The riverside town of Luang Prabang offers a tranquil Buddhist atmosphere, elegant traditional Lao architecture and some of the best –preserved colonial buildings in Indochina
My flight arrived to in Luang Prabang, the former capital of Laos, in the early evening. Greeting me was a red sun setting over the mighty Mekong river. The Mekong and the Nam Khan embrace the town and steep mountains encircle it, as if to protect Luang Prabang from the outside world.
For 500 years Luang Prabang was the capital of Laos, the “Land of a Million Elephants”. This legacy has left dozens of pagodas, shrines and palaces, along with more than 600 wooden houses on the ancient Lao style. Laotians regard Luang Prabang as their country’s soul. Indeed, it feels as though the old kingdom’s spirit still lingers there, in the sound of the tocsins, in the saffron robes of the monks… The landscape is so dreamy that time seems to have slowed here.
It is said that the quintessense of Lao architecture is condensed within the pagoda of Wat Xieng Thoong. This pagoda, the name of which means “Golden city”, is neither grandiose nor imposing, yet possesses a fascinating beauty. Its subtly curving layers of roof tops, its carvings and relieves, its gold and silver decorations, and the gemstones-and-glass mosaic shining under tropical sunlight never fail to leave visistors stunned. One can not help but admire the pagoda’s sophistication and the skill of the craftsmen who made it.
A mere 29 km from the city center lie the jade-green Kuang Si Falls. The waterfalls have many levels. Surrounded by immense trees, the falls form perfect natural pools for those seeking refreshment. Another must-see in Luang Prabang is Mount Phousi, reportedly the best spot in Laos to watch the sunset. Every day a crowd of quiet visitors gathers here, surrounded by the scent of frangipani blossoms. Camera in hand, they try to capture the last rays of sunlight on the distant mountain ranges.
Luang Prabang has inherited an architectural fusion of East and West. Alongside traditional wooden houses stand colonial French style villas, original or renovated to a high level of luxury and style. The town’s authentic cultural value, which is increasingly hard to find in today’s world, is drawing more and more visitors. Each year tourists outnumber locals by four to one. Downtown and in the open air night market (open 5Pm to 10pm), foreigners are the majority. Though restaurants, shops and spa abound, the quality of most services is not yet up to international standards.
Sitting in a riverside restaurant eating a local delicacy of barbecued fish, a Lao friend of mine confided: “Luang Prabang is changing fast. I don’t know if our culture will remain intact for long. And tourism facilities are not very well-planned and organized. We Laotians are too modest and content with our lives… “His words make me worry. Can this special town retain its beauty?
Upon bidding farewell to the “Land of a Million Elephants”, I bought an antique bronze elephant from the night market. The elephant lifts its front leg and curves its trunk in a salute, as if inviting me to return one day.