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A Little Photoessay… Stories of Culture & History in Luang Prabang, Laos

The pace of life in Luang Prabang, Laos is so very charming. Charming is the only one-word description I can come up with for this low-slung city with wide streets (unnatural for much of Southeast Asia), French inspired post-colonial architecture, monks clad in sunny saffron robes, and a humming buzz of relaxed tourism. I wrote earlier about the changes three years and more tourism brought upon this sweet, sleepy country set between Vietnam and Thailand, but what cannot change in the intervening years between my visits,  is the history. Laos was the first travel destination I took my niece Ana to see once we left our apartment in Chiang Mai, and beyond the elephants, the river, and the Laotians, I really wanted her to experience a relaxed week enjoying the various elements of Luang Prabang.

A slow morning on the streets of Luang Prabang, Laos

Hours before the night market clogs the main tourist street in Luang Prabang, Vat Ho Pha Bang shines against the ultramarine sky and purple bougainvillea within the pristine National Museum complex. The city retains a rural and small-town feel despite it’s place in history as a royal capital in the 8th century, and an active trading hub on the Silk Road for many succeeding centuries. Now, it’s a UNESCO world heritage city, but no longer the capital of Laos, which I think is a very key reason the city has remained small despite globalism and tourism.

The city is a world heritage site, and on this trip Ana and I spent simple days watching, observing, and talking about history and how it may have shaped the town, what it might have felt like when Laotian kings walked the streets. I find myself slowing down a lot more with Ana in tow, instead of spending the evenings with a beer at the bowling alley (hugely popular with the backpackers in the city back in 2009), we found a coffee shop on the river. The shop’s well-worn cushions and knee-high, woven bamboo tables were cozy and comfortable as we sipped our tart, icy lime drinks. We people watched for a bit while the boats hummed on the river below, then wrote in our journals of the day’s sights, me encouraging Ana to draw pictures, note specific moments and feelings.

I realized as we sat there that I too rarely reflect on my travels offline and via a handwritten journal. I documented my round the world trip in a journal, but that ended somewhere along the way. Ana was quick to point out that I was a hypocrite for making her document her personal thoughts and journey when my fingers jetting over the keyboard with a clatter rather than the soft hiss of putting pen to paper. I know that I think best on paper, but I am so caught up in what I still need to do-plan-work on that I rarely step away from the computer without conscious effort.

And so, I made more of an effort to unplug, I mostly stopped blogging for a bit and since Ana and I found ourselves in Luang Prabang for several extra days, I found I still loved visiting this pretty little city. Even three years later, I still love the temples, smiles, and food. The people, monks, and tourists. All these combine into a city with charm, heritage, and personality that I knew I loved, but needed a reminder to stop and enjoy.

A steaming pot of soup for a traditional breakfast in Luang Prabang, Laos

Tiny stools jut onto the sidewalks in the misty hours of dawn as locals sip a steaming soup adorned with herbs and spices before they took their tuk-tuks and mottos for a full day of work. Though western breakfast shops bracketed this tiny soup-stand with croissants and lattes, it was just as easy to hunker down with the locals, point and smile at the soup, and within minutes be happily slurping down fragrant broth and noodles.

Early morning fruit shake stands set up in Luang Prabang, Laos

My breakfast was complete only after purchasing a 5,000 kip (about 60 cent) fruit shake from the corner stalls displaying colorful cups of pre-chopped mixed fruit ready blend into a condensed milk, ice, and fruit concoction that defies logic on its tastiness! Smoothies are my go-to snack in Southeast Asia, and as we had our shake blended, numerous mottos zipped up to the stand to also grab a blended beverage before zooming on their way!

Excited hellos from the children in Luang Prabang, Laos

With some poppy traditional music blaring from the truck speakers, these kids were happily clapping, singing, and shouting hello. I suspect this was a parade of sorts, or class trip perhaps, since several truck-beds passed by in the late morning with the cheery children, all of whom were giddy with excitement to wave to us as we paused and watched them gently roll down the road, the driver careful not to jolt the truck too much!

This cute little girl found her mom's high heels! Luang Prabang, Laos

With a freedom distinctly uncommon in the United States, this little girl independently toddled down the street on her mother’s high heels, stopping at nearby vendors, grabbing her morning snacks and hugs before heading back to the shop where her mother sold fair-trade crafts and scarves.

An elderly man stokes and tends the breakfast fires in Luang Prabang, Laos.

One of the things I love about Luang Prabang are the family compounds that also act as guesthouses. In many cases, each guesthouse is also the home for several generations of Laotians. This grandfather on my street stoked the early morning fires, cooked breakfast and minded his grandchildren while the middle generation took care of us tourists, cleaned the guest rooms, and generally ran the business; every member of the family feeling useful and needed to balance the dynamics.

