Saturday, December 9, 2017

Luang Prabang Old Streets and Temples

Luang Prabang is a small town located at the convergent point of Mekong River and Nan Khan River. The town is surrounded by green tropical rain forest, with friendly town folks, quiet and peaceful streets, and slow-paced lifestyle. Unique Laotian-French embedded old streets and well-maintained wooden religious structures are the main attractions that lure thousands of visitors. The area has been inhabited for thousands of years. It was once the capital of Laos, and remained as the royal city until 1975.

We visited Luang Prabang in August. Like others, we were attracted by the well-preserved old streets, but nothing amazed us more than the wooden temples that remain standing for a few hundreds of years. Out of 33 temples around the town, we visited several of them, including Vat Xieng Thong, Vat Mai, Mount Phousi, and Vat Visounnarath, which were famous enough to be mentioned in tourist's guidebook. If you move fast enough, you can finish the town tour in one single day. However, we decided to stay a bit longer to experience the lifestyle of this ancient town. 

Luang Prabang town has three main streets- Khem Khong Street beside Mekong River, Kingkitsarath Street that stretches along Nam Khan River, and Sisavangvong Road, or the main street that locates between these two streets. The town is not big, so the best way to roam around is on foot.  

We can see different types of buildings along the streets- old and very much untouched buildings (upper row), or restored according to their original designs (lower row). 

French style concrete structure (upper left), wooden shops (upper right), the houses which have been resided by generations of locals, and the well-renovated gardens to catch the attention of tourists, all can be found in this old heritage town. It was a great experience to walk along the streets with lines of trees while watching the folks live their life. Well, the town brought us the feeling of walking through the tunnel of time.

With a total population around 24 thousands within the UNESCO Heritage Site, Luang Prabang town was quiet, even with the significant supplement of roaming tourists.

Vat, or temples are scattered around the town. We can see them here and there in along the streets.  These temples are made by wood. Click on the photo for bigger panorama view. 

Vat Xieng Thong is located at the northern side of the town, some 15 minutes walk from the Royal Palace Museum. The white-coloured entrance can be easily spotted from Sakkaline Road (upper left). The architecture of the entrance is different compared to other temples (upper right). There are two other entrances located at Khem Khong Road and Kounxoua Road. We need to pay entrance fee of 20,000 Kip per person. Vat Xieng Thong looks like a beautiful small wooden palace in the middle of a quiet village. The vat is opened to the visitors from 8 am to 5 pm.

Vat Xieng Thong was built in 1560, and remained as a royal temple till 1975. It was the place where the kings were crowned. A monastery for monks was built nearby the temple. The monastery is one of the oldest in Luang Prabang. Click on the photo for bigger panorama view. 

Vat Xieng Thong exhibits typical Laotian fine art and craftsmanship. Click on the photo for bigger panorama view. 

The tree of life is illustrated at the outer wall (upper right), while the inner wall was painted with Buddhism-related stories in gold colour, such as the law of Karma (upper right). There is a royal funeral chapel located opposite of Vat Xieng Thong (lower right). The naga ceremonial barge was used during the funeral of the kings. It is now stored in the funeral chapel. 

 We took a rest at Viewpoint Cafe to enjoy the scenery at the meeting point of two rivers- Mekong and Nam Khan. The cafe was the best place to see the convergence point of these two rivers. The rivers were not big at that meeting point. The view, nothing spectacular. However, we enjoyed the peaceful environment very much. Then, we took 15 minutes to walk to Vat Mai. 

Vat Mai is located beside the Royal Palace Museum. Vat Mai means new temple- not a very appropriate for a temple which was built in 1796. The temple is famous with the drawing on the walls that depict daily life of the locals. The four-tier roof is a traditional Lao architecture. The vat was opened to visitors from 8 am to 5 pm, with entrance fee 10,000 Kip per person.

The front lobby of Vat Mai with well-decorated wall and pillars.

Royal Palace Museum is located beside Wat Mai. There are two other structures in the palace's compound- the Royal Temple and Royal Theater.

Royal Palace Museum was completed in 1909 as the residence of the King Sisavangvong. Bedrooms, living room, dining room, and special rooms used for royal activities were well maintained in their original state. The place brought us the memory of the Independent Palace in Ho Chi Minh City. There is nothing much to see in Royal Palace Museum, but worth a visit. The entrance fee was 30,000 Kip.  The palace operates daily from 8 am to 11 am, and 1:30 pm to 4 pm every day. It is closed on Tuesday afternoon.

The ticketing counter is located on the left side of the entrance (upper left). Royal Ballet Theater is located on the left side of the palace (upper right). The palace is the storage room where we can keep our bags for free. We can't bring our bags into the palace museum. There is a big pond in the compound of the palace museum (lower right). The most striking structure within palace's compound is the royal temple. It is gold-clad and can been seen from the main road. We can get more information about the palace museum at Tourism at Luang Prabang website.

Wat Visounnarath (or Vat Visounnarath) was built by King Visounnarath in 1512. It is in fact the oldest still-in-operation vat in Luang Prabang. However, the temple was burnt to the ground on 1887. The one that we can see today is the not-so-real replica built in 1898. We can see the original Vat Visounnarath via a drawing by Louis Delaporte. Walking from Royal Palace Museum to Vat Visounnarath took us around 15 minutes. Wat Visounnarath was opened to public from 8 am to 5 pm, and the entrance to the compound was free.

The stupa in front of Vat Visounnarath was built in 1515. It was named That Pathoum, or Stupa of the Great Lotus. Now, the stupa is more popularly referred as Watermelon Stupa due to its shape.

Mount Phousi is right in front of Royal Palace Museum. It is just a hill. In order to visit the vat and enjoying the view at the top of the hill, we need to take the challenge- climb the stairs. The ticketing counter is located at the half way up the hill (upper left). For those who dare not continue their trip, they can take a rest under the bodhi tree a few steps away from the counter (upper right). The tree was given by Indian Government as a token of friendship. The stairs looked intimidating, but it was not that scary when we put them under our feet. The entrance fee of the hill was 20,000 Kip, and it was opened to visitors from 5:30 am to 6 pm.

The temple on the top of Mount Phousi.

The view from Mount Phousi towards Nam Khan River.

The view towards Mekong River.

Luang Prabang Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center is located beside Kitsalat Road, around 7-minute walk from Royal Palace. The center consisted of two major rooms with clothes and some traditional tools on display. The entrance fee was 25,000 Kip per person (free for Laos Citizen), and it was indeed quite expensive, compared to the information and exhibits available. We just need to take less than 20 minutes to see everything in the center. But still, we would encourage all to visit the center, as the entrance fee contributes to the development of the ethnics around Luang Prabang. The center operates from 9 am - 6 pm daily, from Tuesday to Sunday. 

Sample of the decorative beads for the visitors to touch. 

Luang Prabang is a small town. If you walk fast, you will finish visiting all the places of interest before sunset. In order to blend in and enjoy the lifestyle of the town folks, we stayed in the town for four days. We stayed in a small guesthouse beside Royal Palace Museum. We spent a day at Kuang Si Water Fall, which was 1 hour away from Luang Prabang heritage area by tut-tut. We will share our experience there, and of course, the food, shopping, transportation, and accommodation in Luang Prabang in our next posts.

More about our stories in Luang Prabang are available:

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