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Luang Prabang: Timeless Treasures

Built in 1718 and restored 60 years ago, Wat Sensoukharam (Temple of 100,000 Treasures) features embossed door panels and gold stencil on its facade.
Built in 1718 and restored 60 years ago, Wat Sensoukharam (Temple of 100,000 Treasures) features embossed door panels and gold stencil on its facade. Photography: Alex Chia/

As the plane descended into the highlands of northern Laos, I gazed out the window at the sea of clouds below. Not a soul or structure was in sight, only tree-covered hills peeking out of the vast white mantle, welcoming me back to this landlocked country. It was a picturesque reward for an early morning flight into Luang Prabang, a small city situated at the peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. Once the capital of the Lan Xang kingdom that encompassed Laos and the Isan region of Thailand, Luang Prabang is now a historical, religious and cultural destination growing in prominence.

I first fell in love with this UNESCO World Heritage City five years ago, enamoured by its French colonial architecture, and temples with sweeping tiered roofs, and the mesmerising patterns on the handwoven sinh (tube skirt) worn by the women. I promised myself that if I ever decided to pen a novel, I would return here to write it as I sipped Lao coffee in a heritage boutique hotel, draped in a sinh. The slow pace of life and the romance of French Indochina make Luang Prabang the ideal peaceful retreat that offers both focus and inspiration.

The driver of a colourful tuk-tuk waits for passengers on the city's main thoroughfare.
The driver of a colourful tuk-tuk waits for passengers on the city’s main thoroughfare. Photography: Alex Chia.

Yet there I was, a writer with no storyline, no grand plot to immortalise on paper, anxious to know if that spark I once had with the city was still there. And as I had hoped, on this rendezvous, it didn’t take long for the city to work its magic.

AGE-OLD RITUALS

Nowhere is the simple act of almsgiving a more contemplative experience than in Luang Prabang. Every day, before the break of dawn till just after sunrise, hundreds of saffron-robed monks file down the leafy roads in silence, walking past shuttered shops with doors and windows painted in hues of green, blue and brown. I waited near the corner of Sisavangvong and Sakkaline Road, part of a section closed off to traffic, and watched as almsgivers kneeling on mats on the sidewalk offered monks sticky rice and biscuits, testament to the respect the locals have for these men on the path of holiness.

Novices in distinctive orange robes are a common sight in Luang Prabang. Many Lao families send their sons to be educated at monasteries.
Novices in distinctive orange robes are a common sight in Luang Prabang. Many Lao families send their sons to be educated at monasteries. Photography: Alex Chia.

This deep connection to the Buddhist way of life goes back to at least the 14th century, evidenced by the temples scattered throughout the city. The temples themselves are not grand monumental structures compared to their contemporaries in Angkor, Cambodia, and Ayutthaya, Thailand, but what the temples lack in scale, they make up for in beauty.

Without a doubt, the most famous temple in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong, built in the 16th century, right before the capital of Lan Xang was transferred to Vientiane. More than the sparkling green naga (mythical serpent) on its roof and the funerary carriage stored within the complex, the eye-catching mosaic at the rear of the main hall depicting the Buddhist tree of life is an extraordinary work of art that incorporates Lao fables handed down from generation to generation.

Among Luang Prabang's most prominent temples is Wat Mai, formerly the home of the sacred Phra Bang Buddha image.
Among Luang Prabang’s most prominent temples is Wat Mai, formerly the home of the sacred Phra Bang Buddha image. Photography: Alex Chia.
Lacquered and covered in goldleaf, the splendid bas-relief at Wat Mai depicts scenes from the Ramayana and Buddha's past lives.
Lacquered and covered in goldleaf, the splendid bas-relief at Wat Mai depicts scenes from the Ramayana and Buddha’s past lives. Photography: Alex Chia

The oldest of the Luang Prabang temples, Wat Visounnarath, with its Angkor-style window balusters and Sinhalese-style watermelon stupa, traces its roots to the early 16th century. Inside the temple, a large seated Buddha image is surrounded by numerous others under a patina of dust from the ongoing renovation. Replicas of the famed Emerald Buddha from the neighbouring Lanna Kingdom abound, as Luang Prabang once hosted the image before it was brought to Bangkok, where it now has pride of place at the Wat Phra Kaew within the Grand Palace.

Right next door stands Wat Aham Outamathany, built over a much older shrine dedicated to a pair of ancestor spirits believed to be residing in two ancient banyan trees at the entrance. Locals consider the temple important because of its association with the ancestor spirits, an enduring remnant of animist beliefs.

A villager ties cotton strands around a visitor's wrist during the baci ceremony, which predates the arrival of Buddhism in Laos.
A villager ties cotton strands around a visitor’s wrist during the baci ceremony, which predates the arrival of Buddhism in Laos. Photography: Alex Chia.

