SE Asia #04 Luang Prabang
SE Asia #04 – Luang Prabang, Laos
This is part 4 of our tour of South East Asia consisting of 3 countries and covers our visit to Luang Prabang in Laos.
Luang Prabang location
After a short flight from Hanoi we arrived at our 2nd country on this tour. We landed in the quaint city of Luang Prabang on the Mekong River. Here in the US, we are more familiar with the Mekong Delta in Vietnam which we all learned about in our newspapers during the Vietnam War (if you are old enough). However, the part of the river in Laos is quite a ways upstream from Vietnam with the entire country of Cambodia and three quarters of Laos in between.
The lovely town of Luang Prabang sits on the Southeast side of the Mekong River in the northern end of Laos.
One of the interesting, but perfectly logical, aspects of towns and cities along rivers in this part of the world is that many such towns developed on only one side of the river. In the US and Europe most river centric cities away from sea ports developed along both banks of their river pretty much at the same time. Indeed, many times one side was more industrial and the other more civic and residential but when one looks at maps of such places, the developed areas are on both sides of the river. This is for the main part due to the fact that most such towns developed along trade routes where the road had to cross the river and some enterprising fellow established a ferry. This then inspired other entrepreneurs to take advantage of those waiting on either side of the river for their ride to establish other businesses like saloons, brothels, dry goods stores, hotels, and the like. And, over time, villages, towns and cities grew up from these ferry crossings till eventually bridges replaced the ferry.
However, in SE Asia, it seems that the development pattern was somewhat different on large rivers. Perhaps the rivers were too wild or flood prone to support viable ferry service or maybe geo political forces discouraged the crossing of such rivers into neighboring “kingdoms”. But, the end result was that many towns and villages developed on only one side of the river and the other side for the most part stayed vacant, even to this day. Such is the case with Luang Prabang.
While the city itself is large enough to support an international airport – which is not surprising given the small number of cities of any size in Laos – the interesting part of the city is what they call the old or historic section. The old city is a UNESCO world heritage site so has retained (or been restored to) its old world charm. It is located on the bank of the Mekong River mostly sandwiched between the Mekong and a parallel section of the Nam Khan River.
Its best known qualities are unique and remarkably well preserved architectural and religious buildings consisting of a cultural blend of rural and urban developments over several centuries. The most prominent of these is the French colonial influence during the 19th and 20th centuries along with the many Buddhist monasteries. At one time, the city was the capital of the kingdom of Luang Prabang – and thus its name. Later it was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos until the Pathet Lao takeover in 1975. Currently, the population of the city as a whole is roughly 56,000 with the UNESCO protected area having around 24,000.
After the chaos and traffic of Hanoi, being plunked down in the serene and laid back old district of Luang Prabang was like landing in another country altogether – which of course it is. But more than that. The streets are quiet with very little traffic. The architecture is stunning in its variety but with breathing room around the buildings. No neon signs or ticky-tacky souvenir shops. No street venders (other than in the designated open air market). Just the pace of life here is casual and leisurely. And, all is thanks I assume to it being a UNESCO world heritage site.
Road re-construction the old school way – by hand. The only machine on this project was the hand load cement mixer
French Colonial style hotel
Family Restaurant, with the family enjoying dinner
Hotel by the banks of the river
Open air restaurant on the banks of the Mekong
Small restaurant with living quarters above
1952 Citroen Model 11 Family Version, in front of Hotel
Many Asian countries are known for the presence of incredibly dense populations and a high amount of ethnic diversity. However Laos is a landlocked nation and is noted for its unique demographics. The entire nation is only composed of around 6 million people, making it one of the most sparsely populated countries in Asia. At the same time, researchers have claimed that Laos is home to well over 200 distinct ethnic groups. That would make it by far one of the most diverse nations in the world. Yet, many dispute this as it depends on how you count.
As of the 2005 national census, the Laos government recognized 240 subgroups of people. These subgroups were lumped into 49 ethnic groups. From there, the 49 ethnic groups were categorized into one of four ethno-linguistic groups. So, despite potentially having over 200 distinct groups, the Laos government prefers to only recognize four broad categories based on ethnic and linguistic similarities which are Lao Tai, Mon-Khmer, Chinese Tibetan, and Hmong Mien.
But, no matter which of these groups an individual belongs to, they are as a whole quite lovely people - very friendly and cordial and in good spirits. Even though there is quite a mix in Luang Prabang, once you get out into the more rural areas it becomes quite homogeneous with each village only containing one of these ethnic groups.
I was not able to distinguish members of these various groups visually. But then again we only visited one area of the country so maybe we were only seeing one such group. Here are some random photos of the people
Older woman and grandson
An even older woman
Older woman in her outdoor kitchen on a main street
Three girls and a couple of cell phones
In Luang Prabang one still finds many families living in the traditional style of the past. The houses are built in traditional style with traditional materials. And, as is the case with many areas where the weather tends to be hot and humid, they make use of outdoor spaces, especially kitchens.
