Though Wat Aham is considered by many to be one of the less spectacular of the many wats that dot Luang Prabang, it remains a special one for me as it was the very first that I saw. With its close proximity to Wat Visoun and That Makmo, it is understandable that it gets lost in the shuffle but its atmospheric setting made it far more photogenic than either of its more famous neighbors. I actually remember very little about the inside of this wat as my memory is clouded by the amazing experiences in Wat Visoun just next door. When we entered the Wat around lunch time, we were struck by the droning chant of a large group of monks prior to their midday meal. There they sat, glad in their orange robes, all in a row, each with a green bottle of 7-UP in front of them and a white straw uniformly jutting out. It was a photo I dared not take though the image remains indelibly etched in my mind. After their meal, we were invited to partake in some local delicacies and have a chat. I love trying the different foods especially the laap, a minced raw meat mixed with hot chilies that was eaten with balls of sticky glutinous rice. Later that night, I came down with a fever and profuse diarrhea and vomiting. Did it keep me from trying different foods? Yeah, for a day or so, but I was right back at it after that. Despite the consequences, it remains one of the most vivid memories of the entire trip.
Just to show that all that glitters isn’t gold, it turns out this spectacular piece of classic Luang Prabang architecture was just built in the year 2000 houses the Prabang standing Buddha. In this same complex is the Royal Palace that is somewhat less awe inspiring. It is nonetheless one of the top attractions in town as the interior shows many artifacts as well as a well preserved royal apartments. In addition to this historical aspect, another attraction is the general coolness of the building. It is a great place to go midday when it is hot outside and you want to cool off. It is also the same complex where the Royal Theater is performed.
Wat Pa Pai is little visited so is a nice place to escape whatever small crowds that Luang Prabang draws. Beside a very ornate sim, Wat Pa Pai is a great place to observe monks going about their daily routine. Since it is not as popular as some of the other wats, the monks are not as aggressive to get you to chat and you can get some nice candid photos.
Sometimes it’s all about the light especially when it comes to snapping photos. We arrived at Wat Xieng Thong with the light setting on the back end of the main buildings. I would go back on another day to take a photo of the Sim from the front. Here you can see the ornate backside of the Pavilion of the Reclining Buddha and the Golden Tree mosaic from the back of the Sim.
Wat Xieng Thong, built in the 1500s, is not only one of the city’s oldest but also considered its most elegant. It is a sprawling complex full of ornate temples, many utilizing mirrored mosaic tiles. Located at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers, it enjoys one of the more scenic views of any of the town’s wats. Pictured is the wats sim or ordination hall which has the sweeping roof style considered the classic feature of Luang Prabang architecture.
A climb to the top of Phu Si Hill is certainly a highlight of any Luang Prabang stay. There are many routes up and down and the 325 foot hill is studded with temples and shrines to discover. The most popular time to do it is just before sunset. The light shed on the surrounding hills is golden and you get a 300 degree view. It is well worth the 8000 Kip entrance fee though I imagine it must be a lot more peaceful to do the hike early in the morning. The pictured view is from the Khan River side and far less busy than coming up from Sisavong Vang Road.
Pak Au cave is one of the more popular day trips from Luang Prabang. The most common way is to take a ninety minute cruise there with a group. There are are some problems with that if you arrived in town via the Mekong River trip from Pak Peng or do not like group travel. If you are in the first group, this trip to the caves is a repeat of what you've already seen. One alternative is to hire a jumbo (taxi cum pickup truck) to take you to the village of Pak Au. This will run you about 40,000 Kip ($4) each way and the driver will wait for you. This way you get to check out the small village and its traditional lifestyle as well as the Buddha laden cave across the river. After that, walk down to the river and hire a boat to the caves. This will be about a dollar roundtrip. The approach to the cave from the water is spectacular, especially in early morning light, but the cave itself is a bit anticlimatic. It seems just a hole full of discarded Buddhas but I would rate the trip as something worth doing if in Luang Prabang for more than two days.
Mount Phousi (also spelled Phu Si) rises 150m up from the center of Lunag Prabang. A steep climb of 300 steps and small admission fee will take you to the top, where you will be rewarded with spectacular panoramic views of the city and surrounding countryside. Wat That Chom Sii sits on top of the hill, and its gold stupa is lit up at night, making for a bright beakon visible from anywhere in the city. In addition, there are several small shrines and a monastery on the hill.