A popular ritual with animist roots is the baci ceremony held on occasions such as arrivals and departures of both locals and visitors. Our guide arranged for my companions and me to take part in this quintessential Lao tradition, which was initiated by a spiritual elder. The elder led the blessing before a pah kwan, a centrepiece adorned with banana leaves and orange mums. One by one, the elder and wellwishers from his community who had attended the ceremony approached each one of us, tying a white cotton string around our wrists while wishing us luck, wealth, love and success. I touched the pah kwan as another prayer was recited, then shared in some rice cakes and sweets, and left a monetary offering in thanksgiving. By the end of the ceremony, I had eight strands on each arm. I kept these on for three days, as is the custom, to avoid bad luck.

PALACE TO THE MARKET

The weather in hilly Luang Prabang is often cooler than in the lowlands, but the sun’s rays are still strong on a cloudless day. The next day, I visited the former royal palace, now the National Museum. It gave me a glimpse of how the monarchs lived, as little had changed in the building since the royal family resided there prior to their exile to France in 1975. Although the quarters once occupied by the king and queen are relatively sparse, I couldn’t help being impressed by the throne hall decorated in coloured mirror glass from India.

Also within the museum complex, the royal temple of Haw Pha Bang that was built to house the revered Phra Bang Buddha image, which lends the city its name, is impossible to miss. Local lore has it that the image arrived from Sri Lanka during the 1st century, however, not all scholars concur with its age.

Novices chant at a monastery on Mount Phou Si.
Novices chant at a monastery on Mount Phou Si. Photography: Alex Chia.

As the museum closes by late afternoon, tea and snacks at a nearby café seemed a fitting way to pass the time before climbing the nearby Mount Phou Si, famous for its glorious sunsets. One of Mount Phou Si’s entrances is on Sisavangvong Street, Luang Prabang’s main thoroughfare, situated across the museum. But I may have stretched my teatime affair a little too long, and ended up in a flurry to climb the 328 steps to the peak to catch the sunset. I was overwhelmed by the number of sunset watchers jostling for space at the small lookout point. But after the crowd left and darkness crept in, the scenery was truly exquisite. Streaks of blue grey outlined the silhouettes of distant peaks as clouds drew skeins of gold and rose in the sky. All around the hilltop, gnarled frangipani branches raised their bare fingers to the sky. Sounds were magnified, from the chirping of caged birds for sale at the lookout point to the put-put of diesel engines of barges on the Mekong to the strains of Lao music from the night market below. On my descent via the back route, which was marked with Lao quotes nailed to tree trunks, young Buddhist novices with shaved heads chanted melodiously, adding to my sense of wonder.

Every evening, Sisavangvong Street is closed to traffic for the night market, a grassroots fair showcasing local craft. It’s a down-to-earth operation, with the merchandise in the middle of the road, illuminated by bulbs on makeshift posts. Handwoven silks, elephant pants and Hmong skirts left a strong impression, though machine-made cotton and silk were also available. Pop-up cards, handmade paper products, art and lanterns received their fair share of attention too. I went to the night market for three consecutive nights, restraining myself from hoarding sinh, some of which were remarkable in their quality.

Many of the items at the Luang Prabang night market are handmade, among them quilted tapestries, pillowcases and ethnic attire.
Many of the items at the Luang Prabang night market are handmade, among them quilted tapestries, pillowcases and ethnic attire. Photography: Alex Chia.

TIES THAT BIND

The profile of Lao silk has risen considerably in the international market, thanks to efforts by establishments such as Ock Pop Tok that ensure high standards of quality in their products. The social enterprise with a tongue twister name that means ‘East Meets West’, runs a lovely workshop and showroom in traditional wooden houses outside the city centre. The attached Silk Road Café overlooking the river is a delightful setting for lunch or a lazy afternoon chat on a hammock while drinking coffee with a bamboo straw. My afternoon, however, was a productive one.

At Ock Pop Tock’s workshop, my companions and I undertook the task of dyeing a silk scarf using natural dyes. My teacher, a slender softspoken woman named Sengchan, explained the process of making silk, demonstrating each step from rearing silkworm pupae to producing the finished product. The aroma of herbs and spices (such as lemongrass and turmeric), used in the dyeing process, wafted around our cliffside classroom, where pots gurgled with boiling ingredients handpicked from the garden.

I chose indigo for my fishbone tie-dye pattern, the simplest design. Wearing rubber gloves, I soaked and squeezed the silk shawl in a clay jar filled with fermented indigo. I let the scarf sit for a few more minutes in the bubbly blue water before rinsing it and hanging it to dry.

A weaver skillfully turns silk threads into fi ne fabric for sinh (Lao tube skirt) at the Ock Pop Tock workshop.
A weaver skillfully turns silk threads into fi ne fabric for sinh (Lao tube skirt) at the Ock Pop Tock workshop. Photography: Alex Chia.

