The old city is concentrated on a long finger of land, approximately 1km long by 300m wide. The thicker southern end of the peninsula is dominated by a steep, forested hill, Phousi, crowned by a Buddhist stupa that can be seen for miles around. As the city grew it expanded outwards from the peninsula to the south and east, and continues to do so to this day.
Just four parallel streets run the length of the peninsula, but there are enough cross streets, lanes and dead ends to keep things interesting. Amazingly, each area seems to exude its own distinct personality. Although it is possible to knock off all the attractions in the old city in a couple of days, it’s far more enjoyable to explore it a little at a time, and really soak up the atmosphere; the many temples and monasteries are certainly too charming be rushed through.Read More
Phousi (Sacred Hill) is the geographical as well as spiritual centre of the city. Believed to have once harboured a powerful naga who dwelt in its bowels, the hill is also seen as a miniature Mount Meru, the Mount Olympus of Hindu-Buddhist cosmology. Though there is nothing to see on the hill itself, save for an ancient-looking sim at its foot, Phousi is striking from a distance. Indeed, the golden spires of That Chomsi at its summit are the first glimpse of the city that visitors get if they are arriving by boat or plane. Likewise, the peak affords a stunning panorama of the city it crowns, and the shimmering rivers and jungle-clad mountains beyond are mesmerizing. Viewing the setting sun from the summit of Phousi has become a kind of tourist ritual, so don’t expect to enjoy the moment alone – indeed, early morning is a better time to come, when the city and the hill are more peaceful. A quieter spot from which to watch the sunset is Santi Chedi on a hill due east of Phousi, which affords a marvellous view back towards Phousi, without the crowds.
There are three approaches to the summit. The first and most straightforward is via the stairway directly opposite the main gate of the Royal Palace Museum. The second approach, on the other side of the hill, is up a zigzag stairway flanked by whitewashed naga, and can be used for descending to Phousi Road. The third and most rambling approach is via Wat Pha Phoutthabat near Phousi’s northern foot (across from the Saynamkhan Riverview Hotel).
Most people choose the first ascent, which allows you to first stop at the adjacent Wat Pa Houak. This fine little temple, overlooking Sisavangvong Road and the Royal Palace Museum, has a charmingly weathered facade, but is mainly of interest of its interior murals. Though the French art historian Henri Parmentier once describing them as “ridiculous”, they are in fact fascinating, and appear to depict Luang Prabang as a celestial city. Besides Lao characters in classical costumes, there are Chinese, Persians and Europeans in the city, but it is not clear whether they have come as visitors or invaders. After soaking up the murals it’s a steep climb through a tunnel of shady plumeria trees to the peak.
- The Royal Palace (Royal Palace Museum)
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong
The most historic and enchanting Buddhist monastery in the entire country, Wat Xieng Thong, the Golden City Monastery, should not be missed. Near the northernmost tip of the peninsula, the temple compound alone is a delight to wander through, especially early in the morning before the tourist crowds descend on it. The main temple or sim was built in 1560 by King Setthathilat (who then promptly moved the capital of the Kingdom of a Million Elephants downriver to Vientiane) and it is this wonderfully graceful building that dominates the monastery. Unlike nearly every other temple in Luang Prabang, this sim was not razed by Chinese marauders in the nineteenth century or overenthusiastically restored in the twentieth. Indeed, an old photograph taken under Auguste Pavie’s direction shows the temple to have changed little in the last century.
You’ll need to stand at a distance to get a view of the roof, the temple’s most outstanding feature. Elegant lines curve and overlap, sweeping nearly to the ground, and evoke a bird with outstretched wings or, as the locals say, a mother hen sheltering her brood. The walls of the sim are decorated inside and out with stencilled gold motifs on a black or maroon background. As you enter the dimly lit temple and your eyes adjust to the lack of light, the gold-leaf patterns seem to float on the blackened walls.
Besides stylized floral designs, the motifs depict a variety of tales, including the Lao version of the Ramayana, scenes from the Jataka and stories about the lives of the Buddha, as well as graphic scenes of punishments doled out in the many levels of Buddhist hell. In one of these punishment scenes, on the wall to the right of the main entrance, an adulterous couple is being forced to flee a pack of rabid dogs by climbing a tree studded with wicked thorns. Other unfortunate souls are being cooked in a copper cauldron of boiling oil (for committing murder) or are suspended by a hook through their tongues (guilty of telling lies).
In the rafters above and to the right of the main entrance runs a long wooden aqueduct or trough in the shape of a mythical serpent. During Lao New Year, lustral water is poured into a receptacle in the serpent’s tail and spouts from its mouth, bathing a Buddha image housed in a wooden pagoda-like structure situated near the altar. A drain in the floor of the pagoda channels the water through pipes under the floor of the sim and the water then pours from the mouth of a mirror-spangled elephant’s head located on the exterior wall.
Covering the exterior of the back wall of the sim is a mosaic, said to depict a legendary flame tree that stood on the site when the city was founded. This particular composition is especially beautiful during the Festival of Lights, when the sim is decked out with khom fai dao, star-shaped lanterns constructed of bamboo and mulberry paper. The flickering candlelight illuminates the tree and animals in the mosaic, making them twinkle magically.
To the left of the sim, as you face it, stands a small brick-and-stucco shrine containing a standing Buddha image. The purple and gold mirrored mosaics on the pediments of the structure are especially intricate and probably the country’s finest example of this kind of ornamentation, which is thought to have originated in Thailand and spread to Burma as well. Directly behind the shrine is a larger structure known to French art historians as “La Chapelle Rouge”, the Red Chapel. The reclining Buddha image enshrined within is one of Laos’s greatest sculptures in bronze.
The daily dawn procession of monks through the streets of the old city has become one of the quintessential images of Luang Prabang and is one of its biggest tourist “attractions”. As a result, however, it can feel a little zoo-like, as tourists line up to watch the monks pass, cameras madly clicking to get the best shot.
There’s no denying the serene beauty of the alms-giving ceremony (Tak Bat) as kneeled locals place sticky rice into the baskets of the passing saffron-robed monks. However, if you do wish to see it, it’s important to behave properly – in particular, dress appropriately and modestly, don’t make physical contact with the monks, and keep a respectful distance from them. It is possible to join the alms-giving, but locals request that you only do so if it would be meaningful to you. If you do so, buy sticky rice from the morning market beforehand rather than the street vendors that congregate along Sisavangvong Road as the rice can be of dubious quality.
Big Brother Mouse
Big Brother Mouse
Set up to promote literacy in Laos, Big Brother Mouse (Phayaluangmeungchan Rd; t071/254937, wwww.bigbrothermouse.com) is an excellent scheme that publishes books in Lao and enables young people to gain new skills in reading, writing and computing. Books are still a rare commodity in Laos, so the work that Big Brother Mouse does is vital in helping young Lao people develop new skills and enhance their prospects.
The organization, which is non-profit and Lao-owned, encourages visitors to buy books to take on treks, rather than giving sweets or pens to village children. In addition, tourists can sponsor a book party ($300–400), help young adults practise their English (Mon–Sat 9am; 2hr) or volunteer in the office and shop (vacancies are regularly posted outside the shop). You are welcome to visit the shop and speak to the staff in more detail about their work and what you can do – look for the big cut-out of a mouse outside.