Luang Prabang, Laos – A Glimpse Of The Sacred

With minds and bodies attuned to the calm of the Lao lifestyle in Vientiane, we do nothing on our first evening in Luang Prabang save for a brief foray into the night market.

We have to drag ourselves away from breakfast overlooking the Mekong the next morning. We don’t have the time to sit around staring at that soporific view, however tempting its hypnotic spell.

Outside, the long narrow streets lined with perfectly preserved colonial buildings and peppered with the sweeping gables of temple roofs at every corner are exactly as we had pictured them. UNESCO’s strict guidelines helping preserve much of the authentic character.

The serenity, the ornate gilded woodwork and the profusion of exquisite golden Buddhas in the temples aside, it is the distinctly rural ambience that we are most captivated by. As well as the smiling faces of the people, the gentle nod and coming together of the hands in a nop, the lilting Sabaidee.

We start at Wat Xieng Thong, that perfect example of vernacular Luang Prabang architecture. Later. we cut across to the Nam Khan river and follow its banks all the way to Wat Visoun, the oldest temple in town. Then we continue circling Mount Phou Si to Sisavangvong street. This is the main drag of the old town where all tourists congregate, where the extent of commercialisation is most explicit in its souvenir shops, restaurants, pubs and travel companies.

It takes about an hour, in true Lao fashion, to be served tall glasses of iced coffee, sandwiches and cheesecake at the Scandinavian bakery. But who’s in a hurry?

The rest of the day is spent soaking up the quiet then ending with a lip-smacking dinner at Tamnak Lao. Who would have thought fresh river fish stewed with aubergine could taste so wonderful?

On the way to dinner earlier that evening we are lured into the exquisite Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham by the faint sounds of rhythmic chanting. One of the monks opens the gate and beckon us in, reminding us not to use flash.

We sit on a bench near the door listening to the comforting cadence of “Buddham Sharanam Gacchami…” while little children kick a soccer ball in the fading light outside. For some reason the presence of those boisterous children heightens our profound sense of well being.

We catch up with the mighty Mekong on a long-tail boat to the Pak ou caves the next day. We decide to share the ride with an American couple. The long cruise lulls us further into Luang Prabang time and the journey rather than the destination seems the more interesting.

Later that afternoon following lunch at 3 Nagas – whose famous pumpkin and coconut crΓ¨me brΓ»lΓ©e is not yet on the menu since it is early tourist season yet – we walk up to the palace museum to check out the diminutive Phra Bang, the sacred statue that gives the city its ‘golden’ name.

R who is nursing a sore back decides to return to the hotel while I climb the 355 steps to mount Phou si to join a very amiable crowd awaiting the spectacle of sunset over karst peaks. Dinner is at Tamarind where great food Is overshadowed by iffy service.

In the early grey light of our last morning we witness Tak Bat – the morning alms giving ceremony – right at our doorstep. Just Ravi and I at our gate and one other young occupant of our hotel who finds an inconspicuous spot on the steps of a house opposite.

The monks file past in absolute silence. An endless saffron stream pausing briefly before reverent almsgivers seated along the road in humble acceptance of the gift of food. The silence, the quiet devotion of the giver and the receiver is deeply moving.

Should tourists take part? I think not. This isn’t a festival. It’s a sacred ritual signifying humility and detachment from material things that locals have followed for generations. Using it as a photo op while ignorant of the rules and wearing inappropriate clothes would be an insensitive intrusion.

Luang Prabang’s tranquility, its identity as a practicing Buddhist city steeped in ancient traditions prompted Marthe Bassene, a French author, to write in 1909:

“Oh! What a delightful paradise of idleness this little country protects, by the fierce barrier of the stream, against progress and ambitions for which it has no need! Will Luang Prabang be, in our century of exact sciences, of quick profits, of victory by money, the refuge of the last dreamers, the last loved ones, the last troubadours?”

A century on, its allure seems intact. But the threat to its slumber and its religious heritage is real.


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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

76 thoughts on “Luang Prabang, Laos – A Glimpse Of The Sacred

  1. All your photos are wonderful, Madhu – I felt I was there with you πŸ™‚

    Your sunset photo made me gasp – it’s stunning.

