Echoes of the glorious past is everywhere in present-day Luang Prabang, a heritage-rich and experience-filled getaway destinationby Percy Roxas
Even before TG2576 took off at 9:25 a.m. from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport our mind was already in Luang Prabang. We haven’t been to this ancient Laotian capital before, but we have always dreamt of visiting it.
Our excitement increased as we enter the Laotian skies, especially when our destination revealed—below the puffy white clouds and between the rugged mountains—its simple treasures: the patchwork of traditional Lao houses; glittering golden-roof temples; lush, verdant greenery; and the Mekong River running through it. But Luang Prabang is more than these.
Nestled beneath a temple-topped hill at the confluence of two rivers, it is a destination that seems to have been frozen in time. Small and atmospheric, it is increasingly becoming a fixture in the radar of many travelers, attracted by the way Laos’ first UNESCO listed World Heritage Site is jealously guarding its traditional ways and how it strives to preserve the echoes of its rich past.
Our discovery trip started simply enough: from the airport, we went straight to Tamnak Lao Restaurant on Sakkarine Road, one of Luang Prabang’s main tourist belts. Famous among locals and foreigners alike, this restaurant specializes in traditional Laotian dishes. Laotian food bears lots of similarities with Thai food but homogenous ingredients make it more exotic and distinct. The Lao khao soi, for example, is very much like the Chiang Mai specialty but with a twist. This culinary welcome gave us a glimpse of what’s to come in the next few days: a series of wondrous discoveries, an array of unexpected surprises.
Right after lunch we went to the ancient Xieng Thong Temple, located just a few meters from Tamnak Lao. There was a drizzle but we braved the downpour to explore the temple, called Vat Xieng Toung by locals, the oldest monastery in town. Even with its dated look, one can see a timeless beauty. No wonder this temple is regarded as one of the most beautiful temples in Luang Prabang. And this is just one of the many amazing temples we visited in this gracious little town of 452,900 residents.
From Vat Xieng Toung we decided to go directly to Santi Resort & Spa (Tel: +856 712-53470/9) just 10 minutes away from the airport. The sprawling resort, located at Ban Nadeuay, is said to be one of the most prestigious in town. Our room, a plush corner suite overlooking an open paddy, exemplifies the stark contrasts that are beginning to seep in into Luang Prabang. It was modern and gorgeous.
The rain didn’t let up during the night but the next morning, the sun shone like it had no memory of the previous gray day. We begin our program with a short stop at Vipassana Temple and Park, a golden temple frequented by those who practice Vipassana meditation. This temple embodies the serenity of the town itself and walking its grounds grant one a kind of inner peace.
From there, we went to the Mekong River for a river cruise. Traveling to places like Luang Prabang means getting a feel of the authentic local lifestyle, and what better initiation than with a cruise on the Mekong, which has been a lifeline for many people in the region for centuries. Sights are relatively simple, even bland at some points, but as it was, the cruise provides visitors a glance of the real Luang Prabang, its unspoiled landscape, and the simple lifestyle of its gentle people.
After the half-day cruise, it was time for lunch—at Pak Huay Mixay Restaurant. This restaurant, located at Ban Xieng Mouane, was a delightful surprise. The steamed fish with spices, wrapped in a banana leaf, lived up to expectations. It tasted like an angel tiptoeing on your taste buds!
From the restaurant, we took a leisurely walk in the immediate neighborhood on the way to our ride. A group of elderly women gathered on a street corner, enjoying lively laughter with Lao beer. A couple of elegant houses—both traditional Lao and French colonial style—lined the tidy road, and very few vehicles roamed the streets. There was serenity and a seeming order in everything.
We didn’t see any McDonald’s or other international fast food chains. They have yet to surface in Luang Prabang, which perhaps bodes well for tourists who are after the local flavors. Lao street food is offered at bargain prices along an alley in the night market, and inexpensive food is easily available at numerous stalls and markets. Of course, other types of cuisine are available too.
Next stop was Suwannap humaham Temple (called Wat Mai or Wat May by locals), said to be the largest and most richly decorated temple in Luang Prabang. We were awed by the intricate details in the temple’s decor, carvings, and murals. Laos has had a tumultuous history, and it is amazing how they were able to preserve these edifices intact. Of course, one answer was the restoration work done on the entire city at one point in time.
Then we went to Haw Kham, the former royal palace which is now a national museum. Nestled inside a big compound, the museum showcases the life and times of the Lao royal family whose fortunes ended in 1975. There is a glittering golden temple at the entrance, which resembles some Chiang Mai’s temples. As in Thailand, one has to take his or her shoes off before entering the temple.
Then we made a stop at Ock Pop Tok Living Craft Center (73/5 Ban Vat Nong//Tel: +856 712-53219). Located just two kilometers south of the town proper, the center operates as a fair trade traditional weaving center and is very tourist friendly. Visitors can take classes in bamboo/textile weaving, dye their own silk, draw their own batik, or just enjoy Lao coffee and relax at the garden café overlooking the Mekong.
After an hour or so, we proceeded to the Night Market (Sisavangvong Road). Coming here is an eye-opener, at least about the culture that ASEAN peoples share. The products, the creativity, and the outlook of the life of the Lao people mirror that of their ASEAN siblings. At first glance, Lao silk may be mistaken for Thai or Burmese silk. Some items show Malay or Indonesian traces. Even the hill tribe’s weaves and implements show similarities to those of their distant cousins from the Philippines. And yet, there is that distinct Lao touch.
The next day started early. We woke up at 4 a.m. for the “Early Morning Sticky Rice Monk Offering” at Sakkarine Road, near Wat Sensoukharam. This alms ceremony is a traditional local ritual. It was quite a sight to see monks collecting alms of rice from kneeling villagers and tourists at the break of dawn. It has become such a major tourist attraction indeed, but even so, the authenticity of the moment was still intact. Buddhist or not, participating in this alms ceremony is quite an experience.
Still a few more stops, and then we were reminded that our trip is almost over. Going back to the hotel, the faces we saw, the smiles we received, and the wais we were given, were making vivid flashbacks in our memories. The sights and sounds, the flavors and fragrances—everything—were to stay there until we checked in at 10 a.m. for our flight back to Bangkok.
As we boarded the TG2577 we thought about how short this trip was for a Luang Prabang exploration of discovery. There is still so much we didn’t get to see; there is still so much we didn’t get to do.
But there is always a next time—and for us that will be soon!
Luang Prabang at a Glance
Luang Prabang rose to prominence from 1353 onwards as the capital of the first Lao kingdom, Lan Xang (Land of a Million Elephants). Its tumultuous history included becoming a vassal to the surrounding kingdoms by the end the 16th century, the sacking of the city by the Chinese Haw, its fall into French protectorate, and further decline in the latter half of the 20th century after the French withdrawal and the 1975 revolution that ended the rule of the Luang Prabang monarchy. Luang Prabang reopened to tourism in 1989 after a sensitive citywide restoration, and in 1995, it was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Today it is considered to have the most preserved cultural heritage in Southeast Asia.