A Slice of Heaven and History in Luang Prabang
A Slice of Heaven and History in Luang Prabang
It’s rare for me to love a place so instantly, as it usually takes me a day or so to adjust to my surroundings completely. This wasn’t true for the tropical and alluring Luang Prabang. I instantly fell for the charming French inspired city in the heart of the jungle of Laos, and as the days passed I only came to love it more. Luang Prabang culture, history and food are why we travel.
There’s something intangible about Luang Prabang that drew me in. In the recent history of the world, Laos has taken some harsh knocks from more powerful kingdoms and governments in the area. As the Mekong delta is known as one of the cradles of civilization, there is a long history that spans farther back than most areas on the planet. There have been ancient dynasty’s that have risen and fallen, with many of them being seated in the central city of Luang Prabang.
However, more recently after an attack in 1887 from China, the country decided to accept French protection. The French colonized Laos, and in the middle of the jungle, an unthinkable French city popped up.
When Laos gained independence from the French in 1953, their journey as a country was far from over. A civil war broke out between the Communist party in Vientiane and the Royal ruling party in Luang Prabang. Proxy wars were springing up around the world, and this took no exception. Alarmed at the spread of communism, the United States and the allied forces were quietly involved with the Royal party, with Russia silently backing the Vientiane leaders from afar.
As the war ended and the Communists were proved victorious, it was no surprise that poverty and desolation were left in its wake of conflict. Many Laos people were forced to flee into neighboring Thailand due to revenue opportunities now being limited by the new government.
The government, while still in control, have since updated their policies to be kinder to their citizens. However, Laos is still one of the most impoverished regions in Southeast Asia. Most of their people rely on the agriculture sector or the new found tourism sector, but in the rural areas tourism revenue is almost non-existent.
For all their hardship and poverty, the Lao people were some of the kindest and most gentle hearted people we have met while traveling. We spent two weeks in the country, and yet could have spent a lifetime surrounded by the tranquility of their daily life.
The majority of Lao people are Buddhist, and the beautiful ancient temples and Vat’s that are a part of daily life are dotted frequently about downtown Luang Prabang. Buddhist monks roam the city streets going from one place to the next just as much as regular people, and small shrines line the streets and alleyways. The once Royal Palace lies in the middle of the downtown, which truly is a stunning display of the ornate Buddhist architecture of the early centuries.
The temples and pagodas intermixed with the French colonial architecture is stunning. Walking around the cobblestone streets and gazing into two clashing worlds is an experience of a lifetime. Architecturally preserved historical houses have since been converted into boutique hotels or bed and breakfasts. The main street in town is now full of trendy cafes and bistros, along with a mix of Laos food and tourist shops. During the day, the downtown is filled with sidewalk tables full of tourists cooling off with a cold drink or a meal.
Luang Prabang itself is on a peninsula of land between the Nam Khan River and the Mekong River, and the downtown is on the strip of land between the two. There’s a wonderful road that runs alongside one river until the two rivers converge, and then runs alongside the other river in the opposite direction. These river roads are also lined with wonderful restaurants with a little more authenticity than the tourist populated downtown, and are a wonderful option to sit and watch the boats come in for the night.
While we are spoiled as a group of people to be able to travel to these beautiful places, it’s important to note that many people living in Luang Prabang are still suffering from lack of the basic necessities for themselves and their families. Take mind of this fact, and be kind to those that you meet. Their home has turned into a major tourism destination, so consider supporting Lao owned restaurants and shops, or there are numerous ways to give back through charitable foundations located throughout the city.
Luang Prabang is truly a magical place, and ever since we have left, it has captivated our hearts and imaginations. The city is unparalleled in its charm, historical and cultural relevance, and friendliness of its people. Anyone who is in Southeast Asia who is not visiting Laos,and more specifically Luang Prabang, is sorely missing out.