I recommend climbing Mount Phousi as your first activity in Luang Prabang, as it gives you an excellent lay of the land.
30km south of Luang Prabang are the impressive Kuang Si Waterfalls. They are in a remote area surrounded by several ethnic minority villages. The area around the falls has been developed into a pleasant park, with an area for picnics, and there are several food and drink vendors nearby. There are trails that allow you to hike to the top of the falls and you can swim in the pools at the bottom. Makes for a very pleasant daytrip if you stop at the villages on the way.
We were on purpose having our trip during Songkran Festival (April) in Laos. The timing is the same as Thailand's Songkran, which is considered new year day of ours. And, it turns out to be fantastic. I can feel that the atmosphere is not so much different from Chieng Mai or Bangkok's songkran decades ago (oh...I'm old).
It was much fun and we were wet all day.
If you want to visit Luang Prabang (and I strongly suggest you do), I would encourage you to go NOW! Don't wait until Luang Prabang is getting developed and become like Chieng Mai or Phuket, where what you see are tourists, pubs and bars.
Without its people and their ways of life, Luang Prabang is just another small town. No worth visiting.
I started to see many tourist shops and restaurants popping up. If the trend persists, Luang Prabang will not worth visitng anymore.
Hopefully, not many more of this tourist stuff in Luang Prabang!!!
I am not for one minute suggesting that the readers of VT are anything other than useful, but if you are in Luang Prabang there is something really useful you can do that will not cost you a penny and will, I guarantee you, make you feel good about yourself. I shall explain by reproducing an antry from my blog which describes what I did.
"This morning I went to a place called Big Brother Mouse, a strange name I know. Big Brother Mouse specialises in trying to attain literacy in the poorer areas round Luang Prabang. In fact, I read in the Vientiane Times that 30% of females aged 6 - 25 have never been to school. They commission books for which they need sponsorship and distribute them in the Province but their shop / office / classroom serves as a drop-in centre every day except Sunday from 0900 - 1100 as a learning facility for Lao people wanting to learn English.
I speak about ten words of Lao, have no teaching qualification, well no qualifications at all unless you count my Cycling Proficiency Badge and a couple of swimming awards, but this doesn't matter. Many Lao can now speak English as learned at school from Lao teachers but they want to work on pronunciation etc. Heaven forbid there should now be three young men in Lao speaking with Belfast accents! It really could not be simpler. There are a couple of tables, a few maps on the wall and a few childrens English posters of the A is for apple, O is for owl type, and you just sit down, introduce yourself and talk. Heaven knows I am good enough at that.
I have always respected teachers and now I begin to realise why. I had no classroom plan or whatever they are called, so what to talk about? It really was quite nerve wracking at first, especially given the natural shyness of the Lao. What do you talk about? There is no guidance at all from the staff there so you just wing it. My "group", although it is all very informal, consisted of three (H)mong lads, two about 20 and one only 12 years old. They were all from far flung villages in LP Province and the two elder lads were working in town whilst the youngster was studying at school a few miles out of LP. We had two books, an English / Lao dictionary and a book of kids games that Big Brother Mouse produce. So off we went.
We started with the usual, "What is your name?", "Where are you from?" routine, so I came to Northern Ireland. That had to be shown on the very useful world map on the wall, so it gave me a plan. Northern Ireland - North. All the guys had notebooks which they assiduously wrote things in, so I got out the pen and did the points of the compass, using my guidebook to demonstrate. LP is Northwest of Vientiane etc. That led to compass and sailors / boats etc. and we discussed long tail boats and slow boats on the Mekong. I could not mime or demonstrate sailor so the dictionary came into play. Remember sailor, it becomes a little odd later on.
So, we had done the compass thing and then I noticed one of the older guys, the quiet one, was wearing an Inter Milan top. I asked if he supported them, trying to start a talk about football which the Lao love, but he told me he had bought it because it was warm! In about 30 degree heat and me sweating like the proverbial pig, I found this odd. However, I then regaled them with the story of the founding of that club in 1908. The kids play book was then brought into play, so I got the young lad to read aloud from it (it is in English and Lao) and it started to get difficult. It has long been the butt of humour that Eastern Asians confuse our L and R sounds, thereby rendering farang as falang etc. They also, like the Germans, have a serious difficulty with the W sound and render it as a V, so a fairly extended session on that, correct pronounciation of walk was the big one.
