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Laos in transition !!

Luang Prabang is still very much an unknown gem, but more people are discovering the joys of this former capital of Laos and World Heritage site

By Lam Pin Foo

MANY people either haven't heard of Luang Prabang, or think that it is in Thailand. Luang Prabang is actually in Laos.

The former royal capital of Laos and a World Heritage site since 1995, this tiny, ancient town of 16,000 people has many well-preserved Buddhist temples and stupas, a royal palace which is now a museum, numerous French colonial buildings and hundreds of old shophouses of eclectic architectural styles.

Well endowed with scenic mountain ranges and located at the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang is a relatively unknown gem. Before 1995, few outsiders came here, but it now attracts a steady stream of tourists, mainly from the West.

Most of its famous sights and monuments are conveniently concentrated within the old town, and these are best savoured leisurely, on foot or by bicycle. It takes only 30 minutes to walk from one end of the town to the other.

Right smack in the centre is Mount Phou Si (Holy Hill), which has 330 winding steps leading to its 105m summit. It is topped by a Buddhist stupa visible from most parts of town. From here, you are rewarded with a breathtaking view of the town, the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, and the surrounding countryside.

It is a favourite place to watch the beautiful Luang Prabang sunset. But be prepared to jostle with other like-minded visitors for a good spot.

Adjacent to Mount Phou Si is the Royal Palace Museum. Completed in 1909 in French and Laotian architectural styles, it houses a splendid royal art collection, the ornate throne, state rooms and royal living quarters.

My wife and I were most impressed by the brilliantly carved mosaic murals on the walls and ceilings. They depict traditional life in Laos, and were the work of the best Laotian craftsmen of the early 20th century.

We also visited several of the town's leading temples. Wat Xieng Thong (1560) is the most majestic - decorated with exquisitely carved glass mosaics and gold-stencilled wood columns.

Wat Mai (18th century) has a unique five-tiered roof and is renowned for bas-relief works with religious themes. Formerly an exclusive royal temple, it is now open to all devotees, and is the most popular temple in Luang Prabang.

Wat Wisunalat has had a chequered history. Its original 16th-century main chapel was destroyed in during battle but was rebuilt in 1898. It now houses a large collection of 16th- and 17th-century images of Buddha. A melon-shaped stupa still stands on its grounds as a reminder of its turbulent past.

One highlight was our two-hour boat trip down the Mekong to view the Pak Ou Buddha caves, 25km from town. This mighty river, with its muddy water, is the lifeline of Laos and is the 12th-longest in the world.

Fortunately, we visited these caves in perfect weather; otherwise the path leading to them would have been slippery and dangerous. Inside the caves are numerous wooden Buddha images of different periods, left for safekeeping by the Laotian kings and devotees in times of strife.

On our last day, we got up at 5am to witness the daily alms-giving by devotees to monks from various temples. We followed one group of orange-robed monks in semi-darkness to watch devotees putting a handful of rice from a container into each monk's begging bowl as they passed by.

Tradition dictates that female devotees must perform this ritual kneeling, as a gesture of respect; they must not tower over the monks - many of whom are teenage novices. The alms-giving is usually completed by 6am, and the monks return to their respective temples to eat their only meal of the day. Food is forbidden after noon until the next day.

Most of the 160 French colonial buildings and houses have been converted into boutique hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, government offices or diplomatic residences. One of these elegant houses is now the provincial governor's residence.

Buddhism is deeply rooted in Laos, and influences the way of life. The people are warm, gentle and hospitable, and enjoy a laidback lifestyle. Another plus factor is the very low crime rate.

The best time to go to Luang Prabang is between November and February, when it is cooler. Bangkok Airways has a daily direct flight from Bangkok.

A trip there should be among the jaded Singapore traveller's new year resolutions.

  • The writer is a retired lawyer.

-- Edited by Pasalao at 08:42, 2006-12-19

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