Friday, March 21, 2014

City of temples: Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is about 5-6 hours away from Phonsavan and the road is always winding and hence not so good for those possessing motion sickness. Our minibus arrived to the Southern station and immediately, tuk-tuk drivers were upon us. Finally settling for 10,000 kip a person, pack of travelers crowded in the small vehicle. Within 15 minutes, we were dropped neat what looked like a starting point of night market.
Luang Prabang, historically an important town (and once, capital of Laos), lost its place during many wars that were fought in the country. But it always had heritage in the form of temples, pagodas and monastery. A decade ago it looked as if the town was going down the drain, but due to constant government efforts and recognition by UNESCO as a world heritage, this little town came back to life, supporting itself on tourism.
It is situated between and around two rivers viz. mighty Mekong and a smaller Nam Khan, which are united near the town. Like many other towns in South East Asia, this one also has a visible French connection. The streets are lined neatly by posh french villa and cafes. From night market, many streets run parallel to each other and meeting a street along the Mekong river. All lined by guesthouses, which actually are old houses modified to meet backpacker's requirements.
French Alley

Along the river, there are many river-side bars and restaurants where you can enjoy an evening meal. But if you want something cheap, head further near the night market where a fresh grilled fish can cost between 20,000 Kip to 50,000 Kip depending on the size. There is also an alley where you can buy a vegetarian buffet plate just for 10,000 kip!
Fresh Grilled Fish!

Vegetarian Buffet, just for 10,000 kip

The night market is filled with red topped tents and selling clothes, souvenirs, bracelets and many other things. It was one of the biggest night markets I had seen till then. Its a paradise for those who want to get rid of excess kips, but be sure to bargain.

Lamps at Night Market

Night market

The town is filled with many temples and monasteries and its advisable to visit at least a few. Most of the temples have an entrance ticket costing around 20,000 kip.
In the evening, after eating a nice fish, I continued my walk along the Mekong's edge. The tall trees provided canopy along the road and a light breeze from the river made it a nice weather for walking.

Walking along the Mekong

Where two rivers meet

Towards the end, before the two rivers meet, I came across the biggest and oldest monastery in town, called Vat Xieng Toung. As I bought the ticket and entered the monastery I could hear bells and prayers and I followed the sound. The sound led me to a very small chamber closed from all sides and inside I could see a few monks playing traditional instruments and singing a prayer, an evening prayer. For 15 minutes it went on, creating an immense silence outside as if whole world was listening to those prayers. A few more tourists crowded around this chamber to get a glimpse of the monks or to just stand there and listen to the smooth music, that was the prayer. As the prayer finished, the monks quickly locked the chamber and went to their living quarters. I wandered to the main structure of in the monastery, a temple. The temple is one of the grandest in Laos, with huge multiple roofs, almost touching the ground, sculptures of dragons and peacocks on top, golden plates fitted into the wood, gleaming brightly as the sun-rays bounced off them. I entered inside the temple and looked into the calm face of golden Buddha. I realised that there were many Buddha statues inside of different sizes, all in gold. The painting inside the temple tells life story of Buddha and his enlightenment. A big circular bell was hung on the right side of entrance, which looked as if it will be used only during important ceremonies and festivals. I spent some time inside meditating and came out to see other smaller temples in the monastery. There were at least 5 more temples, much smaller than the grand temple and one golden chamber which contained a cart used for death ceremonies.

The main temple


A few more temples outside

A chamber for death ceremonies

I came out of the temple with enough time for sunset and turning a corner headed to another important sight, which is Phou Si Hill. Not very steep, it has two sets of stairs to take you to the top. In between, there are many Buddha statues and a small chamber which has a Buddha's foot print. The hill top has a stupa and gives panoramic view of the sprawling city below. The hill is crowded by locals and travelers alike, mostly at the time of sunrise or sunset.
Steep steps to the hill

Buddha's foot print

Sunset from the top

Sprawling Luang Prabang

I spent more days in this city than intended. Though there are many things to do here, its a nice place to just relax as well. Cafes and bars provide lot of opportunities to fill your stomach with delicious food and nice guesthouses allow you to relax and rejuvenate. After spending a few nights here, I was ready for an adventure once again!

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