Laos's Luang Prabang: Top Ten
10.11.2013 - 15.11.2013 28 °C
After two days travelling down the Mekong from the Thai border we arrived in the UNESCO World Herritage City of Luang Prabang. We quickly fell in love. There was plenty to see, most of it packed into a compact walkable area. But mostly we loved the city’s charm and ease...despite the hoards of tourists.
Here’s my top ten, in no particular order.
1. Night market
The market opens from 6pm and seems to stretch kilometres! There’s plenty on offer and you won’t see much of that tacky or pirated junk. I swooned over paper lanterns, tribal embroidery and silk scarves but as always I couldn’t really buy anything. I did however spot a pair of ¾ elephant print shorts that fitted my new backpacker-hobo look and coughed up the $2 the lady wanted.
There are dozens of temples dotted around the old city. No wonder there are monks everywhere! We were still resting a temple hangover from last week in Chiang Mai but pulled ourselves together to visit Luang Prabang’s most famous, Wat Xieng Thong. This temple complex dates back to 1560 and is full of beautiful art.
— Couple getting their wedding photos.
3. French vibe
It’s not only the old temples that have given Luang Prabang its UNESCO world heritage status, it’s also the dozens of 19th and 20th Century French villas that line the streets. Most of them have been restored and now house boutiques or posh cafes where you can soak up the joie de vivre over a croissant and a café noir.
4. Kuang Si waterfalls and bear sanctuary
Although less an hour away, we told ourselves we had seen so many waterfalls in Latin America that we didn’t need to visit the Kuang Si falls (waterfall snobs). After about the tenth backpacker told us “but you’ve GOT to go”, we got the feeling we were missing out and so paid them a visit. And aren’t we glad we did. They were gorgeous with minty blue water, a rainforest setting and a couple of pools to swim in. At the entrance is an enclosure for Asiatic Black Bears. These cute little guys are under threat thanks to habitat destruction and bear bile farming (the bile is used for traditional medicines).
A museum preserving the cultures of the country’s ethnic groups including the Hmong, Akha and Khmu. While only small, it’s full of info and has lots of traditional costumes on show. You can also watch footage of a traditional cow slaughter (gruesome!) and rummage around in the beautiful fair trade shop (awesome!).
6. Royal Theatre Performance
In the grounds of the National Palace, the show is an hour of traditional Laotian dance set to live folk music. For me it was a little …okay I’m just going to say it…it was repetitive and the storyline hard to follow. But the costumes were dazzling, the kids gorgeous and I was happy I came along (and ecstatic I suggested to Brayden not to).
7. Alms ceremony
The alms ceremony is a centuries old tradition taking place every morning at six. Traditionally the monks walk in a big long line and receive food from the community. Unfortunately it’s become one of the worst cases of tourists behaving badly I’ve seen. There were posters all around town and pamphlets handed out before the event warning of the importance of being respectful but apparently all but a few there could read. Number one on the list of dos and don’ts – NO FLASH. Well, as soon as the monks came out the crowd morphed into a hungry pack of paparazzi, flashing and snapping away like it was Brad, Angelina and the kids out for a morning stroll. Then came the safari style busses full of tourists leaning out for the perfect shot. Despite the circus, I was glad we got up early to see it. We stood well back as requested and took a couple of quick snaps without flash. Our photos may be blurry but our conscious is clear (Tourism Laos, you are welcome to use that line in your next pamphlet).
8. The Royal Palace
The palace was the home of the Royal Family up until 1975 when the communist regime booted out the monarchy. It was built in 1904 when Laos was still a French colony. The interior is mostly Laos, with a Marie Antoinette twist. On show is room after room of golden pillars, mirrored walls and murals.
9. Ethnik Fashion show + break dancing
Most nights at 7pm the Hive Bar puts on a fashion show featuring traditional clothing from the many ethnic groups living in Laos. It was such a great show, just like the professional ones complete with sashays, head flicks and perfect timing. But unlike the professional ones, the models seemed happy and fed. There must have been more than 100 outfits! Afterwards we ooed, awed over one of the best break dancing shows we’d ever seen.
— Wedding outfits...my favourite of the night!
10. UXO Visitor Center
Laos has the dubious honour of being the most bombed country in history with the United States carrying out 580,000 bombing missions in the 60s and 70s. This little centre documents that legacy and what is being done to remove the millions of bombs that lay in the countryside, still waiting to detonate. Unexploded Ordnance have killed or injured more than 20,000 people since the bombing ceased in 1973. More than a third are kids, the rest farmers or poor villagers looking for bombs to sell for scrap. Special squads have been performed to remove the bombs and educate the community on the dangers of UXO. Despite being inspired by what they were doing, the visit left me furious. How could America be so barbaric? Why did the world let them get away with it?
- Over 2 million tons of ordnance were dropped between 1964 and 1973. The aim? To wipe out Vietcong who’d crossed the border and ‘protect’ Laos from communism.
- On the floor of the above photo is a cluster bomb. As it’s dropped the outer case opens and hundreds of mini bombs or ‘bombies’ are scattered. More than 270 million bombies were dropped onto Laos – 30% never detonated.
- Nearly 40 years on, less than 1% of these munitions have been destroyed.
- The U.S. spent as much in three days bombing Laos than it spent for clean up over 16 years.
- One of the principal sponsors behind the UXO removal project is …the Australian Government! Woop! Aussies who don’t agree with Foreign Aid, please come to this centre, I’d love to know what you think afterwards.
Next up, the backpacker mecca of Vang Vieng, the capital Vientiane and on to the 4000 Islands.