This is a sort of travelogue, experiences and observations combined with random contemplations,
of a trip through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in Jan-March 2011. This blog is now closed.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Luang Prabang

The contrast with Bangkok couldn’t be bigger. Where in the morning we whizzed to the huge new modern airport in a smooth, metered, air-conditioned cab, on a four lane expressway, the airport in Luang Prabang is humble, provincial. Yet, where we took a very long time to get through Thai customs, the airport here is surprisingly efficient, visa on arrival is a five minute job – which, cynic as I am, suggests that the visa business is largely an economic process, rather than related to national security, but then again, who cares, who would want to harm a country like Laos? Customs is quick, luggage is already on the conveyer belt. And highlight of the day is changing money: a few hundred dollars in the local currency, the kip (really), instantly makes me a millionaire.

An obligatory taxi – I don’t think there are any other ways to leave the airport, apart from walking -, brings us, and a whole convoy of similar comfortable grey minibuses, into town, albeit this time not over a four lane expressway. The day’s target was gin tonic for sundowners at the Mekong River, and we did manage to find the ideal terrace, a platform built out over the steep river bank, with unobscured views of the water, several sandbanks occupied by fishermen, and sunset, but unfortunately no gin. The local beer, however, Beer Lao, is perfectly acceptable in these circumstances (although claims that this is the next big export product, populating upmarket boutique bars in London and New York, according to one local magazine, are perhaps a little overblown).

Luang Prabang has been a royal seat for hundreds of years. In the 14th century Fa Ngum, perhaps the first significant ruler of what later became Laos, founded the place, or probably elevated a small village to be the capital of “Land of a thousand elephants and the white parasol” (or that is at least one attractive translation I have come across: they don’t invent names like that anymore, these days!). South East Asian history is not much different from European, in that rulers expanded their influence through marrying, manipulating and marauding, with the key players being Siam, the old Khmer empire in Cambodia, and various Vietnamese powerhouses, with wildcards like Burma and China occasionally playing havoc with established relationships. Luckily, the wise French realised, somewhere in the middle of the 19th century, that what was really necessary was a number of French protectorates – French language for colonies -, and they annexed Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Not sure how happy the local people were with this protection, they weren’t asked, of course, but given the animosity between Vietnam and Siam at the time, it is quite well possible that the French in fact rescued Cambodia and Laos, as without their “protection” these entities would most likely have been absorbed. Anyhow, back to Luang Prabang, the French moved the capital of their creation Laos to Vientiane, but the king remained in LP, became head of state again with Laos’s independence, and survived until the communist take-over of the Pathet Lao in 1975. Luang Prabang was largely spared during the various 20th century Indochina wars, and lived on as a sleepy town, until UNESCO decided in 1995 that it should become a World Heritage site. Probably a good decision, but it also attracted a lot of attention to the place, often described as one of the loveliest cities in South East Asia – which, to be fair, is also the reason we are here now.

As a result of all of this, Luang Prabang is not quite the sleepy town from the past, anymore. The tourist business is everywhere, young men offer boat trips, bus excursions or tuk-tuk rides left, right and centre and women offer body, food and head massages in the various parlors around town (not sure how these compare to Thailand). Every third house seems to be a hotel, guest house, restaurant – serving Western food as well as local fare -, or bar, and if not in the catering, the place is selling some or another souvenir, handicraft or silver jewelry. The huge night market, with thousands of cloth, scarves and embroideries on sale, surely doesn’t cater for the locals only. And either the collective shopkeepers have lost every sense of reality, or we have, because quoted prices were mostly outrageous to say the least. Not exactly what one would expect with a large backpacker community, although backpackers are by no means the only tourists here. Luckily, it turned out that it was the shopkeeper community that had lost all senses, and as soon as we started to negotiate for a specific purchase the shopkeeper in question came very quickly back to reality. So, on our first full day in Laos we already bought our first artefact, a leather strap with bells that goes around the neck of a horse. For the time being, it is my backpack, and clearly audible –people now stare at me when I pass them in the street.

Having said all this about the town, don’t get me wrong. Luang Prabang is indeed an absolutely lovely place, very peaceful, very tranquil, quite possibly quintessential Lao PDR (which stands for People’s Democratic Republic, but is often referred to as Please Don’t Rush). The main attraction is the many authentic Buddhist temples, some hundreds of years old. Just behind our hotel is a small Wat – the local word for temple -, a really nice small complex, and a little further on is the most famous temple of the town, Wat Xieng Thong. A wonderful place with a lot of gold-coloured roofs, with glass mosaic walls depicting village scenes and other happenings from life on some of the outside walls, and with various Buddha sculptures and frescoed walls inside. There are many other temples around town, often populated with orange- and saffron-robed monks which give these places an extra colour impulse. And everybody is so nice, so friendly, so helpful; and curious, eager to talk – and eager to sell you their specific tourist trade, of course, but always with a smile, never pushing, and quite prepared to back off if you are not interested. Hope they can keep it this way.

I am sure one can spend days exploring all the temples in Luang Prabang, but just wondering through the streets, with its mix of Lao and French colonial architecture, is also rewarding. No doubt UNESCO has something to do with that; old houses are fairly well maintained, new buildings – guesthouses – easily blend in, lots of wood, lots of balconies, lots of shutters. And everybody seems to keep plants, which are lining the streets in pots of different sizes. As I said, a lovely town, which is completed by the many terraces along the Mekong, serving a wide variety of excellent Lao food, and even – finally successful – gin tonics.

photos: 1. Wat Xieng Thon, the main temple of LP; 2. temple window of small Wat behind our hotel; 3. Buddhas inside theWat Xieng Thon temple, 4. frescoes, id.; 5. monks in town, and 6. monks on the river; 7. street scene in Luang Prabang, with old wooden houses; 8. gin tonics....

Apologies for the length of this first impression, but obviously, it has made an impression!


  1. No need for apologies here ;) and especially not for the length of your posts. I liked the way you managed to also squeeze in a bit of history.

    If there is something to be apologetic about, is the white text on black background that you are using - I'm seeing stripes after reading your posts. But that's just a minor discomfort.

  2. I am sorry Adrian, I thought it would look nice, this way. Perhaps I'll change it one of these days. For the rest, glad you like it (always nice if people appreciate your effort, no?)