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February 24, 2019

Touring Luang Prabang. Laos UNESCO World Heritage wonder


Len Rutledge discovers the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang

Laos has suddenly become a tourism hotspot for adventurous Australians but Luang Prabang, Laos' ancient capital, has been around for a long time. It has richly decorated temples, quaint French-Indochinese architecture, intriguing history, intense spirituality, and inviting cuisine. This UNESCO World Heritage-listed town is a great place to visit.

Most of the town's key sights are set on a small peninsula between the Mekong and the Nam Khan Rivers. Luang Prabang's charming old quarter is filled with Lao-French buildings, good bakeries, cute cafes, great restaurants, nice shops and interesting markets.

Because it has become quite popular recently, Luang Prabang has become pricey for a traveller on a budget, but there is still some accommodation for around $40 a night while some of the top options are pushing $250.

Luang Prabang is a great place to slow down and chill out but there are a number of 'must-do' things for all visitors. Here are some of them

The temples and monks

Luang Prabang is the spiritual centre of Laos. You could easily while away hours admiring the ornate decoration on the wats. Some not to miss include Wat Visounnarath with its unusually shaped stupa, one of the oldest built back in 1512; gold-gilded Wat Xieng Thong where Lao kings were once coronated; and Wat Mai next to the Palace Museum, which was once the home of the head of Laotian Buddhism.

Every morning at sunrise, locals and some tourists line the streets to put offerings of sticky rice into bowls carried by saffron-robed monks. By giving food it's believed that you "make merit", which is carried over into the next life.

It's quite common to see monks and young "novices" in saffron-coloured robes casually walking the streets at other times of the day. Somehow this adds a special charm and provides a sense of peace and tranquillity for visitors.

The Royal Palace

Built over a century ago in a French-Lao architectural style, the Royal Palace was created for King Sisavang Vong during the French colonial era. After the 1975 revolution, the complex was taken over by the government and later converted into the museum it is today. Inside the grounds you'll see the king's cars and a gold-gilded royal barge, while the main building has a throne room and more. It is not in the same category as some of south-east Asia's other palaces but it is worth taking a quick look.

Mount Phu Si

This is a 150-metre high mountain boasting 360-degree views from the summit right in the middle of Luang Prabang. Like almost everything else in Luang Prabang these days, you need to pay to walk the few hundred steps to the top. It is beautiful at sunrise or sunset but it gets really crowded up there at sunset and some of the visitors who want to take photographs can be loud and pushy.

I prefer a quiet spot along the street closest to the Mekong River for sunset shots.

Markets

It would not be south-east Asia without markets and Luang Prabang has them in abundance. It starts with the morning market which always commenced before I got up and finished by about 11 am.

Nightly, local hill-tribe traders and others set up stalls along Sisavangvong Road. You can buy handicrafts and trinkets, silk scarves, elephant pants, other clothes, coffee beans, jewellery, and many other things. Haggling is required and you need to shop around for a reasonable price.

The Night Food Market is in a narrow lane towards one end of the Night Market. It is lined with buffet-style food stalls piled high with local delicacies such as spicy noodles, tangy salads, barbecued meats and more. It can get very crowded but you can easily get a great meal for $4 then wash it down with a crisp Beer Lao.

Exploring further afield

I suggest renting a bicycle one afternoon for further exploration of the town's outer reaches before going further afield.

There are two very popular day-trips.

30 kilometres from Luang Prabang, Kuang Si Falls is a multi-level waterfall with turquoise waters, flowing through lush jungle. You can swim and cool off in its shallow pools or enjoy the spectacle sight of the main falls. Near the entrance gate, you see part of the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre that rescues bears from poachers and provides them with a home.

Around 25 kilometres north of Luang Prabang, you will find the Pak Ou Caves. The tour included a 2-hour boat ride each way on the fascinating Mekong River with a couple of stops at villages on the way. The two limestone caverns are a respected religious destination and combined they are crammed with more than 4,000 Buddhist icons. It helps if you bring a torch so you can explore away from the crowds.

Getting There

There are direct flights to either Bangkok or Singapore from Australia and onward flights from there to Luang Prabang.

A visa is required to enter Laos but it can be obtained at the Luang Prabang airport for about $40.

www.LenRutledge.com

Words: Len Rutledge Images: Phensri Rutledge

Feature supplied by: www.wtfmedia.com.au



Images

1. The Mekong

2. Monks in the morning

3. Wat Xieng Thong

4. Morning markets

5. Kuang Si Falls

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