Outdoor kitchen of a family home on one of the main streets.
Outdoor Kitchen stove
Woman cooking for her restaurant
As seems to be the case with both Hanoi and Luang Prabang, there has been a revival in the art of making traditional crafts. Many nonprofit organizations have evolved that not only support these traditional crafts but have also set up craft studios where artisans are taught the traditional ways and have access to traditional equipment and supplies used to make these items, the sale of which supports the organization.
In Luang Prabang we visited several of these craft studios including several weaving studios and a traditional fine art paper making facility. In a couple of these visits we were given a talk on the history of the craft and were shown samples of the entire process from raw material to finished goods. In one case it was a silk weaving studio that starts with the raising of silk worms, harvesting of the silk, making the silk threads, dyeing the thread and then weaving it into cloth. It was quite fascinating. In another studio we were shown how they make fine art paper with embedded flower petals.
Silk worm cocoons and braids of spun silk
Dyed yarn drying
Hand weaving loom
Artisan weaving silk cloth
In another studio we were shown how they make fine art paper with embedded flower petals.
Handmade paper drying in the sun
Adding flower petals to wet paper pulp in shallow water tray.
Other than a few Catholic churches left over from the French occupation, pretty much everyone seems to be Buddhist and nowhere more so than in Luang Prabang where there are a large number of Buddhist temples and monasteries. These building complexes added greatly to the old world charm of the town. I don’t have an exact count, but we’re talking a dozen or more in an area that can be walked from end to end in 15 minutes.
In Laos the Buddhist community plays a significant role in education. As is the case with most of the countries in the area, primary education is at best a hit and miss proposition. Even in countries that claim “free” primary education, many times all the fees that come along with it make it prohibitive to the bulk of the poorer rural people. Due to this, many families send their male children off to join a Buddhist monastery. The Buddhist culture holds education in high regard and they make a point of providing a good education to their younger members. This education is not limited to just religious teaching but also extends to general knowledge of mathematics, geography, literature, science and pretty much most traditional subjects. This isn’t to say that every monastery has the same curriculum but in general they seem to do a pretty good job. So, not only does a male offspring of a poor family get a reasonable education, it also includes room and board at the monastery thus leaving one less mouth to feed at home.
As it turns out, and as expected, most of these children leave the religious life in their late teens or early twenties and return to their villages or go off to make their way in the world. However, some take to the monastery life style and decide to remain and thus become the next generation of teachers. Well, being one of the only “cities” in a large area of poor rural villages, Luang Prabang has become the home to dozens of these monasteries and as one wanders around town Buddhist monks of all ages are often seen in their orange saffron robes walking through town.
Young Buddhist monk in training
So far though, this is only for male children. Girls are not expected to become educated and tend to stay in their villages to get married, have children and run the household. I know in today’s western world this is frowned upon, and indeed it is unfair, but one has to remember we’re talking third world cultures here. Even though some have cell phones, and motor boats and other goods from modern society, in many ways they are still a hundred or more behind the west in cultural matters. But, the good news is that due to Western influence, this is changing much faster for them than it did for us. They are starting see more girls in the workforce, and going to college than ever before. Sure, it is limited to the more affluent families but it is starting and in not much time it will trickle down to the less affluent members of society – one hopes.
Vat Nong Sikhounmuang Temple
Three Headed Dragon, Wat Xiengthong Monastery
The monks do much of their own construction and repair. No hard hats, no gloves, sandals but no steel toed boots.
As with most religions, these monasteries are supported by the community at large through gifts and offerings. This works especially well in SE Asia as the bulk of the population subscribe to the religion and understand that supporting the monasteries also supports the education of a large number of their children. Every morning, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms from the locals mostly in the form of food offerings which in turn is mostly cooked rice. Before dawn each day, hundreds of worshipers line the route the monks follow each day with pots full of the offering. The barefoot monks in their orange saffron robes walk by in single file with each monk carrying an urn slung from a shoulder strap into which each worshiper places a scoop of rice or other food. As it turns out, this is the only food the monks will have available to eat for the day back at the monastery.
Line of monks taking the offerings from their followers
After a day and a half in Luang Prabang it was time to set sail as we’ll see in the next episode.
I hope you enjoyed reading about Luang Prabang from our SE Asia trip and will come back for the rest of this journey.
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
This blog is posted at:
Or, this whole series at:
These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website.
http://www.danhartfordphoto.com/SE-Asia-trip-all (all images)
http://www.danhartfordphoto.com/SE-Asia-trip-favs (subset of images)
Thanks for reading – Dan
(All images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way.
Keywords: Blog, Buddhist Monk, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogSEAsia, Laos, Luang Prabang
Thanks for your travelog. Laos is one of the Southwest Asian countries we have not visited.
Thanks, Dan. Great photos, of course, and interesting summary of culture and living norms. It looks like a place I would love to visit, and a hundred years back in time doesn't seem like such a bad thing a lot of the time.
Thank you for sharing these memorable adventures - hope I get to return to Southeast Asia.
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