    1. Thank you Marianne. The sunsets all along the Mekong were spectacular, I didn’t have to do much πŸ™‚

  2. My mouth often waters at your food descriptions (fish and aubergine, yum!) and my eyes widen at the vivid color of your photos, while my brain takes in your language and words. Always a treat to read your blog posts, Madhu.

    1. Oh yes they do!
      We loved how these children were oblivious to the chanting. Made it seem so ‘normal’ somehow, if that makes any sense! Thank you Dallas πŸ™‚

  3. I have learned and seen so much through your words and photographs. They are beautiful and informative. Looking forward to more in 2013.

    BE ENCOURAGED! BE BLESSED!

  4. Hi,
    Looks like a fabulous place to spend a few days. Really stunning photos, and the sunset photo was well worth the climb, very nice.

  5. However do you stay slim, Madhu? I know- climbing the steps to take such blissful sunsets. I can feel the sense of calm washing over me from the post. Long may they hang on to it.

    1. That is my favourite of all my photos from the entire trip! More than the fabulous Angkor temples even! Thanks Angeline.

  6. I missed Vientiane when I was taking a tour around Vietnam and Cambodia because there just wasn’t enough time to squeeze it in. It looks lovely! I’m glad I finally got to visit through your photos and stories, Madhu! πŸ™‚

    1. You are probably talking about Laos Cathy. This is about Luang Prabang. I was referring to my previous article on Vientiane in that first sentence πŸ™‚

      1. Oh boy, am I ever confused!! Maybe I’m reading too fast and not letting things sink in! I need to slow down, stop and smell the roses!! πŸ™‚

  7. It would be wonderful to preserve the innocence of many laid-back, exotic sites that we travel to. I often wonder how much Costa Rica has changed due to the tourist trade. In 1999, when we were there, it was wonderful.
    Thanks, Madhu, for taking me – via your gorgeous photos and intriguing stories – to places I’ll probably never get to see.

    1. I have no doubt it has changed Judy, as has Luang Prabang from those early years of receiving UNESCO status. We can only hope the change isn’t all consuming. Thank you, and happy to take you along πŸ™‚

  8. The sunset photo said it all – the vivid colours, the tropical foliage, the slow, unhurried pace of the Mekong as it courses past the town… and how telling that it was a monk who beckoned you into the Wat to glimpse their evening prayers. Did you try the buffalo sausage at Tamnak Lao? That was one of our favourite dishes when Bama and I were there.

    Although Luang Prabang remains in very good shape – and much more of a living settlement as opposed to places like Venice – we did get a sense that blatant commercialism was making inroads into the sleepy historic centre. Especially the stretch of Sisavangvong Road around the royal palace and night market, with all those one-stop travel agencies offering easy jaunts to Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

    At the risk of sounding like a snob, I was more than a little ired by a certain kind of traveller we encountered, thankfully a minority in Luang Prabang. We saw it in the careless twenty-something year old wandering temples in neon-coloured sunglasses, shorts and sleeveless shirts, and the girl on Phousi Hill who loudly proclaimed her drunken antics of the previous night. Is it that difficult to travel with a bit of cultural sensitivity?

    1. Well said James. The heat is no excuse. We saw several girls being turned away from the Royal palace for wearing inappropriate clothes. What surprised me however was that the same rule was not enforced in the temples!
      Change in this haven is inevitable, it has taken longer thanks to Socialism, and all of us that want to visit, are responsible. But tourism is their main source of income. Kind of a catch 22 there 😦 Perhaps a limited exposure like that of Bhutan might be the answer.

  9. Luang Prabang was definitely a perfect holiday place for me — I spent hours exploring the streets, devouring scrumptious Lao dishes, and climbing Phou Si. Yet I still managed to get ample of time to just chill and relax. We went during off peak season, so imagine the tranquility and the complete laid-backness of this town. We missed the Royal Palace though, but that makes a reason for us to go back in the future.

    1. For me as well Bama. And we were pleasantly surprised by Lao food! It certainly deserves to be on par with Thai. We in fact, liked it better πŸ™‚

  10. Oh Madhu, I really hope these places remain intact and don’t become commercialised tourist traps full of imported junk. It’s so important not to turn ancient ceremonies into photo ops, the most moving experience of my life was in India and I hope I can always keep the images in my head, because I could never have photographed them.

