Arriving in Luang Prabang from the remote northern tracts of Laos, it does not feel like entering one of the country’s biggest cities. Luang Prabang has only around fifty thousand inhabitants and a decidedly provincial atmosphere. However, despite its small size, the city is one of the most culturally important for Laos, and is in fact listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A long, narrow peninsula stretches out at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Perched at the top of the steep banks, high above the water level, the historic core of Luang Prabang spans the length of the peninsula. The main streets are lined with rows of picturesque buildings from the French colonial era, interspersed with glittering Buddhist temples such as the ornately gilded Wat Xieng Thong. All throughout the city center, an abundance of bars and cafés make Luang Prabang a great place to pass a few slow-paced days while on the road. Where the peninsula begins to broaden at its base, a now-obsolete royal palace sprawls across several blocks.
The royal palace of Luang Prabang used to be the seat of the Lao monarchy, but since 1946, this function has been moved to the current capital, Vientiane. Inside the walled compound, the main palace housing the throne room occupies the central position. The most striking feature of the palace are the walls of the throne room, which are covered with a fascinating mosaic of colored glass imbedded in a red background. The mosaic is composed of various scenes from the kingdom’s history, as well as Buddhist stories; the most entertaining parts are the battle scenes, which feature an inordinate number of flying heads and severed bodies!
Still within the royal palace compound, the Haw Pha Bang temple stands at a prominent position near the street. The purpose of this temple, completed only twelve years ago (2006), is to house a Buddha statue known as the Prabang Buddha. As the city’s namesake and the most important Buddhist image in Laos, the ancient statue has been moved around and captured by enemies several times since it was first brought to Laos from Sri Lanka. Now, it has its own permanent home in Wat Haw Pha Bang. During the celebration of the Lao new year, the Prabang Buddha plays a prominent role in the festivities, as the monks process it through the streets in a specially-made portable shrine.
From Luang Prabang, I took a sleeper bus to Vientiane. On the narrow, winding roads, the journey was slow, and the “bus bed” was not particularly comfortable for someone as tall as me. I arrived in the capital at five in the morning and crashed as soon as I had woken the hostel receptionist long enough to check me in.
A few hours of much-needed sleep later, I was awake enough to start exploring the city. One of the first things I noticed was the abundance of cafés scattered around the city center. This was fortunate because I still needed a few doses of energy to fully recover from the previous night’s journey. Coffee is one of the most important agricultural products in Laos, and much of the coffee served at the cafés is domestically-sourced. The coffee industry and tempting café culture give away Vientiane’s colonial heritage; the thirsty French colonists began growing coffee in Laos when they realized that the climate is ideal for coffee production. The cafés themselves pay tribute to the French – one featured a wall-sized map of France painted in the colors of the Tricolore, while another advertised itself with a model of the Eiffel Tower on the sidewalk.
From the presidential palace near the Mekong riverfront, a main boulevard lined with countless bank offices stretches out through the city, ending at a wide roundabout. Standing at the center of the roundabout, like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, is the Patuxay Monument (the names actually have the same meaning). Unlike the well-loved Arc de Triomphe, though, this arch is rather neglected. In fact, the information panel at its base describes it as a “monster of concrete” and something of a failed Arc de Triomphe. Though it gives another of many nods to the former colonizer, the Patuxay Monument is actually dedicated to the Laotians who died fighting for independence from France. For a few kip, you can enter the monument, passing through several levels filled with trinket and souvenir vendors to reach the top, where you can enjoy a broad view of the low-rise capital city.
Throughout Vientiane, I noticed many construction sites and quite a few modern buildings and international chains, which sets it apart from the other places I visited in Laos. However, this does not extend far outside the city; as you drive out of Vientiane along the river, the development difference between Laos and Thailand on the other bank becomes very obvious.
A few kilometers downstream of the capital, a bizarre attraction makes for a fun side trip. The Xieng Khuan, or Buddha Park, is a field leading down from the road to the riverbank that is filled with concrete sculptures created by a monk named Luang Pu. Despite what the name suggests, most of the sculptures are not of the Buddha, though the largest sculpture is a Buddha reclining half the length of the park. Most of the other sculptures depict Hindu gods, demons, animals, and other figures from both Hinduism and Buddhism. The bizarre part is that while many of the depictions are in the form of traditional Buddhist or Hindu sculpture, the details are often somewhat disturbing, if not simply surprising.
All too soon, I reached the end of my visit to Laos. From being part of the effort to conserve the jungle and improve the lives of local villagers, to floating through the beautiful Mekong river valley, to enjoying the slow pace of life in the devoutly Buddhist post-colonial cities, I found Laos to be one of the most fascinating destinations on my trip so far. I could easily have spent several more weeks there exploring the other regions. However, the size of the country, and the travel times through its remote wilderness meant that I had to cut several places I would have liked to visit. A flight ticket to Europe was waiting in my inbox, and I was about to begin a completely different leg of the trip; but, not before one more stop…