Luang Prabang is a province of Laos, located in the north of the country. Its capital of the same name, Luang Prabang, was the capital of Lane Xang Kingdom during the 13th to 16th centuries.
It has been listed since 1995 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for unique architectural, religious and cultural heritage, a blend of the rural and urban developments over several centuries, including the French colonial influences during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Situated roughly 646 miles from Bangkok and 7 hours drive by car. The surrounding countryside is stunningly beautiful with forested mountains all around shrouded by low hanging clouds – enchanting after the grid locked concrete chaos of downtown Bangkok.
The climate was cooler and certainly more pleasant than Bangkok, 1376 miles from the equator, coordinates 19°53′09″ N, 102°08′06″ E and with a population of 47,378 and was founded approximately 1,200 years ago.
I recommend that you drive as the roads are safe, traffic relatively pleasant and well mannered after Thailand and it is useful to have a car to visit the surrounding countryside and see the countryside which is green and verdant.
As Luang Prabang is between 700 –1,800 metres (2,300–5,900 ft) above sea level the climate made a pleasant change from the humid heat of Thailand. We went in late July whilst in the rainy season so it rained at night and showered throughout the day but it was tropical rain not like the grey miserable dampness we know from Northern Europe.
We had booked a long weekend in Maison Souvannaphoum, run by The Banyan Tree Group, the former home of the Prince of Laos before it was a democracy. A boutique property in keeping with the rest of the UNESCO World Heritage site that has mostly kept the town in it’s original style.
The hotel has only only 20 rooms in the Garden Wing, each with their own balcony overlooking the gardens and four further rooms in the main building. Although it is rumoured that a new wing is being built soon which will increase the accommodation compliment.
Bordered by rivers the Mekong begins in the Lasagongma Spring which is in the plateaus of Tibet, the disputed part of China, and flows about 2,703 miles (4,350 km) Southeast to the South China Sea off Vietnam. And the Mae Kok River, a tributary of the Mekong that flows from the east but angles north just before the confluence of the two rivers. The locals here are water people. Fishermen and farmers now buoyed by the tourism industry. We saw many Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Koreans and of course Northern Europeans and Americans. Pretty cosmopolitan all said and the town is now centred around tourism from the day and night markets selling arts and crafts, silverware and paintings, clothes, shoes and souvenirs.
I am not sleeping too well at the moment and even that had its advantages as we got up at 5am the first morning after hearing the monks wake up call to go for a stroll and saw mostly the younger monks in their saffron robes collecting alms. A long snaking queue with their bowls, but things have moved on and as well as accepting rice, as is the norm, they now accept crisps, snacks and candy, and even have accomplices with them that carry plastic bags to collect the booty.
This is obviously fuelled by the local women that have set up stalls, just tables in the road loaded down with said products which they sell enthusiastically to all of the tourists and sightseers who come to observe and pay respect to the tradition and Buddha.
We chose to make a cash donation, much to the dismay of the local ladies that hustle every 100 metres. It was good to see the monks collecting though and even giving back to several local children and small family groups seeking to share in the offering from the locals and tourists.
Their are several Wat’s and temples (photographic opportunities) situated in the city at various strategic locations amongst the old shophouses, guesthouses and alleys linking the circular main, supposedly one way, streets. Traffic is not heavy though and one just has to be mindful of the many tour minivans and three wheeled tuk tuk’s (motorbikes with a cart on the back and no suspension – well the only one we tried didn’t!). They seem to claim precedence of the road along with the mud splattered pick up trucks and four wheelers.
I enjoyed wandering round the street markets and plastic sheets on the side of the road where the locals display their handmade embroideries, scarves, blankets and rattan goods and bartering with the vendors.
We also walked through the vegetable, fish and meat markets but as the morning sun rose and the heat increased we retreated back to the hotel. The local fish and meat came complete with hoards of flies, bluebottles and oddly enough bees. I think that they came with the produce so make sure to eat in the hotels and established restaurants – the locals must be immune!
Back to the hotel and as it is a Banyan Tree property it had a wonderful spa where I had a 90 minute treatment that was the best massage I had had in years, and I have massage at least once a week. The full body treatment was firm and strong and she stretched and kneaded me perfectly making me feel refreshed yet calm and serene. It was so good I went back the following two days in a row. I just couldn’t get enough of it!
The food at the hotel was first class, we made the mistake of choosing a local restaurant to eat out at, which even boasted a cookery school, but the food and or service was not nearly as good as at Maison Souvannaphoum. The staff were very gracious and showed great pleasure in serving us – thank you Joy and all the waiters in the dining room.
I enjoyed visiting the street markets and the larger town market – I can never resist a bargain but I think that the vendors were not ready for my negotiating skills. The young children manning the stalls got the best deals from me. I could not be too hard on them but was slightly perturbed when one little sweet girl told us that she had finished school at 12. Sad but I guess a true reflection of life in Laos. Living on the poverty line made selling local arts and crafts for the family take precedence over her education.
We drove up into the hills and the forests surrounding the city and there one could see the hardship. They seemed to be a happy race though and not as sharp as the Thai’s. Laos seemed to be perhaps 10 years behind Thailand. I felt that the countryside was prettier but I do wish that someone would teach the locals in SE Asia to look after the environment and how to dispose of their garbage both ethically and responsibly. It creates such a scar on the countryside, we even saw fly tipping up in the hills – why? Governments, communities and the authorities have to come down heavy on perpetrators to stamp this out.
We visited the quieter Wat’s and climbed the many steps making me realise both my age and how dreadfully unfit I am – why do Buddhists place their temples at the top of steep mountains? I get how they can been seen by all around but surely they preclude the older generation from visiting and following their faith. Having said that when we did catch our breath and my vision was eventually restored the views were beautiful so I guess its a case of rewarding faith and effort.
We crossed the Mekong river to the other bank to get a better view of Luang Prabang on a strange diesel boat with two platforms either side crowded with motorcycles, cars, and people. Health and safety would not have approved in the western world but the locals were unperturbed and it did the job adequately. It was cheap for the motorcycle we had hired and two passengers and the town was quite safe riding the little motorbike around.
We climbed the steep stony hill into the riverside village and beyond, which my girlfriend found frightening, and were met with muddy tracks and unmade roads but again the children and women in the streets seemed quite happy presumably the men folk were away earning, farming, driving, in industry or working serving the tourist trade.
I enjoyed Laos and will definitely go again with so much of the country yet to explore.
A special mention to all the staff that made our stay at Maison Souvannaphoum so pleasant. We were only there for 4 days but were met with cheery smiles and greetings wherever we encountered them and I wanted to take the masseuse home with me!
Their are several Wat’s and temples situated in the city at various strategic locations amongst the old shophouses, guesthouses and alleys linking the circular main, supposedly one way, streets.”