We were having a great laugh, and one of the kids games in the book was "write your name in the air with your bottom". I can just imagine the hilarity this must cause in a village. So, bottom led to the concepts of bottom top and sides, which went well. Then I was writing something in one of the guy's books and I noticed on the opposite pages a drawing of the Golden Gate Bridge, a map of San Fransisco etc. and a Chinese female name. Apparently, one of the large Chinese community in that city had come here to do what I was doing. I explained that San Fransisco was Spanish for Saint Francis. "What is a saint?" was the inevitable question. How do you explain the concept of sainthood to someone with only the scantest knowedge of Christianity? Go on, try it yourself. I think I managed. This is where it gets odd. In the two hours I was there we probably looked up about five words, so we looked up saint, and what was it adjacent to? Sailor, as above. What are the chances?
Somewhere in the middle of all this I thought to explain how odd a language English was. I did this to make them feel better as they were obviously trying so very hard and it was difficult for them. In fact, their thirst for knowledge was a truly humbling experience, not lost on one who basically squandered the opportunity of a very good education. You English speakers have a go at this. I wrote down BOW and explained it meant a thing you tie on your shoe, bending at the waist, something with an arrow and the front of a boat. Confusing enough until I told them BOUGH as in part of a tree was also pronounced the same as bending at the waist. English is my mother tongue and it confuses the life out of me.
Then he hit me with another one. "What is Engand and what is Britain?" Here we go again. I am sure there are British passport holders who would struggle to differentiate between Britain, Great Britain and the UK. Cue another trip to the map and a discourse on the political makeup of the UK, the passport being used to demonstrate. Which led to more discussion of the perversity of the English language. I was talking about the visa stamp in my passport for PDR Lao. You are undoubteldy ahead of me already, dear reader. Stamp. What is in your passport, what you put on a letter and what you do with your foot. Three entirely different concepts served by the same word.
The older, quiet guy hit me with another couple of questions and I realised how little I actually know about my own language. He asked what did "somebody" mean and he asked me to explain when to use the word "a" and the word "the". Go on, try it. Try to explain that. I know when to use them but damned if I knew how to explain it. I tried my best though.
All too soon the two hour session was over and I have to say I left feeling pretty drained. It is very hard work that teaching lark, glad I never took it as a profession, although this place really is so rewarding. The looks on their faces are a joy and there is no expectation of you, you don't need to be a formal teacher, although I might jot down a few topics for next time should the conversation falter. If any of you ever venture this way, I strongly urge you to do this, it costs you nothing except a bit of a taxation on your brain, and mine could do with it, and the results are so, so wonderful. I didn't want to stick a camera in these young mens faces so I only took a photo from a distance."
Believe me, I sound like I am gushing there but it really was that fulfilling and I recommend it to any native English speaker.
25km up the Mekong river from Luang Prabang are the Pak Ou Caves. There are actually two caves, Tham Ting and Tham Phun, and each houses countless small Buddha statues that have been left at the caves by devotees over several hundred years.
The lower cave looks out across the Mekong itself and can be accessed by boat from the pier below. The upper cave requires a short hike up a flight of stairs and is much deeper and darker inside. So dark in fact, that you need a flashlight to see anything towards the back (you can rent a flashlight at the cave entrance for a small fee).
A common stop for tourists travelling up the Mekong from Luang Prabang to the Pak Ou Caves is the village of Ban Xang Hai, which is famous for the production of moonshine rice whiskey, known locally as Lao Lao. The rice whiskey is made by soaking rice in large jars with water brought directly from the Mekong. The rice ferments for several days after which it can be drunk as is or distilled to greatly increase the alcohol content.
Almost everyone in the village sells Lao Lao on the streets, and a bottle cost about US$3-5.
This market starts to set up as soon as the sun sets - and its a lovely, somewhat leisurely thing to do in the evenings as you digest dinner, or work up to dinner. We stayed right beside the start of the market in Sisavanvong Road, and strolled along it each night - never leaving empty handed!
The range of handwoven cotton and silk textiles and the beautiful Hmong handmade applique and embroidered bedcovers, wallhangings and various other little items, the intricate and colourful embroidery and woven scarves and tablescloths are to behold, and admire the work and time spent making these items. We bought our daughter a bedcover set for about US$30, and I did not realise that the backing was silk until we got home! There were also plenty of other goodies at the market, such as products from the local handmade saa paper and pictures. I also bought some old stone axes and an opium pipe - all at bargain prices. I wish I had bought more!
You simply can't go to Luang Prabang and miss this - even if you aren't a shopper!