Luang Prabang, Laos

When we visited Luang Prabang in 2002, this small town, sitting on the Mekong River and home to at least 34 wats, or Buddhist temples, still felt a little undiscovered. While walking along the main drag, though, I sometimes felt as though I was in a European city with the French colonial buildings lining the street. There were more dogs than vehicles on the quiet streets with scattered backpackers going into pizza parlors and internet cafes. Luang Prabang street

Fast forward to 2008 and from what I am reading and learning from people visiting today, this small river town is becoming much more tourist laden.

I suppose I am partly to blame simply due to the fact that I visited there 6 years ago and put up pictures of its beauty and splendor on my web site. And, ok, I was also a tourist. And sure, as much as I’d like it to be so, I know that 60 – 70,000 people who visited Luang Prabang in the last year have not visited my website, so I guess I can’t take even a little bit of the credit, or blame, as the case may be.

Mekong River, Luang PrabangTruth be told, Luang Prabang is a beautiful little city nominated as a UNESCO heritage site in 1995. Once this happened, the tourists came in larger numbers. Sitting on the balcony of Villa Santi drinking a cold Beer Lao under a warm sun, watching the city pass by is hard to beat, I’ll admit. I wish I was there right now!

However, once I got off the main street and onto the side roads, I saw almost no tourists. Even though I am one, I like being apart and finding areas where I can see and feel, although briefly and surely not as authentically as I would like, daily living in a culture so unlike my own.

How do I know what’s real and what isn’t? This is probably a uniquely American question.

Everything felt real beyond any experience of real I get at home. I walked past houses where grandmas were outside cooking dinner or kids were playing in the schoolyard or monks were walking along the road or sausages were hanging out to dry or any number of things that couldn’t possibly have all been staged for my benefit. It’s truly a ridiculous notion. Luang Prabang

This is my dilemma as a tourist and a visitor to another’s home city, though. Being an American I stand out. In some places, although not in Luang Prabang in 2002, I am, ohhh, how to say this nicely, begged upon. The locals see me as a wealthy individual and compared to them I am wealthy. Sometimes I just want to give everything I have, but at the same time I don’t want to perpetrate begging and low-brow marketing (i.e., paying $50 for something that cost someone $0.25 to manufacture because I am completely clueless). This happens all the time and it’s happened to me because I am a sucker and because I hate saying no to people who look like they really need the money.

Anyway, I digress. While we were there a favorite activity was visiting the wats. And even though we were there for 6 days and visited a couple or more wats a day, we did not get to them all. Along the way we met young monks, some joining for the long term and some doing their 3 month service as Buddhists. They were all delightful and curious and respectful, as we were in return. Normally, monks do not talk with women but these were young initiates and I guess it was ok. Besides, we were practically old enough to be their grandmothers. The other reason that we saw so few older monks is that many of them who would have been our age or even a little younger had were lost to the Pathet Lao re-education camps, as was the royal family in 1975.

I did my best to describe each wat with the enormous help of Ancient Luang Prabang by Denise Heywood. I wish I’d had this book while I was there. I hope you enjoy my series. If you ever visit Luang Prabang, know that you will be a tourist but also remember that we are really all one family. The world gets smaller every day and I personally hope that is a good thing.

Wat Xieng Thong

Wat Sop

Wat Sene

Wat Siri Moung Khoung

Wat Si Boun Houang

Wat Khili

Wat Suwannaphumaham

Wat Nong Sikhunmuang

Wat Thakmo and Wat Aham

Wat Tham Phousi

Wat Pa Khe and Wat Paphane

Peacefulness Temple

Pak Ou Caves

Royal Palace

Peacefulness Temple, Luang Prabang

The Peacefulness Temple, or Pra Tard Kong, is a recently built temple just outside of town. It has become a favorite of locals and SE Asian visitors. The day we were there they were having some kind of ceremony, so we were unable to enter the temple. But as you can see from the pictures, there is lovely artwork decorating the doors and windows on the outside of the buildings. The view from here is very nice as well and worth a visit.

Wat Pa Khe & Wat Paphane

Here are two small wats in Luang Prabang. I only spent a short amount of time at each, in fact I have 2 pictures of each wat. Wat Pa Khe or the Monastery of the Forest of Khe Trees and Wat Paphane or Monastery of the Flame Tree Forest are both located near Mount Phousi. Wat Paphane is the older of the two, built in the late 18th century. Wat Pa Khe was built about 50 years later.

Wat Paphane is a white washed temple with a 3 tiered roof and 4 cylindrical corinthian type columns. The decoration is sparse here.

Wat Paphane Wat Paphane

Wat Pa Khe Wat Pa Khe

Wat Pa Khe is another 3-tiered roofed wat, more attractive than its neighbor but just as faded and non-descript compared to other wats in Luang Prabang. Between the 2, this is the more interesting architecturally with fine artistic detail on the doors and front gable.

Wat Tham Phousi, Luang Prabang

Wat Tham Phousi is located on Mount Phousi. It is an unremarkable wat except for the tall cupola topped with a single parasol and surrounded by 4 more parasols at its 4 corners. I did not see anything else like this in Luang Prabang. Additionally, it is built into the side of a large rock.

Many of the pictures I took of this wat are of the steps leading up to Wat Tham Phousi. Colorful murals and Buddhist sculptures make a feast for the eyes. There is a large, smiling, colorfully painted parinirvana plaster sculpture where we met a Laotian couple currently living in Seattle. Small world!

The view from the wat is quite wonderful and worth the trek.