On my previous visit, I had woven a silk placemat with the help of a weaver, who completed the project with lightning speed. I showed Sengchan a photo of myself and the weaver holding up the placemat, and asked after her. Sengchan glanced at the photo and told me that the weaver had died just a few months ago. Overwhelmed by the unexpected news, I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I had spent such a short time with her, but we were somehow bound by a common thread, albeit a literal one, when we took turns on the loom. Hoping to assuage my sudden grief, I looked around the weaving studio for a familiar face, and spotted one… a smiling weaver I’d met on my previous trip. I walked over to show her my keepsake and she beamed with joy.

GO WITH THE FLOW

They will tell you that Laos is not a place for people in a hurry. Life on the Lao stretch of the Mekong feels much slower than downstream towards Thailand or the busy delta of Vietnam. The wooden boats on the Lao section of the Mekong, with their carved interior and comfortable bucket seats, can be viewed as pleasure boats.

An upstream cruise on the Mekong from Luang Prabang follows a zigzag course to avoid shallow rocks as the blue sky casts intermittent reflections on slivers of the toffee-coloured water. Alighting from the boat over an hour later, I walked on wooden planks carved out of the grassy riverbank to Ban Xang Hai, the whisky village where I met locals selling bottled whisky and demonstrating the distillation process. In the village, rice flour ferments in jars for 15 days and is distilled into 50 per cent alcohol, sometimes diluted to 15 per cent, and is often combined with scorpions and snakes in clear bottles for added potency – a beverage clearly for the more adventurous.

River boats bring visitors to Pak Ou Caves, 25km away from the city.
River boats bring visitors to Pak Ou Caves, 25km away from the city. Photography: Alex Chia.

Sailing a little farther north, my second stop on the cruise – Pak Ou Caves – was in a time warp of its own. Over the years, a collection of 4,000 Buddha images have been amassed and placed in the chambers here: the cramped Lower Cave only a few dozen steps up from the jetty and in the Upper Cave more than 200 steps up. At the latter, I shone a torch into the inky darkness imagining how the limestone caves were discovered 150 years ago. Framed by stalactites and stalagmites, the statues of Buddha – some looking quite old – appear as if they are a natural part of the cave.

Back in the city, my companions and I rode a van that sped along the winding mountain road to Kuang Si Falls. Dusk was about to settle when we arrived and we had the good fortune of alighting just a short walk from the iconic main waterfalls, which was as beautiful as ever and flowing dramatically, replenished by the recent monsoon season.

One of Luang Prabang's highlights, Kuang Si falls is a refreshing sight.
One of Luang Prabang’s highlights, Kuang Si falls is a refreshing sight. Photography: Alex Chia.

On the lower cascades, turquoise pools appeared like fairy streams surrounded by ancient trees. As my companions took a dip in the cold waters, I crossed bridges over small run-offs, to sit on a bench and trace tree roots as they snaked around the well-worn trail. Notebook in hand, I jotted down: “This is bliss.”

Soon, it was time to say goodbye. Luang Prabang allowed this city girl to travel back in time, to be enthralled once again with its unchanging elegance and beauty. I left not with a manuscript but with vivid memories of a place that charmed me yet again with its ageless grace.

EXPERIENCE LUANG PRABANG
Learn about Lao history, culture and cuisine with insightful activities around the city.
STORYTELLING PERFORMANCE Watch an intimate two-man show highlighting Lao folklore in a tiny black box theatre. www.garavek.com
COOKING CLASS Taste unconventional flavours and prepare them yourself in a lakeside kitchen. www.tamarindlaos.com
FILM VIEWING @ UXO LAO VISITOR CENTRE Learn about the enduring legacy of unexploded ordnance (UXO) from Indochina’s Secret War. www.uxolao.org
ZIPLINE & ROPE COURSE Enjoy an active adventure at Hoi Khua Waterfall, ending in a stroll through the rainforest. www.laogreengroup.com

THE LAO RAMAYANA
The Indian epic Ramayana has spawned numerous local adaptations in Southeast Asia. In the original version, the plot revolves around the god prince Rama and his quest to rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of the demon king Ravana. Phra Lak Phra Lam, the Lao version of the famous epic, is set in the Mekong valley. The tale revolves around the relationship of Phra Lam (Rama) and his brother Phra Lak (Lakshmana) during the former’s quest to rescue Nang Sida (Sita) from Thotsakhan (Ravana). The dance-drama is often a feature of festive occasions such as Pimai (Lao New Year). Regular performances are also held at the National Museum. phralakphralam.com

EXPERIENCE LUANG PRABANG: AirAsia offers the lowest fares to over 130 destinations. Book your seats, accommodation, holiday packages and activities now at airasia.com.

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