Surrounded by rivers on three sides, Luang Prabang not surprisingly feels almost waterborne, and the ship-like contour of the peninsula enhances this impression. Numerous stairways, flanked with whimsical guardian images, link palaces, monasteries and homes with nearby rivers, and are a statement of the importance of the Mekong and the Nam Khan in the lives of Luang Prabang’s population. The banks along the Mekong side are the more lively, but the Nam Khan side is more evocative of old Luang Prabang, and on either side the show is a never-ending affair.
When the French arrived in Luang Prabang they noted a “floating suburb” anchored in the shallows on the Mekong’s banks. Francis Garnier described how arriving boats and rafts would slowly poke among the houseboats looking for a place to land and discharge their passengers and cargo. With paved roads conveying much of the traffic into Luang Prabang, life along the river is less of a circus now, but sights and sounds of riparian commerce linger, and ferries between both sides of the Mekong usually groan under the weight of produce (and villagers) being taken to and from the city. On the Nam Khan side, groups of residents tend tidy riverside gardens and make their way down to the river to bathe during dusk’s waning light. It is scenes like these, all but vanished and forgotten in more developed countries, that make Luang Prabang such a fascinating place.