Royal Palace, Luang Prabang

The Royal Palace was home to the royal family until 1975 when the communist Pathet Lao took over. The last crown prince of Laos, Savang Vatthana, and his family were removed from the palace and died about 5 years later in the hills near the Plain of Jars. It is now the National Museum where visitors can view objects as diverse as the queen’s shoes, musical instruments, gifts given to the king by heads of state from around the world, a large glass case filled with 15th and 16th century gold and crystal buddhas, and much more.

Portraits of the royal family over time adorn the walls and much of their furniture and other personal effects still grace their apartments. The most famous exhibit is the Pra Bang, or the golden Buddha statue, where Luang Prabang got its name, “The City of the Golden Buddha.” I highly recommend a visit here to anyone interested in Laotian history.

Wat Thakmo and Wat Aham, Luang Prabang

These two wats are situated very close together and share the oldest archway in Luang Prabang. I show two pictures of it where you may wonder how on earth it is still standing, which is understandable considering that it was built in 1504.

Wat Thakmo is described in Ancient Luang Prabang as displaying Sinhalese influence. Having recently traveled to Sri Lanka, I can only say at this time that I look forward to studying this comparison further. It is different than the rest of the wats we visited in Luang Prabang. It is referred to as the Watermelon stupa because of watermelon shaped dome.

If you step down over the wall next to the two very tall palm trees on the grounds of Wat Thakmo, you are at the more recently renovated Wat Aham, with its red-lipped, stuccio lions guarding the entrance stairs and Ramayana deities stationed at the front corners of the building.

We were there at lunchtime where we got to see a food vendor serving lunch to monks at the site.

Wat Nong Sikhunmuang, Luang Prabang

Wat Nong Sikhunmuang is located on Kounxoa Road, in the next block from Wat Sene. The roof colors are vibrant yellow and orange and the exterior gold decoration of the gable is set against a backdrop of deep red. The wat itself is whitewashed, which really sets off the deep gold framed windows along the sides.

As with many of the other wats we visted in Luang Prabang, monks’ housing is onsite and orange robes adorn railings.

I would like to go back to Luang Prabang and get some pictures of the 7-tiled dok so faa especially. Additionally, there is a famous bronze statue of Buddha inside the temple that amazingly survived a fire in 1774. It has become an icon for travelers, I suppose much the same was as the St. Christopher metal is for Catholics.

It has been 5 years since we visited Luang Prabang and I hope that tourism hasn’t changed it too much. If it has, I suppose I am partly to blame. Please enjoy the pictures I did get.

Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, Luang Prabang

Otherwise known simply as Wat Mai, this is a fairly large temple complex. The main temple is unusual in that it has a five-tiered roof. Each tier is finished with a naga finial and the very top tier is decorated with a 3-spire dok so faa, or metal roof decoration. The lowest roof sweeps nearly to the ground, which makes the roof structure the most prominent exterior feature of this wat.

To say that is not to diminish the extraordinary artwork of Pae Ton who, in the 1960s, created the golden bas-reliefs around the front entrance of the sim. I took quite a few close-up pictures, the detail is fantastic. One of the stories depicted, according to Denise Heywood in Ancient Luang Prabang is the Vissantara Jataka, the story of the last reincarnation of the historical Buddha. These bas reliefs also depict images of an idyllic daily life with the bottom filled with images of farm animals including water buffalo and pigs.

This is an active wat. When we arrived there was a very friendly young monk selling postcards on the veranda and many others lounging about on the grounds. The interior is filled with numerous Buddhist statues and long-boat paraphernalia. One of the buildings houses the two longboats used for the religious boat races during Lao New Year. I would love to return for Lao New Year one day to see this and other ceremonies passed down over the centuries. The Pra Bang Buddha is also brought from the Royal Palace to this temple during the Lao New Year celebration for its annual three day ritual ablutions, a religious term meaning washings.

The small chapels and stupa close to the entrance look as though they may have been left as is when this wat was renovated in the 1940s and 1960s. It gives us a flavor for the age of this temple complex, built in 1804.

Wat Khili, Luang Prabang

Wat Khili is situated opposite Wat Xieng Thong and next door to Wat Si Boun Houang. The first picture in this set is of the 2-story white stucco French colonial style monks quarters attached to this wat.

What I love most about this wat are the colorful tree of life mosaics on the red front of the sim. The sim at Wat Khili is painted red with gold columns. The roof finials at the top and the ends of the gables are sweeping representations of nagas.

Wat Khili, itself, has four square red columns with a large gold wheel of life on the gable and 2 matching wheels between the columns. This wat was, according to Ancient Luang Prabang by Denise Haywood, built by Chao Kham Sattha in a style reminiscent of temples found in the mountains close to the Plain of Jars in Xieng Kouang province where he came from, reinstating the relationship between there and Luang Prabang.

Wat Si Boun Houang, Luang Prabang

Wat Si Boun Houang Sim

While many of the wats in Luang Prabang were renovated in mid to late 20th century, this wat seems older because it was last renovated in 1900. It was built in the mid 18th century. The small sim has 4 columns, 2 round and 2 square, topped with lotus petal capitals supporting a low sweeping roof. The gable is decorated with dharma wheel images.

This wat is near Wat Xieng Thong, but is much quieter and less visited. The frangipani trees lend a sweet fragrance to the air and provide welcome shade to the large courtyard. I took only two pictures, one of the sim and one of 2 young monks sitting on the steps of their quarters.

Wat Si Boun Houang Monks Quarters