A tasty array of vegetarian street eats in Luang Prabang, Laos

The night market walking street comes alive with long buffets of food. Vegetarian buffets were present even back in 2009, and for just over a dollar US we piled our bowl with a variety of flavorful vegetarian dishes. Nearby skewers of meat appeased the omnivores (including Ana), and buckets of cold drinks, snacks and treats were all sold with the quiet soft-sell and placid smiles from vendors.

Grilled fresh fish from the river in Luang Prabang, Laos

Freshly grilled fish was easy to find, and while not something I eat, it fascinates me to see the fully recognizable fish skewered and prettily presented for eating. I find food in the US is often purposely packaged to disassociate itself from the animal it actually is, while  culturally in Asia, they often consume and enjoy nearly every part of the animal!

A morning coffee shake in Luang Prabang, Laos

After just three mornings of a habitual coffee to start my day, the vendor would smile and wave as I approached. On the fourth day, he beat me to the punchline and happily parroted out my precise coffee order, remembering my explicit instructions “noooooo sugar,” which pegs me as so un-Asian since they adore adding condensed milk and sugar syrup to just about every single drink they serve.

A tuk-tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang, Laos

The calls for service from the tuk-tuk drivers pelt out into the day like a woodpecker making his home in a new tree. Every time we passed one of these shared taxis, the driver was quick to list out all the possible tourist activities for the day, and though it could have gotten annoying, I rather like the consistency of their chant, quite unchanged from the one I heard recited several years ago on the very same street corner.

Pretty close up of paper umbrellas in Luang Prabang's nightly street market, Laos.

Colorful paper fans glowed from the rattan mats lining sidewalks of Luang Prabang’s night market. The bright pigments do a fantastic job of drawing the tourists closer to the variety of wares. Like bees to a brightly colored flower, my niece and I followed the magnetizing draw of crafts and conversation humming on the city’s crowded street and dug through the kitsch to find quirky coins and beads for Ana to make into bracelets.

The sprawling city and countryside around the heart of Luang Prabang, Laos at sunset from Mount Phousi.

From Mount Phousi, the highest hill in the center of Luang Prabang, Ana and I watch the sunset over the hills and rivers encircling the world heritage city center. We visited in late November, just as the region’s rainy season finished, and the reward was a landscapes so verdant it could inspire poetry in those more inclined to flowery words than myself. Low-slung streets, shining golden temples, tall palms and quiet river waters make this city an enduring riddle that seems both supremely touristy and yet unchanged throughout the past hundreds of years since construction of the first temple. The city has seen much history, but is so humble.

I find myself oddly drawn here, and Ana asked me if I wanted to maybe live in Luang Prabang, to become an occasional expat in the city I waxed poetic about even before we arrived. I surprised her by answering “no.” No, I don’t want to live in Luang Prabang. I love the lazy sunsets enjoyed at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong. I love the ability to spend several days biking around the streets, eating a crusty warm baguette (a remnant of the French influence), and visiting temples and waterfalls. The city is compelling, but no, I don’t actually want to live there, a visit every few years is enough for now.

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46 Responses to A Little Photoessay… Stories of Culture & History in Luang Prabang, Laos

  1. Don April 4, 2012 at 12:28 pm #

    I first visited Luang Prabang in 2007 and had a fun and relaxing stay. I wasn’t sure what to expect going back last month after 5 years. I was relieved to find that not too much has changed in that time. I did notice that the night market had become much bigger and was now sprawled over several more blocks and there were more tourists. The fact that it is a world heritage site has probably been a major reason why I didn’t see many more changes to this great city.

    • ShannonOD April 4, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

      I think the World Heritage status plays a big part in why it still looks so similar (albeit with a whole lot more tourists!) – I breathed a relieved sigh when I saw that! :)

  2. Naomi April 5, 2012 at 12:17 am #

    I love the layout of the post, because it really draws your attention to everything in the photos. And you’re definitely right – sometimes we have to disconnect from the computer and just sit with a journal to really absorb a place!

    • ShannonOD April 7, 2012 at 1:10 am #

      Thank you Naomi! It’s such a pretty town to sit and enjoy, so I was glad to have the extra days there to relax – safe and happy travels to you! :)

  3. James Clark April 5, 2012 at 8:21 am #

    Hmm, maybe that was Ana’s coded way of saying “I want to live in Luang Prabang next year” :) I could certainly see myself spending a bit more time there, as long as I don’t have to catch the bus again from Huay Xai, on the Thai-Laos border.

