Date Traveled, August 2012
Luang Prabang is an enchanting place where a traveler can wind down and enjoy many a spectacular sunset on the Mekong river with a glass of that fine Lao rice brew, Beer Lao in hand. It is also the cultural and religious center of Laos, home to over 30 Wats or Buddhist temples. A visit to some of the Wats of Luang Prabang a great way to get a glimpse of the cultural and artistic history of Laos. And as you will discover, walking from Wat to Wat will let you take in so much more of Luang Prabang in between and experience the charm of the city in a much deeper way.
My first full day in Luang Prabang began early in the morning with a visit to see the Tak Bat procession or the alms giving ceremony, just outside the Wat Nong behind my hotel. I suppose that was the starting point for my Wat to Wat tour of Luang Prabang, but I did not plan on visiting it. Luang Prabang has over 30 Wats, and the most culturally or religiously inclined traveler could easily visit them all on even a short trip. We certainly passed by enough in Luang Prabang but truly visited only a handful. Some were planned, such as the visit to the Wat Xieng Thong, which is after all the most important Wat in Luang Prabang. Others, because they seemed interesting when we passed them and each temple is interesting in its own way. At least, the larger ones with the gilded carvings and murals. There are several which are nothing more than humble buildings with a tiled roof and the only interesting feature about them would be the monks who live there.
Monks recieve alms outside the Wat Nong
Breakfast at the BelleRive
After a good breakfast at my hotel, the BelleRive, we headed along the waterfront of the Mekong river toward the northern tip of the historic district where the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers are. This is around where the Wat Xieng Thong was and we planned to make a U turn after visiting there to continue back down the other waterfront road facing the Nam Khan river. It was still very early in the morning and there weren't many people or traffic moving yet and it was an enjoyable short walk along the tree lined shady waterfront. We eventually came to a point where the road was between two stairways with funky looking cat guardians which I thought was, well...pretty funky. On the left the stairway extended down to the Mekong where there were a few boats who tried to solicit some business from us. Up the stairs on the right led us to Wat Xieng Thong, "Temple of the Golden City".
The Wat Xieng Thong is easily the most beautiful Wat we saw in all of Laos. It was the temple to the Lao Royalty for as long as the monarchs ruled Laos and its most striking feature is its beautifully curved tiled roofs with the tops having serpent heads. The walls of the main and surrounding buildings on the ground are covered with gilded wood carvings depicting scenes from Buddhist and Lao mythology and there are also some walls with mural paintings and other walls both inside and outside, covered with tapestries printed in gold color. Inside are statues of the Buddha and other articles of religious significance, like stylistic gongs. Inside another building was a large gilded chariot with the same serpent heads that adorn the rooftops. I assumed then that the chariot was probably for ceremoniously transporting the important religious statues of the city, like the Prabang, but later read that it used to be for funerals of royalty. Which made sense I guess given the large urns on them.
The Mekong outside the Wat Xieng Thong
The royal funeral chariot housed on the Wat grounds
If you are only going to visit one Wat in Luang Prabang, make sure it is this one. Not only is it probably the most beautiful representation of the architectural style used in the Wats of Laos, its combination of murals and gilded carvings depicting tales from Buddhism are a fine example of traditional Lao art. Although I certainly visited other places which had interesting and almost surreal murals, a couple of which are described further below.
We were almost the only visitors there at that time being so early in the day, so if you would like to enjoy Wat Xieng Thong in solitude, be sure to head there early. After taking in our first Wat visit for the day, we moved on to walk around the tip and on to the Nam Khan waterfront. Along the way we passed other interesting guesthouses and boutique hotels that would probably make for great places to stay in while at Luang Prabang. Note these were all on the Mekong side, once we completed the turn and started walking back to the center of the city along the Nam Khan, we noticed the difference in the view. The Mekong is wide and stately while the Nam Khan is quite narrow and winding. The view is in my opinion much better when viewing the Mekong, however this didn't make this side of town any less charming and there are plenty of places to stay and eat here as well. We passed by the Tamarind restaurant, a popular place to try traditional Lao cuisine and also known for their cooking classes if you want to take a shot at that. We ate a night at the Tamarind, but our favorite by far was Les 3 Nagas.
Monks walking the streets of Luang Prabang
A boutique hotel and homes on the streets of Luang Prabang
By the Nam Kha River
We came across our next temple on a slight rise above the road, the Wat Siphoutthabat. This is located on a rise that is part of the path to Mount Phou Si, of which I have written about here. We stopped at the Wat and wandered around its multi tiered levels each having a different building. Its main temple was on the inner garden while the surrounding buildings served other purposes including as the living quarters for monks. The upper tier has a commanding view of the Nam Khan. The ambiance at Wat Siphoutthabat was somewhat marred by the garbage strewn around some of the buildings. The monks certainly could pay a bit more attention to the cleanliness of the place.
