Jewel of the Mekong

July 18, 2011

There are thousands of cathedrals in Europe and a grand number of mosques in the Middle East, but in quantity these may be surpassed by the Buddhist temples of Southeast Asia. One place in particular has an astounding concentration of practicing monasteries, atmospherically nestled within lush mountain scenery. Luang Prabang, Laos, is hallowed ground and an unquestioned jewel of the far east. 

The Mekong River flows through Luang Prabang

Perched on a majestic section of the region's lifeblood, the Mekong River, Luang Prabang has long had great importance in Laos. Great kingdoms were once centered here. When French colonizers entered Asia and annexed Laos, they recognized the city as the royal residence of the country. Laotian independence was achieved in 1945, and the king of Luang Prabang became the head of state for the Kingdom of Laos. Luang Prabang's influence waned after Communists overthrew the Kingdom in 1975, but the city has retained its status as the religious and cultural heart of Laos.  

While the French no longer rule, interesting bits of their legacy are visible in the country. Freshly baked French baguettes are sold everywhere you go. French is a popular second language for children to study, only recently eclipsed by English. But most remarkably, the blending of building traditions has left Laos with a rich stock of French Indo-Chinese architecture. And nowhere in the country is this more true than in Luang Prabang.

The picturesque combination of elegant architecture and sublime natural surroundings has made Luang Prabang the most popular tourist destination in Laos. Many beautifully-restored buildings in the historic center have been converted into guesthouses. Their patrons can enjoy food from all over the world served by the plethora of international restaurants which line the main drag. In addition, tourists flock to the nightly market in search of exotic clothing, artwork, and souvenirs.  

There are over thirty temples in Luang Prabang, and while wandering it is quite easy to stumble upon one. Their ornate forms beg to be appreciated and photographed from different angles.

The temple of Xieng Thong is celebrated as the most magnificent in Luang Prabang. The outside back wall of this graceful structure is adorned with a photogenic mosiac of the Tree of Life. Inside of the temple compound stands the royal funeral carriage house, featuring some impressive sculpted dragons.

Far from being relics of a bygone era, the temples of Luang Prabang are home to thriving, practicing monasteries. Visitors are welcome to respectfully observe the monks during prayers.

One might think that these striking orange-clad figures are disengaged from the outside world, and aim to keep curious tourists at arm's length. However, I found this to be untrue. If anything, the isolation of their ascetic lifestyles makes them even more inquisitive of life outside the monastery. I spoke with several young monks who were more than happy to practice their English with me, and very eager to talk with someone who comes from such a different place and reality. Far from being disconnected, I even converse with one young monk from Luang Prabang over e-mail!

Novice Kham Vanh, my email penpal
I asked these monks to write their names in my notebook

Some novice monks informed me that later that evening all of the monasteries in Luang Prabang would be holding a special ceremony in honor of Vesak Day. This day is sacred to Buddhists as an annual celebration of the Buddha's birth, death, and enlightenment. As I explored more in the afternoon, I spotted monks shaving off all of their facial hair in preparation for the evening's proceedings.

That night I walked to a temple near my guesthouse to observe the ceremony. Candles had been placed all around the perimeter of the holy building, and young monks were walking around lighting them. Despite the intermittent rain showers which inhibited their efforts, the effect was still quite atmospheric. Worshipers crowded into the rear of the temple and sat on the floor in preparation for prayers. The monks led the orison in front, kneeling under the enlightened pose of a golden Buddha. When the prayers were complete, the monks donned candles and led the congregation out of the temple, chanting in unison. Everyone circled the temple three times, while another monk played a large bass drum located in a small tower nearby. After the third circle the monks placed their candles in a specially prepared area, and everyone else followed suit.

Vesak day is celebrated in different ways all over the Buddhist world. While doing some online research for this post, I came across this phenomenal gallery of Vesak Day ceremonies from around the globe. Check it out and be inspired!


Four days had hardly felt like enough time to explore Luang Prabang. But my traveling buddy, James, and I decided that the time had come to move on south. An unforgettably beautiful bus journey awaited us, as well as a welcome surprise that neither of us could have dreamed of beforehand.  

We were about to leap out of our tourist shoes and participate in one the most important moments of a Lao person's life.


1 comment :

  1. Adam!, muy bonitas fotos y viajes!!! suerte en Hong Kong y lo demás. Bss!