The city of Luang Prabang that is believed to be protected by the Golden Buddha, is considered by many to be the most beautiful in Southeast Asia. It extends from its historic centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, situated on a small peninsula that forms at the confluence of the Mekong River with one of its main tributaries, the Nam Khan River. This narrow peninsula, less than a kilometre long and just over two hundred and fifty meters wide, has at its centre the Phu Si Hill, a splendid viewpoint over the city, which is crowned by the That Phu Si stupa. The surroundings of the city, immediately after the rivers, offer a beautiful landscape of forested hills that are lost undulating as far as the eye can see.
This excellent feature about Luang Prabang is written by Jordi Pla, in Spanish and we have translated it. Jordi is a book author and expert about Laos. You can see his Laos tours here.
Original article source: https://viajesalaos.net/luang-prabang/
Luang Prabang: an epicentre of Buddhism with great people
Luang Prabang, the first capital of the kingdom of Lan Sang (the forerunner kingdom of present-day Laos), is a city steeped in history and is also the epicentre of Buddhism in the country. Although calling it a city could be confusing, since it is more than a city, Luang Prabang has the appearance, soul and rhythm of life of a great people.
The entire population is dotted with dozens and dozens of Buddhist temples and is the ideal place in the country to admire the best samples of classical Buddhist architecture, with special mention of the Vat Siang Thong monastery. In the historic centre, the abundant monasteries that extend throughout the population alternate with the best-preserved French colonial buildings in the country, many of them now converted into hotels and restaurants geared towards tourism. Thanks to the fact that the city is under a protection and restoration program as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, both the temples and the rest of the historical buildings are restored and in the best state of conservation in all of Laos.
Tourism has grown dramatically and has completely changed the look of the city centre
Tourism has grown dramatically and has completely changed the look of the city centre, especially in the last decade. Beyond the undeniable beauty and charm of Luang Prabang, hotels, shops, travel agencies and restaurants follow one another almost door-to-door in much of the historic centre, occasionally leaving space for homes, municipal facilities and the numerous temples with its dependencies. However, despite being the main tourist attraction in the country, human density is low, and the number of tourists is low compared to the main tourist attractions in neighbouring countries. Therefore, at any time you only have to move a few blocks to find the most absolute calm.
The monastery compound includes, in addition to the sim (main sanctuary) and a series of associated chapels, several stupas (only one of which is prior to the 19th century), the drum tower, the bell tower, the rooms of the monks and accommodation for visiting pilgrims, all surrounded by a wall with access doors. There is also an elongated structure that shelters the large canoes used each year in the traditional boat races that take place in early October during the celebration of the end of the monastic retreat from the rainy season (Bun Òk Phansa), located near from the side staircase that goes down to the very close royal jetty, on the banks of the Mekong. A unique element of this monastery is the great chapel that contains the funeral vehicles that were used to transport the body or ashes of royalty on the day of their cremation.
The sim is the central shrine of the monastery, and that of the Vat Siang Thong is considered the most beautiful and best example of Luang Prabang’s classic architectural style, with its majestic three-layer multi-deck, which descends on each side into an elegant concave curve towards the ground. The central upper part of the roof is crowned by seventeen pinnacles of the dok so fa (bouquet of celestial flowers), a decorative element that has the function of protecting the sanctuary from evil spirits. The basic outline of the sim is simple and is based on the usual central nave flanked by two lateral naves. Twelve entrance doors give access to it, each consisting of a double door made of carved and gilded wood panelling, all original except three that were replaced during the 1960s.
The external wall at the back is covered by a large mosaic made of stained glass on an ochre background, showing a large blue Buddhist tree of life (Bodhi tree), flanked by green peacocks. and other animals in brown on its base. Beneath the hanging cover, on both outer sides of the sim, the walls are richly decorated in black and gold depicting scenes from Buddhist legends and scriptures.
The interior of the shrine is presided over by a large golden Buddha statue, found in the mudra (symbolic position) of touching the ground invoking the testimony of the Earth Goddess. Two bronze figures of the seated Buddha are found in front of the main statue, flanked by other smaller images. The central nave is delimited by two rows of round columns that lead to the great statue. The main interior decoration of the sim shows small golden figures made with a template against a black or red background, staging stories from the life of the Buddha, the Jataka (narration of their previous lives) and the legend of Janthaphanit, the legendary ancient king of Luang Prabang to whom King Setthathirat dedicated the temple.
