This article (The Soul of Luang Prabang) was included in a six-page travel feature originally published in WE Smile Magazine, the inflight magazine where I worked as the English-language Editor-in-Chief. The photography was done in collaboration with my sister, Pam Thien. Below is an edited excerpt of the full article.
Flying into the sleepy town of Luang Prabang is a feast for the eyes. Hugged by gentle rolling hills and green rivers, the town reveals itself to you slowly, first with pointed terracotta coloured rooftops and then gleaming golden temples. Luang Prabang town sits on a peninsula that spears out from the Mekong and Nam Khan River. The ancient capital was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 and it is easy to see why.
Starting your day before sunrise is essential in Luang Prabang. Around 6:00 am in the morning, witness saffron robed monks walk barefoot through the city collecting alms in the Tak Bat (glutinous rice offering) ceremony. After the alms giving, take a short stroll through the morning market near the Royal Palace. This market caters mostly to locals, with vendors selling fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, meat and Laotian delights like khaiphaen (mekong river weed), fried mushrooms and water buffalo skin.
The buzzing morning market leads right to one of Luang Prabang’s grandest attractions, the Royal Palace and the Royal Temple (Hor Pha Bang) that holds the city’s namesake, a sacred Buddha image called the “Pha Bang”. Photos are not allowed inside these prestigious buildings, so tuck your bags, cameras and phones away in one of the provided lockers as you explore. Be sure to note the bronze statue of King Sisavang Vong before entering the Royal Palace where he and his son lived. Aside from the throne room and reception rooms filled with beautiful murals and mosaics, the museum gives an intimate opportunity to see the personal bedroom and study of the royal family.
Walk all the way down the road and you’ll see the main attraction, Vat Xieng Thong, which was one of the few monasteries that was not looted during the sacking of the city in the late 1800s. Visitors should take note of several grand buildings in this complex, including the gilded Funeral Chapel that holds the naga ceremonial barge and funeral urns, and the ordination hall with golden details and a tree-of-life mural on its exterior. If you leave by the east entrance, you’ll get a lovely view of the merging rivers and a bamboo bridge that is rebuilt every year using traditional methods.
For a grand vista, take a short hike up Phousi Hill at sunset. This is when you’ll see the true soul of the town. The setting sun dips behind layered mountains and fragrant smoke from open kitchens waft above earthy roofs as most locals begin cooking dinner. On your way down, you’ll see the night market stalls being set up, each filled with local textiles, jewellery, wood carvings and even liquor laced with cobras and scorpions.
This walkable city has so many attractions located in close proximity that it can easily be explored over a weekend. However, with an abundance of gleaming temples, cool cafes, and inventive boutiques, it is easy to come back again and again to find new and unexplored treasures.
WE Smile Magazine, Inflight Magazine of Thai Smile Airlines
February 01, 2018