Luang Prabang Top 10
1. Old Royal Palace
On Sisavangong Road lies the double-cruciform-shaped Royal Palace, which dates back to 1904 and displays religious objects and gifts from foreign envoys. In 1975, when the monarchy was overthrown and the Royal Family were taken to re-education camps, the palace was given the more Maoist name of the National Museum.
2. Wat Mai
Set beside the Royal Palace, Wat Mai was built between 1718 and 1788. One of Laos’ most beautiful temples, it once housed one of Asia’s key statues: Luang Pabang’s namesake statue, the 50 kg golden Pha Bang Buddha, now stored in a bank vault. Much Buddhist blood has been spilled fighting over this 2,000-year-old religious relic from Ceylon – captured twice by the Thais, it was eventually returned to the city in 1867 by the devout Buddhist and pacifist Thai King Mongkut. One can only wonder what the Buddha, who forbade people to make images of Him, would have made of people fighting to the death over them. Bereft of its top treasure, Wat Mai retains a magical and almost surrealistically hallucinatory feel, its perfectly-proportioned architecture complemented by decorative detail so exquisite that it seems to come from an Oriental fairy tale. A plaque commemorates 14 children of the penultimate King Of Laos, Sisavang Vong, who drowned in maybe the biggest accidental and simultaneous loss of offspring in history. The devastated King was comforted by some of his 15 wives (including the two who were his half-sisters) and by those 35 of his other children who he recognized as being his own.
3. Mount Phousi
To experience one of southeast Asia’s most spectacular sunsets, cross the road from the Royal Palace and climb the 328 steps to the top of Mount Phousi, the town's most prominent landmark. Serried ranks of hills march into the distance, etched in a palette of hues of blues, pinks and oranges, whilst temple spires still dazzle atop the growing gloom.
4. Wat Xieng Thong (Golden City Temple)
One of Laos' most spectacular temple complexes, Wat Xieng Thong was built by the scourge of Burma, King Setthathirath, in 1560. A classic example of Luang Prabang style, it features a gracefully sloping roof, glass mosaic murals and legions of Buddha statues, large and small, whose abundance brings to mind the First Emperor of China’s Terracotta Army. Eight columns, richly stencilled in gold, guide the eye to the serenest of Buddha figures, seemingly challenging the visitor to attain such contentment for himself. This was the last King of Laos’ favourite temple and where he made his final devotions before being taken to a re-education camp in 1975. For those with the time and the inclination, this epitome of Oriental temple design can be a solace for the soul as well as a feast for the eyes: just devote a little time to sitting silently for a while and soaking up the serenity of the tranquil temple gardens of bougainvillea, frangipani and hibiscus, shaded by banyan and palm trees. Wonder whether such artistry can be other than divinely inspired as you watch the setting sun set the dazzling gold-leaf-overlaid Ramayana figures sculpted on the building’s exterior on fire.
5. Night market
Open until 10pm, the night market unfolds at 5pm. Don’t forget to buy some stamina-enhancing scorpion-and-cobra wine, for that occasion when you need that little bit more strength – just remember to ask a similar-sized shop assistant to taste it first, to make sure it contains the right proportion of poison. If you can’t find a similar-sized shop assistant to be your guinea pig, you’ll just need to try to find somebody back home who is daft or depressed enough to volunteer.
6. Fine Wine and Cakes
Wind up your day with dinner at one of the town's world-class restaurants, where full French flavours are showcased on light Laos backgrounds to sensational effect. Especially noteworthy is L'Elephant, which serves French and Lao food in an elegant yet still relaxed setting. The chef at Apsara fuses Lao and European cuisines in a unique menu that will delight even the most discerning tastebuds, whilst not forcing their owners to dig too deep to settle the bill.
7. Hill tribe villages
For the culturally curious no visit to Luang Prabang will be complete without a trip to its hill tribe villages. Especially noteworthy is the vivid finery on display at Ban Phanom, the cotton and silk hand-weaving village.
8. Wat Pa Phonphao
Built in 1959, during the reign of the last Lao king, Wat Pa Phonphao has a slightly odd ‘cabinet of curiosities’ feel, with the content of the murals ranging from the supernatural to the incongruously pornographic.
9. Pak Ou River Ride
The first French explorers arrived in Luang Prabang by boat, hoping to open up a new route for trade with China. Present-day travellers can shadow their adventures by taking day or overnight trips from the town. A popular daytrip is an excursion by covered wooden longboat along the Mekong River to Pak Ou Grottoes, 25 kilometres upstream from the town. The grottoes, sacred caves tucked into limestone cliffs and filled with hundreds of gilded and wooden Buddha statues, were once occupied by hermits, some of whom ended up spending their entire adult lives in isolation, contemplating the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Why anyone chooses to spend an entire lifetime in isolation is a mystery: maybe these hermits spent so long arriving at the answer that they forgot the question, so had to start over. Tham Ting cave, accessed directly from the riverbank by a stone stairway, is packed with hundreds of ancient Buddha images, all peering out over the river, their impact magnified by the peaceful remoteness of their setting.
After a picnic at the grottoes, travellers can detour up the Nam Ou tributary, with its soaring limestone cliffs. Lots of trade proceeds by boat in this direction, so if the river is in spate you will be treated to the sight of cargo boats running minor rapids. An excellent destination or stopping point up the Nam Ou is the village of Muang Ngoy, whose enchanting setting amidst lofty karst peaks makes it a beautiful place to stop for refreshment. If you decide to spend the night here, expect only basic accommodation.
10. Tad Sae Waterfall
When the baking heat becomes too much, relief is just a tuk-tuk ride away. Set 15 kilometres to the city’s southeast, Tad Sae Waterfall consists of a series of vividly turquoise step waterfalls in calm surroundings, which are perfect for picnicking and bathing. The water is bracingly cold, but perhaps the inviting colour and a swinging rope from a large tree will entice you in. If too indolent to wallow under your own steam, hire an inner tube to use as a float, then bob around, with a drink in one hand and, perhaps, a good book in the other.
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