The construction of the Vat Visun was not completed until 1516, and its architecture was as original as that of its neighbouring stupa, That Mak Mo. Unfortunately, today we can only partially observe the charm of the original construction, as the fire partially destroyed in 1887, and reconstruction carried out under King Sakkara’s orders in 1898 completely changed the original structure of the roof. The most significant loss from the fire was its sculpted wooden walls, which in the reconstruction were replaced by brick and white stucco.
Luckily, thanks to the drawing by the French Mekong expedition artist Louis Delaporte, who arrived in Luang Prabang twenty years before the fire, we can get a fairly precise idea of
The outer walls consisted of sculpted wooden panels, with twenty-one balustraded windows, of the type often found in Khmer Angkor temples. The six access doors to the temple displayed golden images of Hindu gods, sculpted from wood. Presiding over the interior, where the predominant colours were red and gold, was the imposing golden Buddha in an attitude of meditation, made of brick and stucco, which with its 5.64 meters high is still today the main object of veneration, flanked by two golden 16th-century wooden buddhas.
A stupa was erected inside the compound to contain the ashes of King Visun, who when he died in 1520 was cremated outside the great temple.
The current sim dates from the end of the 19th century and, although it is no longer made of wood, it has retained the original coffin shape, unique in Luang Prabang, and a small entrance fee is required to access its interior. The ornamentation is especially sober, without a multi-layered cover and absent of gallery and tympanum decoration, except for the naga heads at the ends of the cover, the dok so fa and the sculpted and painted rear doors. The window bars are lattices that maintain the classic Khmer style of the original. The Buddha statues displayed in rows around the central image are mostly from the late 18th and 19th centuries, as the oldest area in the National Museum. Other interesting sim objects include a golden palanquin used for the abbot’s transportation, various boxes to preserve Buddhist books written on palm leaf, and various Buddhist steles.
THAT MAK MO
In the year 1512, King Visun began the construction of the great temple that bears his name, with the intention of installing the magical Pha Bang statue inside it. The place was carefully chosen according to the prophecies of religious texts brought from Cambodia, according to which the Buddha himself had once sat on a large rock east of the Phu Si hill, and had revealed that a great lord would establish the religion there. true in the future. When the exact location was located by expert monks, King Visun ordered a stupa to be built there, the That Pathum stupa (stupa of the great lotus), although it is popularly known as That Mak Mo (watermelon stupa) for its distinctive and unique shape. throughout Laos. This hemispherical stupa stands on a square base on two levels, with lotus buds at each corner.
That mak mo Over the centuries cracks appeared in its outer shell, in natural erosion caused by tropical monsoons, and vegetation began to grow in the cracks until in 1914 the stupa collapsed. The 1931 restoration was faithful to the original, except for the addition of the usnisa that crowns the stupa and the wall that surrounds it. When removing the rubble from the collapsed stupa, one hundred and forty small Buddha figures were found, along with other objects of gold, glass and glass, which had been buried during the original consecration of the stupa. It was decided to add the best pieces to the collection of the Royal Palace, and only the rest were again deposited under the restored stupa. A few weeks after these events, twelve children of King Sisavang Vong were drowned when their boat sank in the waters of the Mekong: the general belief, including the story of the court chronicler, was that it was revenge that the protective naga The stupa had been taken over the royal family, for not having returned all the sacred objects to their places.
ROYAL PALACE (NATIONAL MUSEUM)
The Royal Palace was designed by a French architect and its construction was carried out between 1904 and 1909. The palace is a low and elegant building, painted in white, and its architectural style is a mix that includes Laotian, Burmese and Thai elements. It is one of the most well-preserved secular buildings in the country, along with the Royal Palace of Viang Chan. It is said that the original structure also included the rooms of the king’s concubines and that the king indicated each night which of them should go to the royal bedroom, leaving a red rose next to the door of the chosen one.
