The former royal capital of Laos, Luang Prabang is a dreamlike destination. Set on the banks of the Mekong River and surrounded by rugged mountains, this tiny town appears from the air like a vision of Shangri-La.
Luang Prabang was once known as Xiang Thong, which means ‘Golden City’, and it still merits this title, as the gleaming spires of its temple stupas dot the town’s skyline. Unesco recognized the importance of its temples and cultural heritage, in the form of French colonial architecture, in 1995 when the town was awarded World Heritage status.
Since then the town has become the top destination for visitors to Laos and one of the most popular places in all of Southeast Asia. While its main attractions are the beautifully designed and decorated temples, there are plenty of other activities, such as climbing the small hill of Phu Si to enjoy the view and taking a boat trip to the nearby Pak Ou Caves, which contains thousands of Buddha images.
The town’s popularity also ensures that visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to eating, sleeping and shopping. Check out one of the atmospheric restaurants beside the Mekong River for superb sunset views, snuggle into one of the colonial mansions converted into boutique hotels, and pick up reminders of your trip at the Handicraft Night Market.
The best time to visit is between November and February, when days are fresh and sunny, but it’s also the most expensive time. The rainy season (June–October) sees fewer visitors and prices are lower. March to May is the hot season, when humidity is high, so sightseeing can be a sweaty experience.
Singaporeans and citizens of other ASEAN member states can visit Laos for 30 days without a visa. Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months and that you have a return or onward ticket. Visitors from many other countries can get a 30-day visa on arrival at Wattay International Airport in Vientiane for between US$30 and US$45, depending on what passport you are holding.
Currency is the Lao kip. There are ATMs dispensing kip all over town and several banks will exchange foreign currency.
Tuk-tuks are the main form of transport around Luang Prabang, and a trip into town from the airport costs around 50,000 kip. Since the town is so small, hiring a bicycle is a pleasant way to get around.
There are no particular health risks in Luang Prabang, but it’s advisable to have health insurance that includes repatriation as there are no good hospitals in town. While theft is rare, hang on tight to your bags in crowded areas like markets.
The nearest Singapore Embassy is in Vientiane at Km 3, Thadeua Road, Ban Wat Nak, Vientiane
(tel: 856 21 353 939; www.mfa.gov.sg/vientiane).
The tourist police office is on Sisavanvong Road (tel: 856 71252 903).
|How are you?||Sabai dee baw|
|Fine, thanks||Sabai dee|
|Nice to meet you||Nyin dee tee hu chak|
|Goodbye (person leaving)||La gon|
|Goodbye (person staying)||Sok dee|
|Thank you||Kop chai|
|You’re welcome||Baw pen nyang|
|What’s your name?||Chao seu nyang?|
|My name is…||Koy seu…|
|Where are you from?||Chao ma tae sai?|
|I come from…||Koy ma tae…|
|Where is…?||You sai…?|
|Bus station||Satanee lotmeh|
|Tourist office||Hong kan tong teeow|
|How much is…?||Tow dai…?|
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Royal Palace Museum
The Royal Palace Museum (no sleeveless shirts or shorts) was built in 1904 by the French for King Sisavang Vong, who lived there until 1959. The site has access to the Mekong River from where the king used to embark on river journeys. The architecture is a fusion of French and Lao design, and visitors can view the throne room and residential rooms, though the museum’s prize exhibit is the Pha Bang Buddha image after which the town is named. If you’re a vintage car enthusiast, don’t miss the Royal Palace Car Collection in the northern corner of the compound.
Wat Xieng Thong
If you only visit one temple in Luang Prabang, make it Wat Xieng Thong, which is a masterpiece of Buddhist temple architecture. It was built in 1560 by King Setthathirath and remained under royal patronage until 1975, when the monarchy was overthrown. The temple is located near the confluence of the Mekong and Kham Rivers, and the large compound includes the sim (ordination hall) as well as several stupas, three chapel halls and a funerary carriage hall. Take your time gazing at the beautiful decorations on the inner and outer walls, especially the ‘tree of life’ made of glass mosaics on the back wall of the sim.
Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham
Along with Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham was the only temple in Luang Prabang to escape destruction in 1887 by gangs of Haw invaders, apparently because they found it so beautiful. It stands right next to the Royal Palace Museum and its sim (ordination hall) features a spectacular gold relief on the entrance wall that depicts scenes from the life of Buddha along with scenes of village life. The temple’s importance is shown by the fact that it is home to the Phra Sangkharat, the highest Lao Buddhist dignitary.
UXO Laos Visitor Center
Lest you forget that Laos was the most heavily bombed country per capita in human history, pay a visit to the UXO Laos Visitor Center, located behind the Chao Anuvong Monument on Phothisan Road. Here you’ll discover that around 25 percent of Lao villages are still contaminated with unexploded ordnance (UXO), over 2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973, and lots of other scary statistics you probably never knew.
Begin the day by diving head first into the morning market, which occupies several lanes off Sisavangvong Road just south of the Royal Palace Museum. Here you’ll see many exotic fruits and vegetables, as well as leaves and roots that are used for medicinal purposes. Be warned that you’re likely to see dogs, squirrels and frogs ready for the cooking pot too.
A few steps east of the market, clamber up the prominent hill of Phu Si for fantastic views (on a clear day) of the town and its surroundings. The hill is only 100 metres (328ft) high and is topped by the golden stupa of That Chomsi. Keep an eye open for an anti-aircraft gun left rusting here, a reminder of years of war.
Descend the hill on the north side and go straight into the Royal Palace Museum. For much of the 20th century, this was home to King Sisavang Vong, and visitors can now see the throne room and residential rooms that have remained largely unchanged since the monarchy was deposed in 1975. The most important exhibit in the museum is the Pha Bang Buddha image, housed in its own building.
From the Royal Palace Museum, make your way northeast along Sakkarin Road to Wat Xieng Thong, which sits on a spur of land between the Mekong and Khan Rivers, and is one of the most exquisitely designed temples in all of Southeast Asia. Note how the temple’s eaves sweep down almost to the ground. The so-called ‘Red Chapel’ houses an unusual reclining Buddha image, and the funerary carriage hall is surrounded by some sensual bas relief images.
Morning market, Phu Si, Royal Palace Museum, Wat Xieng Thong