06 May Luang Prabang : Turn to Dusk
LUANG PRABANG : TURN TO DUSK
By Marine Wolf
6 May 2019
China lies to the North, Thailand to the South, Myanmar to the West and Vietnam to the East, and in the middle flows a river, the Mekong, the real backbone of Laos. A trip to this country, whose reputation as a green paradise with
a nonchalant pace of life is well known beyond its borders, would not be perfect without a visit to Luang Prabang.
Built on a strip of land framed by the Mekong and Nam Kane rivers, the city seems to float on the water like a majestic boat.
The historical heritage it contains is exceptional. According to the archeological remains, the site already played host to human populations in the eighth millennium BC. In 1353, King Fa Ngum chose it as capital when he founded Lan Xang, the “kingdom of a million elephants,” which extended over the territories of current Laos to the North-East of present-day Thailand, Isan. The city was then called Xieng Thong Xieng Dong.
In the 19th century, French explorers discovered and fell in love with it. Among them were Henri Mouhot, Louis Delaporte and Auguste Pavie. Laos became a French protectorate in 1893 and Luang Prabang became the place of residence of the French Commissioner General. The city features examples of colonial architecture, and these colonial mansions, as well as the traditional wooden houses restored during the nineties, earned it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Since then, the popularity of Luang Prabang has continued to grow, with visitors spurning Vientiane for this city that is easily accessible by bus, boat or plane. Tourism is well established there and, as often in South-East Asia, it is necessary to practice the art of deviating from the all-too-crowded routes in order to fully appreciate it.
This is particularly necessary at the Kuang Si Falls, which is far from being deserted but worth the trip, if only for the fabulous turquoise color of its pools. It is therefore a matter of going there in the early hours of the morning in order to appreciate all of the beauty, before walking up the trail on the left-hand side of the waterfall.
In addition to the opportunity for getting an elevated view of the site, this takes the walkers to a charming pool located three kilometers from the main falls. A small restaurant, which in particular serves excellent fish, is located at the edge of the water, allowing a delicious and calm pause after swimming.
Once back in Luang Prabang, there is the possibility of crossing the Mekong River from Chunkham Quay to walk along the opposite bank of the river. There you will experience villages of artisans, nature trails, temples perched on high or lost in the vegetation and meetings with people less accustomed than their neighbors downtown to rubbing shoulders with foreigners.
It will also be necessary to cross a river – the Nam Kane this time, and over a small bamboo bridge – to get to Dyen Sabai, an address of choice for tasting the delights of Lao gastronomy. On one of the wooden terraces that descend steeply towards the river, one can sit on thick cushions and opt for an assortment of aperitif snacks, such as the famous Luang Prabang sausage, aubergines in caviar and dried seaweeds from the Mekong River. This is followed by one of the dishes on the menu, which is changed daily, such as a chicken soup with coconut milk, fish cooked in a banana leaf or chopped mushrooms with mint and herbs. Or else you could take this opportunity to share a Laotian fondue, assisted, if need be, by smiling and professional staff.
After this escape from the center, the Royal Palace remains an essential place to visit which turns out to be very pleasant thanks to the bright idea of the Laotian authorities to ban telephones and cameras. This is an opportunity to truly take in the history of this former home of King Sisavang Vong and to admire the unique architecture. Mixing Laotian styles with French fine art, it houses a collection of precious objects in gold, bronze and silver that formerly belonged to the royal family, as well as a profusion of gifts from friendly countries. On the walls, there are works by the French artist Alix de Fautereau depicting aspects of traditional Laotian life, as well as scenes from the Ramayana epic by local craftsman Thit Tanh.
If the splendor of the mosaics may make visitors feel sorry about not having the possibility of keeping a visual souvenir, they can console themselves by going to Wat Xieng Thong. Photographs are allowed there and the wall decorations strongly resemble those of the Palace. The best time to go is undoubtedly at the end of the day. One can contemplate the sun descending majestically through the trees, adorning the buildings with an unreal light.
At dusk, the city seems to regain all its authenticity, its charm of yesteryear. The streets find themselves deserted by the tourists gathered together at the top of Mount Phousi. The only things that resonate are the gongs and songs of the monks filling the alleys with a long prayer that seems to spread from temple to temple. The banks of the river come to life, a multitude of seating areas stand ready to welcome guests for a cocktail or dinner over the water. Buildings, plants and faces all around are enveloped in a golden-orange glow. Taking a cruise on the Mekong River at the end of the day can be an unforgettable experience. Boats such as the one used for the Sa Sa Sunset Cruise offer the opportunity of enjoying the sunset from the middle of the river, allowing you to admire the hypnotic descent of the red disc which is of a size, color and sharpness without equal.