Royal-Palace-Luang-Prabang2 The pinnacle of the central roof was added in the years 1922-24 by order of King Sisavang Vong, who among other reforms ordered that the murals (work of the French artist Alix Fautereau) be painted in the two rooms of Side reception located next to the main entrance. In 1960 the palace was extensively remodelled by King Savang Vatthana, and from this remodelling, it is worth highlighting the red-background glass mosaics of the throne room, with scenes illustrating village life, boat racing and the arrival of the statue sacred from the Pha Bang to the city. In addition to the royal swords, the king’s golden howdah (the royal elephant-riding compartment), and other royal objects seen here, a large number of small Buddha figures of various styles and materials, many of which were found under the That Mak Mo stupa during its restoration in the early 20th century.
Behind the throne room, you can see the simple rooms of the king and queen, arranged around an interior courtyard. Manuscript boxes, traditional metal drums, theatrical masks for the performance of the Lao version of the Ramayana, classical Laotian musical instruments, royal clothing, ancient coins and banknotes, etc., are displayed in successive rooms.
At the end of the tour, there is a room where numerous diplomatic gifts from heads of state of foreign countries are displayed. Among the many curiosities exposed there are some pebbles of lunar origin, a donation by the United States … made at the same time that the North American forces were subjecting the central and eastern Laos to the most severe bombardments ever suffered by any country in the history.
The sacred Pha Bang statue is kept in a room at the front of the palace and can be seen from the outside gallery. A new temple has recently been built on the museum grounds in order to house the statue there, but so far the transfer has not been carried out.
THE HILL PHU SI
Phu Si Hill, from its privileged position on the small peninsula where the centre of Luang Prabang is located, houses several temples on its surface and offers privileged views of the city and its surroundings. For this reason, the viewpoint located on the top of the small hill is filled every evening at the last minute with tourists fighting for a place from which to contemplate and take photos of the sunset.
Phu Si Hill sunset You can climb via the three hundred and twenty-eight staircase, which starts in front of the National Museum, or from the back, on the street that runs alongside the Nam Khan River. This hill had been before the arrival of Buddhism a place where religious ceremonies were performed, probably dedicated to fertility deities. Buddhism recognized on this hill the representation of Buddhist cosmogony, with the Phu Si representing the mythical Mount Meru. It came to have a dozen monasteries arranged all over its surface, of which half have disappeared, and of the other half that is still standing none date before the mid-nineteenth century.
The hill is crossed by stairs with naga-shaped railings, surrounded by numerous frangipan trees, which link the various temples and outbuildings together and give access to the top, near which an artillery piece can still be seen anti-aircraft from the war, currently a place where local children often play. Undoubtedly, this hill deserves a leisurely visit that allows you to explore its many curious corners and its magnificent views from different angles over the city with calm. Corners such as the Vat Phabat Nüa (Temple of the Northern Buddha Footprint) located at the northeast end of the hill, which is named after the alleged three-meter-long Buddha footprint marked on the stone, venerated in a small chapel within the compound. Next to it, a small pilgrimage pavilion offers exceptional views over the Nam Khan River.
Vat Sisuvanna Phumaram, popularly known as Vat Mai (New Temple), is one of the most beautiful monasteries in Luang Prabang, and the most important one built under the reign of Anuruttharat. The shrine we see today includes parts added almost a century later from its original construction in 1796, as well as elements of its restoration in the 1960s. Vat Mai is the residence of the Sangkharat, the head of the Sangha ( Laotian) Buddhist clergy, and includes monks’ dormitories, as well as two small fenced chapels separated by a stupa.
The Vat Mai multi deck is typical of the Luang Prabang style, with four overlapping layers. The most impressive part of the temple is its front porch, supported by two rows of six round and black columns adorned with gold, crowned by capitals in the shape of lotus flowers, also golden. The front and rear porches, as well as the side galleries (with their rich decoration based on scenes from the local version of the Ramayana and sculpted in the 1960s), are added later than the original construction. The sim’s exterior front wall, restored in the years 1967-68, is a large gilded relief illustrating the birth of the Buddha and the story of Vesantara, the last incarnation of the Buddha before his birth as such, amidst a full set design of elements of traditional Lao life. The beam that runs the entire length of the porch above the frieze level shows a sculpted relief in red and gold, again showing scenes from the Ramayana.
The sim is another notable element of the temple and has the unusual characteristic of being divided into three parts by two rows of six round-based columns, creating a central nave and two lateral naves. Its floor is marble and the walls and ceilings are painted in red and gold. The two small stupas behind the main bronze Buddha image contain the ashes of the kings Anuruttharat and Mangthathurat.