    • ShannonOD April 7, 2012 at 1:15 am #

      He he he, you could be right, I may have needed to read between those lines! And I agree on the bus ride (and the boat down was pretty awful at points)…but once you get there it’s great! :)

  4. Andrea Sherrodd April 6, 2012 at 1:23 am #

    Luang Prabang looks amazing! Would you recommend the guest house you stayed at? If so, what’s it called? Thanks!

  5. Margyle April 6, 2012 at 10:53 am #

    Your last shot from Mount Phousi reminds me a lot of a more populated Kwai river shot I have when I went to Bangkok… and now I want to go back. Thanks lol. Seriously though, it’s amazing to see what Laos has to offer!

    • ShannonOD April 7, 2012 at 1:20 am #

      And now I want to see the Kwai River! I was just in Bangkok actually, but didn’t do any of the river tours :(  For next time perhaps, thanks for giving me something to look forward to as well! :)

      • Margyle April 19, 2012 at 6:50 pm #

        I wasn’t really sure what I would do either when I was there… I mean I know what SOME people do when they go to Bangkok with the ‘shows’ but I’m not really interested in that. Luckily, on our first day we got a really nice, reliable driver who acted as our guide and took us to a bunch of different places. Everywhere we went he knew somebody and it was just an amazing time. 
        I’m probably the only person who went to Thailand with no intention of going to the beach… but I regret nothing! haha

        • ShannonOD April 19, 2012 at 9:24 pm #

          You and me both! I’ve been to the beach once in all the time I’ve lived over here, it’s not so much my thing. As for Bangkok, it sounds like your driver took care of you (and not all of them do!) and hopefully he took you to some tasty street eats, which is my favorite part of the city! :)

  6. Matt April 6, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

    I really love this. We’ll be there in 2 weeks and I can’t wait to experience the city firsthand. Thanks for getting me excited! 

    • ShannonOD April 7, 2012 at 1:21 am #

      Thanks Matt! It’s such a pretty city, you’ll love it. Lots of tours outside the city too, to waterfalls and the such, makes a great stop in SEA because it’s unlike the other major busy cities in the region :)

  7. Dani April 7, 2012 at 10:47 pm #

    Love the photos, especially the first one! Luang Prabang is the perfect place to just relax for a few days & forget about work and blogging ;-)

    • ShannonOD April 8, 2012 at 11:45 am #

      That’s what we ended up doing, so nice to sit by the river, enjoy some cool drinks and watch the monks :)

  8. Ryan April 13, 2012 at 11:39 am #

    The photo of the the colorful three wheeled truck is superb! Hopefully you found a breather when stepping away from the computer for a bit.

    • ShannonOD April 14, 2012 at 10:32 am #

      Thanks Ryan, I love the trucks over here and alternate forms of transport, they often come in fun colors, signs, sometimes even dangling hippy beads for good measure! :)  

  9. The Constant Complainer April 13, 2012 at 9:51 pm #

    Hi Shannon!  Just stopping by.  Been a short time.  I enjoyed catching up on your recent travels.  I must have missed the one when you came here to Cleveland, OH…the booming metropolis.  LOL.  But seriously, I hope you have a great weekend and I promise to stop by more often.

    • ShannonOD April 19, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

      Greetings! I’m guilty of the same thing though, and have gone through and read up on the latest (so depressing ;-) news on your site. Hopefully the weather is warming nicely in Cleveland, if I just so happen to make it that-a-way, I’ll let you know! :)

  10. Hogga April 14, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

    Hooray for tuk tuks! Well, maybe not hooray but they definitely have a spot in my travel memory haha. Great shots! Love the colours, particularly on the fans!

    • ShannonOD April 16, 2012 at 1:41 am #

      I do have a love-hate relationship as well — they can be fun, but also some downsides with the dust, haggling, etc. Thanks for weighing in! :)

  11. Jose April 15, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    This is the first time I have read about Luang Prabang and I am really impressed by the beauty of the city; thanks for sharing a new bucket list place for me!

  12. Rishi April 15, 2012 at 11:28 pm #

    Laos fascinates me. I like that it hasn’t become a tourist haven like Thailand and Phillipines, while retaining all the charms of those places. Something tells me you might set base here Shannon. I know I’d consider it if I were you.

    • ShannonOD April 19, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

      It’s a consideration for sure, and on the plus side, the internet infrastucture has gotten a lot better than it was three years ago, which is important when choosing a base! As you said, it’s well traveled and has the charms, but hasn’t become the hotspot for travelers yet  :)

      • Rishi April 23, 2012 at 8:18 pm #

        plus the fact that it is in close range of all those other SE Asian countries. Damn, I am returning back this June and your blog has enticed me to actually make a trip there.
        But what can one do if you actually set base there, with a degree in…er film-making!!

