By Michelle Karaman-Jones
I was petrified … at first.
I have been to various regions of Asia many times as a travel writer, and the culture and food has always lured me back.
But I don’t like the busy streets with their constant traffic jams and non-stop, fully-laden motorcycles.
I cannot cross the roads or walk on footpaths without the scooters beeping their horns, telling me to get out of the way in narrow streets.
However, THIS time I was in a quieter Asian region where there is hardly any traffic and less scooters beeping.
Luang Prabang is the charming, historic UNESCO World Heritage-listed city in north central Laos, at the merging of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers (about 300 kilometres north of the capital city, Vientiane) with a population of about 50,000.
I asked my tour guide if it was a public holiday because of the lesser traffic, and she said, ”No public holiday”.
I wondered why, compared to neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand, and her reply was, “This IS traffic, it’s the afternoon peak hour”.
Her answer relieved my fears (dare I say, nightmares).
Now I feel safer and more confident, and my travels will be greater and much happier experiences.
Forget white sandy beaches and hammocks under swaying palm trees, this region is not one of those tropical island vacations you see in postcards. What a beautiful, relaxing and peaceful town. It has so much character, temples, night market, Mekong, delightful people and so much to see and do.
This is Laos where you can discover history dating back to 698 AD and where you can relax with a traditional, 60-minuteLaotian massage for only $25 Australian dollars and eat fresh, Laotian traditional food.
There are some area of Laos that are not visited by many tourists, such as the hills of Luang Prabang around the Mekong River.
Luang Prabang was formerly the capital of a kingdom by the same name; it’s ancient name was Chiang Thong. Until the communist takeover in 1975, it was the royal capital and seat of government of the kingdom of Laos.
Sua was the old name of Luang Prabang following its conquest in 698 A.D. by a Tai prince, Khun Lo. Khun Lo had been given the city by his father, Khun Borom, who is associated with the Lao legend of the creation of the world, which the Laotians share with the Shan and other people of the region.
Khun Lo established a dynasty whose 15 rulers reigned over an independent Muang Sua for nearly a century.
In 1707, Lan Xang fell apart because of a dynastic struggle and Luang Prabang became the capital of the independent Luang Prabang kingdom.
When France annexed Laos, the French recognised Luang Prabang as the royal residence of Laos.
Eventually, the ruler of Luang Prabang became synonymous with the figurehead of the French protectorate of Laos.
When Laos achieved independence, the king of Luang Prabang, Sisavang Vong, became the head of state for the kingdom of Laos.
In the aftermath of the Franco-Thai War, Thailand occupied the city as the Mekong River became the international border in the region.
After the end of World War II, the Thai government returned Luang Prabang to the French.
On March 9, 1945, a nationalist group declared Laos once more independent, with Luang Prabang as its capital.
However, Colonel Hans Imfeld, commissioner of the French Republic, entered Luang Prabang on August 25, 1945 with a force of Franco-Laotian guerrillas and received assurances from the king that the French protectorate was still in force.
Luang Prabang remained the royal capital until 1975 when the Pathet Lao communists seized power with North Vietnamese support and ended the ancient monarchy.
The main part of the city consists of four main roads on a peninsula between the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers.
The city is well known for its numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries.
I was told by the locals that every morning, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms.
I got up before the crack of dawn next morning to catch the monks lining up; it was a special moment.
The monks in their orange gowns were walking and the locals were kneeling, with their heads bowed and their plates in front, ready for an exchange(in the form of sticky rice).
What to See;
Royal Palace, Luang Prabang Museum; the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang was built in 1904 during the French colonial era for King Sisavang Vong and his family. Lovely, small museum (with two beautiful temples at the entrance). Don`t miss the Golden Buddha (own entrance, on the right side of the gate). The rest of the palace reveals just how humble the Laotian people are. Not much of luxury in that palace but unusual decorations and beautiful objects. No shoes or photos allowed inside and ladies need to cover their knees.
Kwang Si Waterfall & Bear Rescue Centre – It is about 35 to 45 minutes drive from the town centre. The waterfall is spectacular and there are a number of different areas you can swim. The bonus of going to Kuang Si is only a mintues walk into the park (it is a protected area) there is a rescue centre for the Asiatic Black Bears. There is a fee to enter the park but none of that fee goes towards the bears project. It is totally funded by an Australian charity and currently has a very passionate English couple managing it with the help of some Lao staff. There is a donation box and a t-shirt stall at the bear centre with all funds going direct to the bears. For more info visit www.freethebears.com
Where to stay:
There is a short list of hotels in Luang Prabang and in the good price range to suit every budget; it’s easy to get around. We stayed in Villa Maly, a heavenly hideaway tucked away in the meditative back streets of Luang Prabang. I was not disappointed. It a great place in a central location, within walking distance to night markets and eateries. The 33 spacious,modern and comfortable rooms are surrounded by tropical gardens, home to an abundance of exotic plant life. Each villa looks out to the pool and deck.
It is a relaxing place in a destination of its own – east meets the west – perfect to retire after a day of trekking or exploring the UNESCO-protected temples of Luang Prabang. Villa Maly has a rich history; it was built in 1938 as the official home to Laotian nobility. Now, after a painstaking restoration, the property retains its former regal splendor.
Villa Maly Luxury boutique hotel Luang Prabang and Mekong Dining Cruises www.villa-maly.com
Air Asia flies to Laos and for more information visit www.airasia.com
Writer was a guest of Air Asia