The pillar outside against the southeast wall of the temple is curiously a prayer pillar for elephants, before which the great pachyderms were lectured during the Lao New Year festival. This was not exceptional, and in fact, the Vat Visun, the Vat Siang Thong and the old Vat Manolom, all of them formerly visited in procession during the New Year celebration, also had pillars with this same purpose.
The historical centre of Luang Prabang is the place in Laos where you can see some of the best examples of French colonial architecture because apart from the beauty of the buildings it is the only city in the country where a systematic effort has been made for its rehabilitation. Many of Luang Prabang’s French colonial buildings, built between 1910 and 1940, have been restored as part of UNESCO’s World Heritage preservation program. Others have been restored by private initiatives that have turned them into restaurants, hotels or other establishments, such as the central Villa Santi hotel, located in one of the residences of the last royal family in Laos. Often the construction dates are indicated in plaster and mortar on eardrums and pediments on the facade.
LUANG PRABANG MARKETS
Luang Prabang has several markets, some of which may be of special interest to the traveller. In an alley that runs parallel to the Mekong promenade and begins at the height of the Vat Phonsai, a modest fresh market for fresh produce takes place every morning in the early morning, declining as the morning progresses. It is an essential visit and without a doubt one of the most charming corners that allow you to feel the pulse of local life.
But the most successful market among tourists is undoubtedly the Night Market: every day in the late afternoon and until around ten at night, along the main street of the historic centre, hundreds of stalls are They spread out on the ground forming a market aimed entirely at tourism where you can find a wide variety of local textiles and crafts. In the Hmong Market located in the corner in front of the Tourist Office, which is open during the day (until many of its stops move to the Night Market at night), you can find crafts from this ethnic group, among other things.
Third, there are the main markets in the city: Phu Si Market (Talat Phu Si) is the largest in Luang Prabang, a general market located on the road towards Kuang Si Falls, about five minutes by tuk-tuk from the centre, and there you can find a wide variety of products, mainly fresh food products, utensils for the home and clothes. The Chinese Market (Talat Chin) is located next to the new stadium, on the way to the southern bus station, and there you can find a wide variety of household products, clothing, hardware, etc. At the Dala Market, located on the southern corner of Phu Si Hill, a variety of products are sold, including mobile telephony, and here is also what is surely the best-stocked pharmacy in the city.
BINTHABAT: OFFERINGS TO THE MONKS AT DAWN
It is one of the rituals that every tourist passing through Luang Prabang seems to undergo: it consists of getting up before the sun rises and waiting in one of the streets of the area with the highest concentration of temples in the historic centre, until at dawn the monks sound the drums of the temple and go out to fulfil their daily pilgrimage of collecting offerings, usually in the form of food, which the faithful offer them sitting on the sidewalk … But it is debatable if the show is in this activity In itself or in the herd of tourists, who usually far exceed the number of monks and faithful, who follow the procession through the viewfinder of their cameras.
It is undoubtedly a highly recommended experience on special occasions of the annual calendar when donations of mass offerings are made. Otherwise, many will feel disappointed, or as intruders distorting a celebration of others, so if you want to try it is necessary to do it with an attitude of respect and discretion, containing photographic compulsiveness.
SURROUNDINGS OF LUANG PRABANG
PAK U CAVES
These are two caves that meet at the confluence of the Nam U River and the Mekong River, inside which thousands of Buddha figures and statues of all sizes are kept, many of which were brought there to protect them from the destruction in times of war and invasions. The most interesting is undoubtedly the lower cave, the Vat Tham Lum, which is shallower but has a larger opening, being generally illuminated by natural light. The figures of Buddha, of great stylistic diversity, are arranged on the surface of increasing height that forms the back of the cave. The upper cave, the Vat Tham Ting, is accessed via a staircase, and you need to bring a flashlight (or rent it there) to see its interior, which is of no particular interest.
Pak U is promoted by tourist guides and agencies as a must-see for anyone in Luang Prabang but, while it is true that the place itself has undeniable charm, that charm teeters the moment the little cave gets packed with tourists.
