UNESCO put Luang Prabang on its World Heritage Sites list because it’s a town with a well-preserved mix of Laotian and French colonial architecture. After the jumble of rowhouses and tiny shops of Chiang Mai, it is striking to see the long, broad buildings of Luang Prabang, painted a colonial yellow and set at a dignified distance from the brightly decorated Buddhist temples.
Dignified, stately, slow-moving: these are the words I kept coming up with as I wandered the streets of Luang Prabang. A little in keeping with that stately feeling (and certainly in keeping with its colonial history), there were a lot of fences and walls; more space is cordoned off in this small town than I saw walled away in all of Thailand.
Every evening, vendors set up outside those walls for the night market. In Thailand, the markets are set up on card tables, but in Laos, the goods are laid out on tarps and blankets on the ground. If you want to inspect the goods at a particular booth, you have to squat down, or use one of the tiny plastic stools the vendor whips out for you. I would gingerly lower myself onto these unstable pieces of plastic and smile genially as all the women selling quilts and table runners laughed. Just about every stall has a woman holding a baby, and some stalls are staffed by men or teenagers. I saw one little boy playing on an iPad while his parents sold handicrafts–it’s a shrinking world, indeed!
I picked out wedding presents and souvenirs from various stalls, but my favorite spot was the bombs-to-bracelets stall. The US waged a secret bombing campaign on Cambodia and Laos in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as part of its campaign against the Communist bogeyman. The villagers of Ban Napia in eastern Laos took the aluminum from the thousands of bombs dropped on their homes and, in their words, turned it from “something that kills into something that feeds,” producing spoons. They later added bracelets and charms to their collection, and the number of bombs dropped can be guessed at by the fact that they’re still making jewelry today, nearly 40 years after the bombs stopped falling. I chose to support the artisans, although there is some controversy in doing so, because villagers have to collect scrap metal to make them, and there are a lot of accidents and sometimes deaths with the UXOs (unexploded ordnances). As with so many potential purchases, it’s complicated.
Of course, there’s food. One woman sliced watermelon with a machete while another flipped sweet potatoes on a small woodfire grill. A narrow alley of food vendors included pork and fish on sticks, dumplings, grilled sticky rice, and two giant all-you-can-eat buffets. I had really good veggie and pork dumplings, and a non-spicy lemongrass sausage (a specialty of the area).
Luang Prabang has dozens of Buddhist temples, and a high concentration of monks and novices (those under age 25 are called novices). The temples, or wats, are painted in elaborate, intricate scenes, sometimes both inside and outside. The grounds are spare, with just a little greenery carefully confined to a few areas, and the rest tiled courtyards between buildings. Monks and novices move around on the edges, running errands, doing homework (many boys enter the monastery to get a good education), making adjustments in the temples.
Probably the most famous wat in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong, sometimes called The Temple of the Golden City. Since Luang Prabang is on the World Heritage list, there’s a lot of upkeep work going on at various temples, funded by various countries–and this temple is no exception. The US Embassy is supporting efforts to reinforce the structural elements of the temple, and scaffolding was set up around the buddha when I visited.
The main building was painted a maroon color inside, and then gold leaf designs were painted on top of that, on every available surface–ceiling, columns, walls. Inside, a long wooden pipe sat along one wall, and at the end of it sat a small buddha in a glass box. During a water-based festival, water blessed by monks travels through the wooden pipe and washes the buddha. My favorite part of this temple was a separate building, which housed a giant dragon boat. The back wall was red, covered in intricate, colorful mosaic scenes and accented with sparkly glitter. There was no way to get a decent picture to show just how big and full of life it was, but I tried. Exteriors of some other buildings were dotted with similar mosaics.
Mount Phousi rises above the center of town, and a small temple sits atop it, with various buddha statues and shrines scattered below it, so each step of the climb to the top takes you past a holy site. At the top, if you can balance yourself between the edge and the dozens of fellow tourists, you can see a beautiful sunset over the Mekong. On the walk up, off to the side is the Imprint of the Buddha’s Foot; it’s a large, vaguely foot-shaped indentation in the rock that someone decided was a holy sign. (In that way, it reminds me of the Virgin Mary water spot under the bridge on Fullerton in Chicago.)
The foot is just past a pavilion with a view of the Nam Khan River to the east, and on this pavilion stood a young novice. His name was Tip, and he was doing homework. He clearly stations himself here most nights in hopes of practicing English, because he was eager to ask and answer questions with me. He was 17, he’d been a novice for many years, his wat was across the river, America sounded interesting… I didn’t have time to ask for a photo or chat with him further, because a couple teenage Laotian boys entered the pavilion, and Buddhist monks aren’t supposed to be alone with women. I didn’t want him getting in trouble, so I said goodbye and he said, “I hope you have many happinesses in your travels in Laos.”