Thursday, November 17, 2011


Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos, is a world away from Vientiane. Cool, lush, quiet and charming, Luang Prabang is the Laos of your dreams, and one of my favorite destinations on this trip.

The city has been known by several names and been transformed many times over its long history. As Muang Sua and then Xiang Dong Xiang Thong, the city was the center of a kingdom that fell under the influence of Chinese, Mongol, and Khmer states. After 1353 it became the capital of the Khmer backed kingdom of Lan Xang, which encompassed much of modern Laos. When the capital of the kingdom was moved to Vientiane in 1560, the name was changed again to Luang Prabang to honor the ancient Buddhist relic housed here, and the city remained a center of royalty and Buddhist study. When the French took control, they allowed the monarchy to remain in Luang Prabang and added their own imprint to the city. Today, as a World Heritage Site, "LP" is well visited, but does not feel like a tourist trap (sort of like Hoi An did). There is still a vibrant, authentic town that operates here, and it is intoxicating.

One of the most beautiful temples seen on our journey was Wat Xieng Thong, a monastic complex dating from 1560 and one of only two temples in the city to be spared in the 1887 Chinese Haw troops fleeing the Taiping Rebellion.

Just beautiful!

The grounds of the former royal palace.

This is a typical early 20th century wealthy family's home preserved as a museum.

Our most magical evening of the entire trip thus far fell on the night of the full moon. First a royal puppet show at a temple near our hotel.

We proceeded to another temple, which we walked around three times, holding incense, flowers and candles along with a hundred townspeople. The moon was bright, the candles were atmospheric, the monks were beating drums at a rate that seemed almost danceable, fire fueled lanterns floated above, the air was filled with incense and Luang Prabang took its spot as my favorite city we have visited.

The next day we visited an elephant rescue camp and a gorgeous waterfall. Normally you can swim, but it was a bit too chilly when we were there.

We had mixed feelings about riding one of these amazing creatures. Lan Xang Hom Khao, the full name for the former kingdom of Laos, means "land of a million elephants." Only 1,000 Asian elephants survive in the wild in Laos, and another 1,000 are domesticated. Many of those are used in the logging industry, where they are worked to the bone and abused. Rescue centers like the one we visited give former logging elephants a chance at a happier life and rehabilitation. Like many tourist-oriented activities in this part of the world, including hill-tribe visits and preserved town centers, the elephant rides are a double edged sword. It is better than working in logging (for many reasons) but also sad that these highly intelligent and sensitive creatures are not able to survive in the wild.

Luang Prabang also had some of my favorite food on the trip. Above, a home-cooked meal we ate with a Lao-Loum (lowland Lao) family that farms cotton. They were gracious and lovely but we felt (once again) that visiting the homes of villagers is a strange form of tourism. Good in that it provides income where there might not be enough and allows for cross cultural experiences, but bad in that it turns their daily life into a bit of a "human theme park." It is hard to decide if visiting is the right or the wrong thing. There is not a clear answer in a part of the world that is changing as quickly as this one.

Sindad, a fantastic grilled-at-the-table dinner of broth and cooked meat and vegetables.

And khao say Luang Prabang, a local speciality of rice noodles with soy bean sauce, tomato, minced pork and onion. YUM.


  1. so beautiful and magical... this may be my favorite post yet. Glad you finally got to put my "elephant ride" to use!

  2. YEA!!! A picture of the two of you....on Big Boy. Bruce

  3. Favorite post yet, thoughtful and thought provoking as always...this city looks wonderful, the food looks delicious and you two look great on that elephant.

  4. More photos of the two of you please!! And that noodle dish MADE MY MOUTH WATER SO HARD!

  5. I understand your feelings about the pros and cons of staying with people, but they wouldn't be doing it if they didn't want to - like people doing B+B here. Sometimes they only do it out of necessity, but they still want the business. From the look of the food, it looks as if they are putting their hearts and souls into it!

  6. That food looks INSANE. Miss you guys.

  7. i really miss Luang Prabang!!is one of my favourite places in the world!!!beautiful pictures!!
    i've been in august...

  8. Fantastic post. Really well written. I felt like I was right there with you.

  9. The puppet show and ceremonial circumambulation sounds so amazing (and romantic!). Incredible.