Luang Prabang, Laos - City of Calm
With direct flights from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, Van Cong Tu takes off for the Buddhist heart of neighboring Laos.
Luang Prabang is a unique place in Laos, if not the world. The ancient royal city is surrounded by mountains at the junction of the Mekong and its tributary, the Khan River. Towering over the town is Mount Phousi which provides stunning views of the surrounding temples and landscape.
Luang Prabang is a city of complete calm and total beauty. Named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995, there are strict guidelines on renovation and new construction which have helped preserve the city’s streets and structures while maintaining relatively little traffic on the road. Everywhere columns of monks stroll through this city of a thousand pagodas.
From four in the morning till the early evening, there’s an unending procession of monks padding through the streets in their beautiful orange robes with school bags over their shoulders and umbrellas under their arms. The morning call to alms sees the monks serenely queuing for food contributions from the locals and the handful of tourists, who manage to drag themselves out of bed early enough.
Peacefully holding out the brass vessels to collect sticky rice, the monks do not seem to ever notice the flashing cameras of the rather intrusive visitors. Sadly it must be pointed out that as tourism grows in this city the monks have increasingly less space to meditate or go about their modest daily lives. Of course the monks and locals are far too polite to ask anyone to stop.
Ranging in age from the adolescent to the ancient, the monks spend their days chanting, studying and working in and around the grounds of the many wats (temples) in the city streets. On my visit, I saw groups of monks engaged in various activities, including cleaning out a pond, building a boat and keeping the tropical gardens tidy. Even though they are generally shy, they do appreciate the chance to converse with foreigners to practice their English.
The monks are incredibly softly spoken and courteous at all times. But there is evidence that western culture is starting to have an influence on their behaviour. I saw one teenage monk sending text messages on a mobile phone. Most of the people who work in restaurants are also said to be former monks.
The magnificent wats where these monks reside are another aspect of Luang Prabang’s beauty. Largely built in the 16th to 18th centuries, these decorative traditional structures with their multi-tiered tiled roofs are surrounded by other lesser stupas and functional buildings used to house and educate the monks. Murals depicting the life of Buddha cover certain walls of these impressive buildings.
Tall and angular, the wats are in direct contrast to the rustic French colonial buildings that line the main street of the town. The atmosphere within their grounds is calming and humbling. Used frequently for religious occasions and festivals, the wats provide another more utilitarian function, as places of accommodation and learning for thousands of young boys throughout Laos.
As a poor remote country which lacks the education infrastructure of its neighbours, Vietnam and Thailand, particularly in rural areas, the wats double as schools where boys are not only schooled in Buddhist teachings but also in subjects ranging from computer studies to foreign languages.
I guess girls in Laos are schooled in housework and the land as the wats are a boys-only domain. Between the majesty of the wats and the serenity of the orange-robed monks, along with the charm of Luang Prabang itself and the green landscape around it, this is a captivating destination for a weekend getaway.
Under a codeshare arrangement Vietnam Airlines and Lao Aviation fly daily from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. Call Vietnam Airlines for details. Hanoi 04 830 0320 or Ho Chi Minh City 08 832 0273.
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