I carefully opened the curtain, peeked out the window and sighed. The day didn’t look too promising. Clouds were hanging over the sky, casting a dim grey hue from above. But it was so quiet, so peaceful. No honking, only a faint noise from nearby houses hinting at the usual morning activities of local people. The loudest thing I could hear was the crowing of roosters, a natural wake-up call. This is Luang Prabang, and after a few days here in Laos’ second city, I knew that it was exactly how every day started in this picturesque town – where time seemed to pass so slowly.
Sluggishly we walked around the eastern part of Luang Prabang’s old town where we stayed during our visit. Empty streets were festooned with the refreshing colors of blooming flowers. Occasionally motorbikes broke the silence, but only for a few seconds until the noise faded away and left the streets as silent as they were. A few activities were spotted along our stroll: a lady drying out bright yellow wafers under the sun which gradually shone through the clouds; some locals making casual banter over their breakfast; and shop owners preparing for business in the off-peak tourist season.
Before the French occupation in 1893, Luang Prabang was the royal capital of an eponymous kingdom for centuries – as early as the 7th century when the town was still called Muang Sua. It remained a royal capital of the unified Kingdom of Laos until the communist takeover of the whole nation in 1975. Having endured numerous annexations from foreign nations – Khmer, Siam, Champa and eventually French, Luang Prabang showcases the diffusion of various cultures from its past, notably in the surviving buildings inside the old town’s perimeter. With a population of a mere 50,000, this tranquil town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 due to the abundance of French colonial buildings, ancient Buddhist temples and the preserved traditions of the locals.
Dubbed the cultural capital of Laos due to its rich history, Luang Prabang hosts many elegant Buddhist temples (wats) along its grid-lined streets. The most important and famous ones are Wat Xieng Thong and Wat Sen. Other wats which are often included in the must-visit list of every traveler in town are Wat Tham Phu Si and Wat Chom Si, both perched on the summit of Mount Phu Si – right in the heart of Luang Prabang’s old town. However, contrary to the first two wats, the latter are rather modest in size and ornaments. The vista from the summit is the sole reason for people to climb all the way up the hill on a well-paved staircase.
Staying for three days in Luang Prabang taught us the best way to enjoy the town: taking our time, very slowly. When we were not visiting any temple or doing any activity, we could always find a reason to savor scrumptious Lao food and have another glass of watermelon chilli granita. Fortunately for us, Luang Prabang has some of the best Lao restaurants in the country.
When we thought that there was really nothing else to do in Luang Prabang, we were offered a day trip to Tat Kuang Si waterfalls on our last day in town. Unbeknownst to us, it would turn out to be the most challenging and physically exhausting activity that we did in Laos.