Soaking up Luang Prabang’s rich mix of traditional and colonial architecture.
When I close my eyes and think of Luang Prabang, Laos, I am filled with an overwhelming sense of peace. The small, quiet city is located on a peninsula that is nestled between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers and cradled by lush mountain ranges — with the sacred Mount Phou Si rising up from the city’s centre.
Luang Prabang’s tranquillity is likely due to it being the epicentre of Buddhism in Laos. Despite the ravages of the Chinese Black Flag Army in 1887 — when only a few monasteries survived unharmed — the city has since rebuilt its plethora of Wats and Stupas in honour of Buddha.
Indeed, a local legend tells that Buddha smiled when resting at the site of Luang Prabang during his travels — foretelling that a rich and powerful city would be constructed there.
The city’s holiness is palpable and it feels like everything within Luang Prabang is exactly as it’s meant to be. The integration of traditional Laos architecture melded with the French colonial style and an ever-present connection to nature strikes a beautiful balance. In 1995, Luang Prabang was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Walking through the city, one of the most impressive temples is Haw Pha Bang (also known as Wat Ho Pha Bang). The temple resides on the grounds of the Royal Palace Museum and was built to house the Phra Bang Buddha image — the country’s most sacred Buddha image.
Construction of the temple started in 1963, but was brought to a halt when the communist Pathet Lao party came into power in 1975. Work on the temple resumed in 1990 and was completed in 2006.
Also located beside the city’s popular Night Market, Haw Pha Bang is a shining example of traditional temple design in Luang Prabang and echoes the distinct style of many of the city’s sacred Wats.
The temples typically feature tiered roofs that elegantly cascade towards the ground and are flanked with Naga sculptures — serpent-like depictions meant to protect Buddha from harm. Within, each temple houses its own breathtaking murals, images of Buddha and sacred treasures. Without, many of the Wats’ exterior walls are gilded with ornate gold decorations that gleam like beacons of light in the warm sun. Home to roughly one thousand monks and novices, there are more than 30 Wats peppered throughout Luang Prabang.
Wandering away from Haw Pha Bang temple towards the Nam Khan River, the city’s gentle colour scheme of white, gold and rust gives way to the verdant green of the jungle and the caramel waves of the river.
While there are a few bridges that link one side of Luang Prabang to the other, the Bamboo Bridges are the most iconic. Each rainy season, as the Nam Khan River floods, the bridges are washed away. When the rainy season ends, a local family rebuilds the Bamboo Bridges year after year.
While the bridges — one is located at the mouth of the Nam Khan where it feeds back into the Mekong and the other resides at the foot of Mount Phou Si — seem a little rickety, they are very strong and flexible.
There is a small fee for tourists to cross each bridge. The first bridge at the mouth of Nam Khan River is 10,000 kip ($1.48 CAD) per person and the second bridge is around 7,000 kip ($1.04 CAD) per person. This money helps maintain the bridges and supports the family who rebuild them every year.
The destruction of the Bamboo Bridges and their rebirth six months later feels like a beautiful metaphor for the cycle of life, and its gentle rhythm that pervades throughout Laos’ most holy city.
Photos and story by Sarah Comber.
*Editor’s Note: This trip was taken before the Covid-19 outbreak.