Friday, April 13, 2012

Ahhhh - Luang Prabang!

Evening mist at the Mekong
What an exciting place on earth it is - Luang Prabang. I had heard and read a lot about it in all my research about temples and Buddha images and I had long dreamt to visit it. So, I finally just went. 

I stayed for a stunning two weeks, which everyone said would be too long. But one of my friends who knows me well, said that the way I visit places, I will not run out of things to do and see. And he was totally correct about that! I actually ran out of time and did not visit all the places I wanted to see. 
First impression of the Mekong

Luang Prabang is a lovely little town high up in the mountains of northern Laos, right next to the Mekong river. And it was the Mekong river, which was the first thing for me to see after landing and checking into my hotel. I wanted to get myself oriented first and I had seen amazing photos about the sunsets of Luang Prabang at the river.  So here I went - just in time for my first sunset at the Mekong in Northern Laos! It was an unbelievable atmosphere with village people hurrying back home across the river, locals locking down their boats for the night and the setting sun turning the sky and the water into a beautiful orange scene.

What a great start for this trip it was! I did walk along the river every day, crossed it a few times and it just became a constant companion in those two weeks. 

Luxury in Luang Prabang
My main purpose to visit Luang Prabang was to visit the temples, their architecture and their monks. And there is many many temples, which will be part of another blog (I hope). And I met many many monks and became friends with some of them, going back to their temples every morning and every evening for their chanting and prayers. Besides working down my list of temples to visit, I did go back to several of them to talk with my monk-friends and learn more about everyday life in the temple. 

Night market
The morning alms-round is an almost surreal experience when out of the morning dusk suddenly appear long columns of quietly walking men in saffron and orange on their way to collect food. It is still dark when the first ones are walking by without making a sound. And I started to recognize some of their faces from the temple visits, which made my mornings even more special. There are quiet places to enjoy this serene scene, but there are also spots where all the tourists go and where most of the monks make their daily rounds. Those spots are still nice, but with with a constant clicking sound of cameras. There is posters all over Luang Prabang asking visitors to behave respectfully, so that this tradition can live on. 

Morning market
One thing I was not prepared for was the sheer amount of tourists in Luang Prabang. On my first day, I felt like there were no locals around, until I found out where to walk and how to avoid the masses. You cannot avoid night market and I did buy a lot of things there, but it is what everyone else is doing. The morning market was more traditional in the early hours before some of the tourists also appeared here. I used to go to the markets with monks to buy food for them and since I did not know what to buy and how to buy it I just loaded a few monks into my tuk-tuk and we went shopping together. 

Nam Khan River
Walking along the Mekong and the Nam Khan River, which runs into the Mekong at the northern end of Luang Prabang, was like walking into another world. Quiet! And mostly just monks and novices walking to and from their classrooms and temples. The color orange is a constant sight. 

Crossing the rivers to the other sides will enable you to see and experience the real Laos (though a bit spoiled from tourism), while Luang Prabang with its UNESCO World Heritage status is a bit like a living museum. Old structures, beautiful temples, amazing villas and houses, all filled with restaurants, galleries, shops and tour offices. 

Royal Palace and National Museum
The Royal Palace, which is now the National Museum is a must to visit. It is here where one can see and pay respect to the Buddha statue which gives Luang Prabang it's name - the Pra Bang Buddha. 

The Buddha was the initial stop for me on my first full day before starting my tours. I always try to follow this order - visit the most important Buddha image on day one. In Bangkok that would be the Emerald Buddha in Wat Phra Kaeo and here it was this beautiful standing Buddha image made of solid gold, weighting 43 kilograms. It is well protected though and only visible behind bars. A bit of a sad scene. But it is carried around town in a procession during the Lao New Year. A good reason for another visit!

Sunset from Mount Phousi
The sunset seen from Mount Phousi is the other important thing to do. And it is a lovely sunset, great colors and a great view. But you share it with hundreds of tourists. A real zoo!! There is almost no space to sit or stand and there is definitely nothing serene about it, no matter how beautiful the photos look. I did it once only, even though I had initially planned to do it every night to get different views of the sunset. 

View from Mount Phousi

Crossing the Mekong river to the other side by boat is quite an experience!  You can get a feel of it through my post with the video and the next post will be about the villages and the views from over there. 

View of the other side of the Mekong

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