Window on Southeast Asia:
Luang Phabang: The Lao Fairy-tale City
This is part of our Window on Southeast Asia series.
A tourist to Laos, marveling at the simplicity of the hill-tribe way of life, the peacefulness of the Lao villages, and the endless emerald green fields, could easily forget that Laos is an ancient and rich civilization. Laos has a number of ancient cities along with its villages. The image of Laos as a purely rural land with a simple way of life can be delightfully shattered in its ancient royal capitol and the center of Lao culture, Luang Phabang (also spelled "Luang Prabang;" the "Ph" in the former is an aspirated "P," NOT pronounced like an "F"). If ever there were a fairy-tale city, this city of sparkling temples, palaces, French architecture, teaming with art and culture and cut right out of a dense jungle, is it. During my time in the enchanting city, I absorbed a great deal of Lao culture and refinement, yet even here I discovered just how ingrained the rural way of life is in the hearts of the Lao people.
As I left my hotel and began my exploration of the city, I headed for the old town. Then I walked past a small dirt side street that somehow seemed to beckon. So I turned down the street and deliberately got lost (something I've never had much trouble doing). What makes Luang Phabang special among Lao cities is that it IS a Lao city. The ethnic Lao are a minority in the other cities. (The majority of the citizens are usually Chinese or Vietnamese.) Luang Phabang is the only city in which the Lao are a majority. The Lao often prefer village life and still have the village in their hearts even when they move to the city. That point was not lost on me as I walked in the middle of the city along dirt streets with bamboo-thatched houses, past palm and bamboo groves with lily ponds, and saw chickens and ducks running around the streets. As suddenly as I had entered this world, I stepped back into the other, where large French colonial buildings on paved streets have bamboo fences and Lao lanterns around them.
So I made my way to the old part of the city, founded by King Fa Ngum in the 1200s AD, which sits on a peninsula formed where the Nam Kan River meets the Mekong. It was the capitol of the Kingdom of Lan Sane, the former name for Laos (meaning "million elephants"). In the 1700s, the kingdom fractured into three kingdoms, with Luang Phabang as the capitol of the northern kingdom. When Laos was reunified as a French colony, the political capitol was switched to Vientiane. Yet Luang Phabang remained the ceremonial capitol where royal functions were carried out until the victory of the Communist Pathet Lao in 1975. Many of the city's people were sent to reeducation camps because of their connection to royalty. Many citizens also fled abroad. At the tip of the peninsula lies Wat Sing Thong built in 1560. It's made up of several small buildings and one large one. The smaller ones are decorated with murals made from small pieces of colored glass. They show scenes of royal court life, mythical stories, and the daily lives of the commoners. They come alive when the sun hits them, reflecting it in an almost searing display of color. The main temple, or "sim" in Lao, is fading, but still has stenciled gold images from the Buddha's life and Hindu epics. Like most Lao temples, it has a multi-tiered roof that swoops gracefully low, almost to the ground. On the back of it, there is a tree-of-life scene, complete with birds and other animals, in colors that are less dazzling but more soothing than the colored glass murals.
The sim of Wat Sing Thong
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