Inside the grounds of the Wat Siphoutthabat overlooking the Nam Kha
The hip bar and lounge section of the historic quarter in Luang Prabang
Quiet empty in the morning
Around when you reach the Phousi hill, the neighborhood on this side changes from the hotel area and first becomes just a road heading deeper into the city before opening up into what passes for the "downtown nightlife" area in Luang Prabang. A city for nightlife this is not, with the city shutting down by 10 pm and what few bars that do remain open, shutting down by midnight at the latest. There is a curfew in the city from midnight onwards. On this street are an interesting mix of bars and restaurants some of which are quite famous and popular, like the Hive bar which hosts Lao fashion shows on certain days. I would like to visit that sometime when I visit again but could not get a chance to go to on this visit.This place is a great spot to come by after a hike to the top of Phousi hill. Start your hike on the other side of the hill by the Royal palace and end it on this side and come cool off in one of these places. We actually stopped by Lao Lao Garden on our return from the top of Phousi in the afternoon. This early in the morning, nothing here was open, except the L'etranger bookstore and cafe, a tiny little bookstore doubling as a cafe or the other way around. We stopped there to browse around a bit and overheard snatches of an interesting conversation between some French ladies and probably Lao men about some business deal which piqued my nosey bone until the conversation started to slip into French.
We moved on to our next destination, the adjacent temples on a street intersecting the nightlife street, the Wat Wisounarat and the Wat Aham. Also adjacent to the Wats was a school with a large ground where it was interesting to see young Lao children playing around. Wat Wisounarat is the oldest Wat in Laos, although sadly like other buildings in the city, many of the original buildings have been destroyed over the centuries due to invasions that periodically impacted the city, the most recent being the 19th century Haw invasion that led to Laos becoming a French protectorate and then colony. The most striking feature of both the Wat Wisounarat and the Wat Aham, are the relatively large grounds with trees and lawns on which they stand, making them a quite and nice place to walk around and admire the buildings. The Wat Wisounarat also has a distinctive blackened stupa which was quite similar to the That Dam in Vientiane that I saw later.
In the Wat Wisounarat grounds
The stupa in the Wat Wisounarat
We headed back up the intersection and to the main street we had been walking on all along and continued further with the intent to turn right and head back to Sisavangvong Road, the central thoroughfare. At this point, you are no longer in the historic district and you see a bit of the other side of Luang Prabang where the majority of the residents live. Here the traffic is much more and the streets noisier and of course a bit more crowded. Still this is nothing compared to other crowded towns in Asia though it definitely has the feel of it. We passed by a large market, Dara market where we turned right to head back. This is useful place to get bargain items you may need like backpacks and the like. While the old quarter is filled with boutique hotels, boutique restaurants, boutique shops and more boutique relatively pricey things, Dara market is actually a decently organized kind of mall with regular stuff. Bargaining is the norm here as well. By the time we arrived at Sisavangvong Road, it was late in the day and the traffic and crowds were out in full, especially here which is sort of the central business district next to the Royal palace.
We took a break at the popular Asian bakery and cafe chain Joma which is located on Sisavangvong road. The cafe is famous for serving excellent western style food, pastries and cakes and is hugely popular among Western tourists for a pizza or burger fix. They provide free Wifi and had air conditioning in the seating area upstairs where we went to cool off over a drink.
A break at Joma cafe
Whilst not on our immediate Wat itinerary, we noticed a serpent headed stairway leading up to another Wat which we decided to visit. These were another pair of Wats adjacent to each other on a little high rise overlooking Sisavangvong road. The first was the Wat Hua Xang and its impressive neighbor, the Wat Mahathat was a little beyond. The first Wat had this colorful mural painted on its tall wall face depicting what I believe are the Buddhist hells. The Wat Mahathat, or Wat of the Stupa is named obviously for a stupa that exists on its grounds. But the Wat itself is very nicely built. It had one of the most interesting gilded wall carvings in the front face of its wall all the way to the roof. Unless I am mistaken, it was depicting stories from the Jataka tales, ancient tales originating in India that tell stories from the Buddha's past lives with morals that could be learned from, something like Aesop's fables.
We continued on back to our hotel from Wat Mahathat, passing the street we had walked by the previous evening at the night market which was is very different during the day. Here there is a mix of tour agencies and bars/restaurants. It was at one of these places where we booked our trip to the Kuang Si falls later that afternoon. Walking further on, are an interesting mix of stores, mom and pop cornershops selling everything from bottled water to food and medicine, bargain clothing and souvenir shops, and high end boutique craft and clothing stores. We enjoyed visiting a few of these to see the impressive works of handicrafts and sculptors that are available. The best ones no doubt come with a price tag of hundreds to thousands of US dollars. They nevertheless made for great window shopping. Note that these stores are to be found all around the historic district and not just the central street we were walking back on.
A serpent balustrade leading to the Wat Mahathat and Wat Hua Xang
Wat Hua Xang had interesting wall painting depicting hells
Interesting carvings depicting I believe the Jataka tales at the Wat Mahathat
And that was the end of our self guided walking tour from Wat to Wat and all over Luang Prabang! I don't think I had Wat fatigue at that point, but I certainly saw my share of Wats for the trip, spending time in each of them. Someday maybe I will visit all the Wats in Luang Prabang but it wasn't on this trip.