    1. I do too Gilly.
      But who can halt the advance of ‘progress’? I heard people are cashing in on the property boom and moving out. If that becomes an exodus, the monks are sure to follow. Hope someone high up has the vision to balance tourism and the economy, without hurting their heritage.

  11. Wow! You are a traveler with a poetic eye. May you travel to every single place on earth and keep creating poetry with each trip! Lovely lovely post.

  12. Dear Madhu,
    As one of the “older generation” (I never thought I’d say that) who travels less and less, I manage to live vicariously through your blog. It is a peaceful experience, reading about your travels. I enjoy every post completely.
    Metta,
    Grover

  13. What a treat to read up your grand tour, Madhu! Great story and beautiful photos, especially the Nam Khan river was so poetically presented.

  14. Hurrah to Socialism’s shadow here! (well, in my humble view). The post is a tranquil treat to my heart on this cold and frosted January evening in Toronto. Viewing your photo-essay is always a breath of fresh air and a soothing dose of bliss in my heart and soul. You are truly an amazing gift to all of us! (beshak, for me!). xxxxxx

  15. Imagining the sound of the chants, hums and cadence alone!!!! that I already feel like I wanted to experience what you had. And the image, remarkable! As always, you write so brilliantly. Are you an actual travel writer, journalist or report of some sort? I think you should. I really think you should.

  16. i think it’s all been said, dear. Wonderful post – thoughtful as usual, and illustrated by some stunning photographs. I was going to single out the Phou si sunset (how I like a sunset that draws you into the scenery rather than a dazzling display that overshadows the land!), but I kept going back to join you and the monks at the evening pooja, the kids outside kicking their ball, the mysterious shadows, the single purpose of the non-melodic, barely discernable rhythm of the chanting …

    We can only hold our breath and hope for the best for the people of this precious little town – a balance would be a welcome miracle!

    PS I could swear the alms giving line is longer than I was there only six years ago.

  17. Wonderful shots, I really sound like an old broken record – love street life photos … that market shot .. the last, my pick of your fantastic bunch.

  18. All your photos are so wonderful but the shot of the monks in the Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham and the sunset shot were extra special. πŸ™‚

  19. That sunset view sure was worth the 355 steps you had to take! πŸ™‚ (Gaah, I would have fainted from fatigue.)
    I do appreciate your note that tourists should not be taking part in solemn, spiritual activities merely as a photo op. It shows your respect for the culture of every place you visit.

  20. This is the way you expect to see places like this. The thought of it changing is sad. I wonder if our travels to these places changes the way that the people feel about staying the way that they are? You have taken me on an adventure. Thank you.

  21. Beautifully described, Madhu and my sentiments exactly. Change is inevitable. Hopefully the commercial district can remain in one area. Your sunset picture and the picture inside the Wat are absolutely stunning. I felt spiritually connected in and with LP and wish to return…to just spend quality time and I don’t mean trinket searching.

  22. You got so much from this trip πŸ™‚ – great food, breathtaking views, new knowledge and you witnessed their sacred rituals – Beautiful pictures Madhu, and your writing is exquisite as always…

  23. What a wonderful post, Madhu. Your descriptions and photos are astounding, and I felt i was right there, tasting that delicious food, even with ‘iffy service’. πŸ™‚ The Nam Khan River is so beautiful and the sunsets really breathtaking. Thank you for taking me along on your journey. If I should never get there, i feel I’ve been there. πŸ˜€

  24. Love all of the photos – they all speak of serenity and the beauty of a simple life.
    Good that there is a UNESCO to preserve all of the wonderful treasures. πŸ™‚

  25. Beautiful photographs. You have captured the culture of the area very well. The top picture of the monks walking along the pavement reminded me of the Eton schoolboys walking to classes. They walk in formation like that probably because the pavements are so narrow.

    Living in the UK which is still a Christian country I experienced the Buddhist way of living on the Holy Isle off the Isle of Arran on south west of Scotland.

    It was a nice peaceful experience.

    http://www.holyisland.org/

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