June 23-25, 2009
From Luang Nam Tha we caught a bus heading south to Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang is an ancient royal city and is the #1 tourist destination in Laos. But it doesn’t feel overly crowded. The town center is definitely designed for two audiences: monks and tourists. For the monks there are lots of monasteries. For the tourists there are plenty of hotels (in French-colonial style buildings), restaurants, cafes, artists shops, and a bustling night market. Just outside of this tiny center you find locals just doing their thing – going to school, going to work, playing soccer, etc. The city has a very pleasant chilled-out feel. It’s definitely one of the nicest cities we visited on our trip.
Pnina enjoying some pineapple as we walk down the street in “downtown” Luang Prabang:
Guys playing soccer in a field just outside Luang Prabang’s center:
This game is similar to volleyball, except that you only use your legs and your head, and you use a whicker-style ball. By the way, this shot makes it look like that one guy totally round-housed the other guy over the net, but it’s just an optical illusion 🙂
Royal Palace Museum
In the center of Luang Prabang sits the Royal Palace Museum. To give some context about this palace, here’s a quick recap of Lao history (with help from Wikipedia):
- The first Laos kingdom was founded in 1353 and was called Lan Xang: the land of 1000 elephants
- In the 1700’s, Laos was taken over by Siamese (Thai) rulers
- In the 1800’s, Laos was incorporated into the French Indonesia ‘protectorate’
- Following a brief Japanese occupation in WWII, Laos declared independence in 1945. The French were slow to actually give up control.
- Laos was dragged into the Vietnam War (1959-1975) when the North Vietnamese Army invaded eastern Laos and the US responded with a large bombing campaign (in fact, Laos has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country in the world). This fight evolved into a civil war for control Laos, with the communist Pathet Lao on one side (backed by north Vietnamese and the USSR) and the Royal Lao Army on the other side (backed by the US and Thailand).
- Pathet Lao was the victor. In 1975 he overthrew the royal Lao government and forced King Savang Vatthana to abdicate.
- The socialist regime was relaxed over time. Laos was admitted into ASEAN in 1997. The US established normal trade relations with Laos in 2005.
So, the palace in the center of Luang Prabang was the king’s home until 1975, when the king was forced to abdicate and the palace was turned into a museum.
At the entrance to the palace complex there’s a very ornate temple, multi-roofed and heavily gilded. This temple is free to enter and it’s quite nice.
The temple at the entrance to the Royal Palace Museum:
But to enter the actual palace museum you need to pay a fee and leave all your stuff at the entrance – no shoes, no bags, no food, no water, and most importantly, no cameras. So we can only show a photo of the outside…
The Royal Palace Museum:
The big showpiece inside the museum is a small statue of the Buddha that was made in Sri Lanka and was given by the Khmer king (of Cambodia) to the king of Xan Lang (Laos) in 1356. This statue is called the Prabang Buddha, like the city. We saw several local tourists come by to pray to this statue – it’s obviously highly regarded. To us it looked nice enough, but not really all that different from the thousand other Buddhas we’d seen everywhere.
Buddha aside, there was one room that was pretty interesting. It had glass cases displaying gifts given to the Laos king by various other countries. The most impressive gifts were these intricate ivory carvings from China. The most oddball: a model of the moon lander from the US. There were also some other rooms showing various royal possessions – the bedroom, the dining room, the throne, various swords, etc.
It was all OK, but we’re not sure it’s worth the entrance fee. We would recommend visiting the free temple at the entrance and skipping the museum itself.
Up the Hill
Across the street from the royal palace there’s a staircase that leads up a hill called Phu Si. Along the way there are various temples, most of them new. The main attraction is the view at the top of the hill.
We started climbing the hill but we got sidetracked after only a few steps. Three girls were sitting on the side of the hill, playing games, and they called us to join them. Kids are awesome – they don’t see a need for formal introductions or ice breakers. Before we knew it, one girl started arranging Pnina’s hair into pig tails, while the other girl borrowed my camera to record herself singing songs. It was all good fun until Pnina and I decided it was time to move on. Immediately the girls rushed off to bring their trays of hand-made trinkets and asked us if we would buy something. Ahhhh!! Pnina and I hate being put in that position – we rarely buy anything during the trip because we don’t want to weigh down our backpacks any more, but how do you explain that to a 5-year-old local girl? It made us wonder if they enjoyed our play time at all, or if this was all just a sales tactic.
Pnina getting her hair styled:
Shahaf and the three girls having fun playing dice on the hillside:
Anyhow, eventually we did reach the hilltop and the view was certainly worth the climb and the small fee.
The view from the top of Phu Si:
We also found some incredible green insects that hovered around one of the trees at the top of the hill. They were so beautiful – their exoskeleton was bright metallic green. One insect would land on a choice leaf, and then others would collect on top of him (landing with a loud click), forming chains. Then they all dispersed and collected elsewhere. Pnina’s 200mm lens was very handy here, though I still wish we could have gotten closer.
One of the green insects about to land on another:
At first we assumed it was some kind of mating ritual, but 4 at a time??
When we had our fill of green bugs, we descended down the other side of the hill. Along the way we saw more Buddha statues scattered about.
