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Guide to Luang Prabang - Laos' Saffron City

By Simon Ramsden

The 1995 UNESCO report which declared Luang Prabang a World Heritage site described the town as the best-preserved traditional town in SE Asia. It was also recently voted the world's top destination for the third successive year by Wanderlust magazine, whilst Laos was judged the best destination country by The New York Times.

Cradled in its mountainous eyrie, the town's location is as stunning as its temples are resplendent. Like an earl's fading finery, Luang Prabang's somnolent streets slumber on, largely unchanged since its ancient royal capital days.

Aside from smelly drains, Luang Prabang, whose name means 'Golden Buddha Capital', exhibits few flaws. Tourists are usually reluctant to leave the bicycle-paced cradle of Lao culture and often tarry longer than planned. The attraction stems partly from the terrain, as the one-time royal seat of Laos sits at the junction of the Mekong with one of its tributaries and is encircled by an amphitheatre of limestone peaks. It even has its very own mountain right in the town, which rises steeply up behind the main street. The town is occasionally busy but rarely frantic and, thanks to strict planning regulations, is devoid of eyesores.

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Market in Luang Prabang by Alcyon

Time seems to have stood still in this special and serene place. In this respect it resembles the unique Italian city of San Gimignano, whose tightly-packed sixteenth century stone skyscrapers were left untouched for four hundred years when all the inhabitants died of the Black Death. Due to its isolation, Luang Prabang has preserved an older and slower way of life: old Asia, Asia without the crowds, Asia without the traffic, Asia where people have enough time for each other, enough time for themselves.

Luang Prabang seems almost camouflaged by palm trees and dense tropical foliage: from above, only golden-spired stupa roofs are visible, shimmering above the greenery. First-time visitors to this treasure trove of Laos culture are advised to devote at least the first day to taking in the stunning architectural display, with French-colonial chic married to Buddhist splendour to elegant effect.

Saffron-robed Buddhist monks by Benh LIEU SONG

At dawn scores of saffron-robed, alms-hungry monks file from the monasteries into the streets in a ritual that has become emblematic of the city's identity. The orange in the monks' robes is accentuated by the soft morning light in a scene framed by russet monastery roofs, palm trees and whitewashed colonial housing. Within an hour, the monks have completed their rounds and melted back into their monasteries. Although this daily ritual can be seen all over southeast Asia, it's particularly striking in Luang Prabang because of the density of temples and the concentration of monks: out of a population of 15,000 residents, there are over 500 monks.

Simon Ramsden is resident in Ao Nang, Thailand. and runs Thailand climbing trips trips to Koh Lao Liang, Koh Yao Noi, Koh Phi Phi and Railay/Tonsai.

Author: Simon Ramsden

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