        • ShannonOD April 24, 2012 at 2:13 am #

          You’re in luck actually! There is a pretty large film community in the city, both local and foreign expats. They hold an annual film festivals and documentary screenings throughout the year: http://luangprabangfilmfestival.org/ Good luck! :)

  13. Explura April 16, 2012 at 3:13 am #

    Nice article… Have you been to Malaysia or India before?
    I love your blog

    • ShannonOD April 19, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

      Thanks, I’ve been to both countries actually, and India stands out as one of the most unique I’ve visited!  :)

  14. mina April 17, 2012 at 2:53 pm #

    i’ve heard so many nice things about this place. i’ll just have to live vicariously through your asia posts until i can make it there. love the first photo.

    • ShannonOD April 19, 2012 at 10:05 pm #

      Thanks Mina, it’s a really beautiful city if you guys get the chance to visit! You have me jealous with the photos from your recent Morocco travels! :)

  15. Removals and storage April 20, 2012 at 3:14 am #

    Great photos, I would love to go there someday, because I have read a lot of things about Laos. A friend of mine have been there before and said that Laos people are really welcoming.

    Thank you Shannon, for sharing your stories with us.

  16. Matthew Karsten April 20, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

    That grilled fish looks quite tasty! What a well rounded article on Luang Prabang. I felt like I was there with you…

    • ShannonOD April 21, 2012 at 8:41 pm #

      Thank you Matt! I love how the fish look grilling from the sidewalks, the street food culture in SEA is one of the highlights! :)

  17. Scott April 21, 2012 at 3:42 am #

    We are currently in Malaysia and are plotting the rest of our SEA plans, and Laos is penciled in, but you are helping make the case for it being locked in. IT seems a bit like the city we are in now, Melaka actually.

    • ShannonOD April 21, 2012 at 8:46 pm #

      When I was on my own RTW travels, the deeper I got into SEA, the longer I wanted to stay, so be warned! Laos is really wonderful to add to your itinerary because it’s so different and still quite rural compared to some of the neighboring countries with more tourism. Safe travels and enjoy, I haven’t made it to Melaka yet! :)

  18. Jeremy Branham April 21, 2012 at 7:52 pm #

    I would have never thought of Laos as ‘charming’ and ‘country.’  However, I love that last photograph.  This is a town where people shop and enjoy their lives.  This is the type of travel that I love.  Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about Laos but I could really enjoy it here with places like Luang Prabang.

    • ShannonOD April 21, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

      I find it a unique country, so laid back and the pace of life makes it really a great spot to relax and shop; it’s a special place in SEA if you make it over here :)

  19. Sofia - As We Travel Blog April 30, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    I enjoyed Luang Prabang too, Laos is such a unique country! The only thing I didn’t like about Luang Prabang was the obsession and craze about the morning alms with the huge crowds of tourists acting like paparazzi.. :)

    • ShannonOD May 3, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

      You know, I’ve been there twice but skipped the alms both times because of all of that craziness. I much prefer to witness the quiet alms in other cities that happen every single day as well, but don’t get any of the hype! Glad to hear you guys enjoyed the city as well, so pretty! :)

  20. Cheap Car Rental Los Angeles May 11, 2012 at 3:59 am #

    I haven’t been to Laos but seems to be a worth visiting and exploring place. Nice pictures!

  21. ann andrew May 20, 2012 at 11:13 am #

    Beautiful Photos! We spent a week in Luang Prabang at New Years and I fell in love with the charm of the city and the people. Thanks for such a great post!

    • ShannonOD May 20, 2012 at 6:08 pm #

      Thanks so much Ann! Luang Prabang is really one of those specail spots I find myself remembering a lot because of how sweet, small, and charming it was! Happy and safe travels :)

  22. acoupletravelers May 22, 2012 at 2:16 pm #

    Beautiful photos. We will be in Laos (for the first time ever) in the fall and it truly seems to be a gorgeous country. I’m fascinated by the photo of the fish over the coals – interesting how it’s being held up. Definitely agree with you that in the US the animal products (meat, fish, poultry) you buy in stores so often look nothing like the animal it came from – especially when everything is sold filleted. I’ve recently starting buying and cooking with whole fish – there is more flavor and I believe it’s important to know where your food is coming from and how it looked to begin with (that and it usually hasn’t been frozen, defrosted to be filleted and then re-frozen to be sold in stores as is usually done with fish). 

    • ShannonOD May 22, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

      Thank you! Laos is such a special country — beautiful and rural throughout most areas. Once you’re traveling you’ll see how much closer many other countries are to their food — it’s refreshing to see and taste! :)

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