A lizard hanging out on a Buddha statue:
Monks and Temples
Each morning in Luang Prabang, hundreds of monks walk through the streets collecting donations from locals. It’s an old tradition and now it’s also a tourist attraction. To see it you need to wake up pretty early. The first monks start marching around 6 AM, and the whole thing is over before 7. I managed to wake up one morning early enough to glimpse the action but Pnina didn’t bother (she opted to sleep in). Each monk carried a spherical bowl into which he collected the donations. The donations were mostly simple foods (generally sticky rice), though some people brought flowers. The whole process was unusually quiet. No monk said “thank you”. No donor said “you’re welcome”. The donations were just kind of expected. It was very strange.
Monks walking down the streets of Luang Prabang early in the morning to collect donations:
If you don’t wake up early enough to see the donation ritual, it’s OK, you can still catch monks around town. Actually, you’d have to try hard to miss them.
A few monk boys hanging out at the steps of a temple:
Monks praying inside one of many monasteries (Pnina was not allowed in here):
Most homes and shops had a kind of “mini-temple” sitting outside. It looked like an ornate mailbox. Some of them had fresh flowers or candles.
A mini-temple outside a shop:
A “blessed parking spot” inside one of the monastery complexes:
Arts and Crafts
Just outside Luang Prabang there are several villages that specialize in different arts and crafts. Pnina and I rented bicycles and rode across the river to a village called Ban Sang Khong, where the shops specialize in silk-weaving and paper-making (the other villages focused on steel-work and jar-making, which were less interesting to us).
Riding across the river to the village of Ban Sang Khong:
All the workshops had an area where you could watch artisans working. We found one silk shop where we could see both the weaving machines and the actual silk worms. The shops here don’t actually cultivate silk worms – they purchase the silk thread from distributors abroad (e.g. from China). So the worms we saw were just there for the tourists, but we’re glad they were there – it’s interesting to see where silk actually originates.
Women using traditional machines to make silk fabrics (mostly scarves):
A basket of silk worms:
A close up of some silk worms:
Simple hand-made scarves (these cost around $8):
Very intricate silk scarves (these cost around $40):
There were a few shops that focused on paper-making. They used all kinds of material to make the paper (including elephant dung – no joke!). They sold greeting cards, journals, umbrellas, and plain paper stock.
Hand-made paper drying in the sun:
Large sheets of paper made from elephant dung:
Umbrellas made from local paper at one of the fancier hotels in the city:
Paper cut-outs for sale in one of the book stores in the city:
On the way back to the city we saw these large “pancakes” drying in the sun. We’re not sure if this was food or if it was also some kind of craft:
Tat Kuang Si Waterfall
There are a few places outside Luang Prabang that are famous day-trip destinations. The most famous are the Pak Ou Caves, a pair of caves in the lower part of limestone cliffs that are jammed with Buddha images. Pnina and I decided to skip these caves because we couldn’t imagine being impressed by yet another Buddha statue (and it was probably a good call – we spoke with a few other people who did go to the caves and nobody seemed particularly excited about them). Instead we went to a waterfall called Tat Kuang Si. Now, we didn’t have huge expectations for the falls either because we’d also seen a ton of waterfalls by this point in the trip, and the one we recently saw in Luang Nam Tha was kind of disappointing. But this place by Luang Prabang was truly awesome. First off, it had the same kind of limestone-ish/clear water that impressed us back in Baishui Tai and Jiuzhaigou. The water here was not quite as clear, but on the other hand swimming here was allowed and there was a gorgeous pool tucked away at the top of the hill where we had a blast jumping into the water. Getting to this pool was a little tough – the path was steep and occasionally slippery – but that made being in the pool that much better.
At the entrance to the park there’s an enclosure for a few rescued Sun Bears. They are very different from other bears we’d seen before:
Pnina in front of the first of several cascading pools:
Further along the trail. Some of these pools had ropes tied to branches, and people took turns “tarzan’ing” into the water:
The beautiful pool at the top – and I’m jumping into it. My camera ran out of juice when we got here so we asked some of the other people if they wouldn’t mind taking our photo and emailing it to us later – which they did! Thanks Ingrid!
One of the guys at the pool told us about a fun game he and his friends play whenever they find a good place to jump into water. Each time you jump, you need to act out some famous character while you are in the air, and everybody else needs to guess your character. It’s kind of like charades. The standard jump is superman: jump forward and act like you’re flying, with one fist forward (though I guess that can look like Malcolm X, right?)
The only thing we regret about this waterfall excursion is that we didn’t plan to stay longer. To get to the falls we jumped on one of the many oversized tuk-tuks heading to the waterfall from central Luang Prabang, and the agreement was that our driver would wait for us for 3 hours before we all headed back. Well, three hours was not enough. Some of the other people from our tuk-tuk had such a great time that they decided to screw the driver and just keep hanging out at the falls. Not cool! Pnina and I were straight-laced so we begrudgingly came back to the tuk-tuk and headed back. If you come here (and we hope you do), we suggest making a full day out of it. Pack a lunch, bring a towel, bring something to read, and make sure to take a one-way ride to the falls; you can always find another tuk-tuk for the ride back (there are lots of tuk-tuks hanging out in the parking lot by the park entrance).
Where else would you put the clock?