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.

Wat Sene, Luang Prabang

Wat Sene was built in 1714, otherwise known as the Temple of the Patriarch. This temple is located right on the main road in all its conspicuous glory with gold stencilling applied directly to the outer walls. The doors are carved with gilded figures of divinities and mythical animals. The windows are adorned with gold stencilled balusters.

The monks work on the restorations of these temples. This one was restored in 1957 commemorating the Buddha’s birth 2500 years earlier. I wrote a short description with each photograph, to see click on the photo.