The lower one is filled with a number of tourists similar to the Buddha statues it contains … and this is the usual situation that is lived most mornings. The hiring of the boat transport to visit Pak U is offered in all the tourist agencies of Luang Prabang, and the classic pack includes the stop to two towns that are on the way on the banks of the Mekong, where the “flock” is invited to get off and go to the numerous stops where local clothing, paper or spirits are sold, arranged there exclusively for tourists. The best tactic to avoid the crowd is to visit in the afternoon, as the crowds of tourist boats usually occur in the morning.
KUANG SI FALL
Along with visiting the Pak U caves, this waterfall located some thirty km south of Luang Prabang has become the most popular outlet in the surroundings of the former royal capital of northern Laos. It is a spectacular waterfall, especially in the rainy season, where the waterfalls through limestone formations forming a small lake at its feet, and it is later channelled into successive natural pools of turquoise water. Don’t forget your swimsuit!
TAD SAE WATERFALL
This succession of small stepped waterfalls is located in the middle of a wooded area about 20 km from Luang Prabang, and constitutes a very beautiful place, perfect for a swim, a picnic or a few hours of relaxation. Its spectacular nature depends on the time of year when it is visited since from February until the rainy season (towards July), the natural pools that form after each one of the steps of the respective falls have little water. The type of limestone rock through which the water flows and the salts themselves make it acquire a really beautiful turquoise blue colouration. On-site there is a small infrastructure in the form of a bar-restaurant, elephants for a walk, and a zip line to glide in the air over the waterfall and the surrounding wooded area.
LUANG PRABANG PROVINCE
MÜANG NGÒI (NÒNG KHIAO and BAN SOPHUN)
At the junction of Highway 1 with the Nam U River is the municipality of Müang Ngòi, located in an idyllic spot on the banks of the Nam U and surrounded by rugged mountains. This municipality includes the towns of Nòng Khiao and Ban Sophun, located at the edge of the river and linked by a bridge. Tourist agencies, as well as tourist guides, usually call the municipality of Muang Ngòi Nòng Khiao so as not to confuse it with the upstream town, Müang Ngòi Nüa. While the part that corresponds to Ban Sophun seems to only consist of pensions and bamboo huts built for tourism, the part of Nong Khiao is the most authentic as a town.
The charm of the town lies in the views offered by its privileged location, as well as in the quiet areas of traditional houses that run parallel to the Nam U River. From the bridge, the steep mountains rise imposingly around the town, while the course The river meanders and soon hides from view. Müang Ngòi is a perfect enclave for taking a boat and following the waters of one of the most beautiful and passable tributaries of the Mekong, the Nam U, an upstream river leading to the northernmost province of Laos, Phongsali, and leading downstream to Luang Prabang city in about 7 hours drive.
In this town, time can almost stop. The simple fact of observing the landscape with the peaks of the calcareous mountains, the boats setting sail and docking at the pier, the fishermen on the shore, and the sun that gradually moves until disappearing behind the hills, are sufficient reasons to get closer to Müang Ngòi.
MÜANG NGÒI NÜA
The only means of transportation to reach this town on the bank of the Nam U River is by boat, but this will not be the case for long. The beauty of the environment and the tranquillity of the site have so far been the two main tourist assets of this place, but work is currently underway to build a road along the other bank of the river, which while improving communications could alter the tranquillity of the place.
In Muang Ngoi Nüa there is a contrast between the beauty of the most immediate natural site and the artificiality of the growth of the town due to the arrival of tourism. The number of pensions and restaurants is completely disproportionate in relation to the number of tourists who visit the village. The explanation for this fact is that almost all the local inhabitants have converted their riverside home into tourist accommodation, since, despite the extremely low rates of these pensions, the income they provide is much higher than that of any peasant. can get working in the rice paddies that make up the surrounding scenery. Once the mist of the early morning hours lifts, the beauty of the mountains that protect the course of the Nam U River stands out in all its splendour.
Beyond being able to relax on terraces of pensions, restaurants or hammocks next to the river being in the same town, the vicinity of Müang Ngòi Nüa offers the opportunity to explore its beautiful surroundings and more or less nearby towns that can be reached. On foot, like the Lao and Khmu towns of Ban Na, Ban Huai Bò and Ban Huai Sèn, a good opportunity to walk among rice paddies and observe the quiet life of rural villages.