and flowers. Craftsmen stretch the paper over fantastical forms made of bamboo strips to create lamps.

Every lane of the city is lined with historic examples of 19th century French colonial villas, charming Lao-style homes, and superbly proportioned temples in quiet, tree-shaded courtyards. As you linger, young monks often approach, eager to practice their English or share the highlights of their serene world.

Wat Xieng Thong is one of Luang Prabang's most beautiful sacred sites and one of the few to have survived years of weathering and fires of war. The main hall is an awesome artistic statement in gold, black, red and turquoise. Particularly impressive is the mural on the back outer wall -- an enormous Tree of Life with peacocks, angels, and a transcendent Buddha. The smaller chapels, pagodas, and offertory structures are decorated with mirrored mosaics set against brilliantly colored backgrounds of magenta, brick red, and cinnabar which vividly depict scenes from everyday life, festivals, and myths. Across the courtyard is a tall building with huge golden doors carved with sensual scenes from the Ramayana. Inside is a 3-story royal funeral chariot carried aloft on the twisting bodies of golden nagas (snake-like river deities).

Travel by boat, 25 kilometers upriver, to visit another of Luang Prabang's famous sacred sanctuaries -- the Tham Ting Cave -- a cavern hollowed from limestone cliffs by the forces of nature. Inside, in the dim light glinting from the river below, are thousands of Buddha images of various sizes, styles, and ages, left in the cave by pilgrims and devotees over the years. As you journey along the river, fantastic landscapes, lush jungle, and small villages captivate the imagination.

Back in town, stroll down Sisavangvong Road. This main avenue is lined with shops, cyber cafes, open-air restaurants and bakeries where you can sip aromatic Lao coffee and munch tasty treats while watching passersby. A short walk away is the site of the former royal palace, now a public museum. Or, get a bit of exercise and climb the stairs up Phousi Mountain to Wat Thammothayalan, an active monastery with a sweeping view of the city and countryside.

Dusk is a magical time in Luang Prabang. Sunsets on the Mekong can be spectacular. Great food is one of the city's attractions and dinner options include local Luang Prabang specialties, Northern Lao dishes, fine French cooking and international favorites incorporating fresh local ingredients.

There's even a surprising bit of nightlife to be discovered. Small, mixed pubs and cafes are popular gathering spots. You'll find flyers for parties posted around town. Don't miss a chance to visit a local-style disco, packed with young people dancing to live music and celebrating the end of another day. But by midnight, everyone heads home to set their magical clocks back a day and slumber contentedly.

Daily processions of monks seeking alms
Daily processions of monks seeking alms.

Serene temples in a lush landscape
Serene temples in a lush landscape.

Breakfast, Luang Prabang style
Breakfast, Luang Prabang style.

Handmade paper lanterns in rainbow hues
Handmade paper lanterns in rainbow hues.

French colonial architectural treasures
French colonial architectural treasures.

An intricate mural at Wat Xieng Thong
An intricate mural at Wat Xieng Thong.

Contemplating a golden naga chariot
Contemplating a golden naga chariot.

Sunset on the Mekong
Sunset on the Mekong.

Warm smiles and fresh faces everywhere
Warm smiles and fresh faces everywhere.

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