Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang is a town by most of the world’s standards – only about 50,000 people – yet it is the fourth largest in Laos. Designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, it offers an array of gilded temples and statuary. You must experience the monks collecting offerings at dawn.

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1 National Museum Formerly Royal Residence in Luang Prabang, Laos

Beginning in 1909, Golden Hall was the royal residence of King Sisavang Vong in Luang Prabang, Laos. After the dissolution of the monarchy in 1975, it became the National Museum. Locals call it Haw Kham. Several wonderful religious and royal exhibits are inside, including the gilded Prabang. This treasure is a 14th century Buddha and the city’s namesake. Oddly, you will also find lunar rocks that were a gift from President Nixon.

Haw Pha Bang, Sisavangvong Road, Luang Prabang, Laos
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2 Barefoot Monks Walking at Dawn in Luang Prabang, Laos

Each day at 4:00 a.m., monks from the local temples awaken, have prayers and then walk barefoot and silent through central Luang Prabang. This tradition is known as Sai Bat or Tak Bat. Local people kneel along the main street named Sisavangvong in prayer. Then they give the monks small packaged foods, sticky rice and money in exchange for their blessings.

Haw Pha Bang, Sisavangvong Road, Luang Prabang, Laos
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3 Monks Collecting Offerings During Sai Bat in Luang Prabang, Laos

Each morning before dawn, hundreds of monks walk single file in their saffron robes along the streets of Luang Prabang collecting alms from local people while distributing food into the baskets of the poor. Even the neighborhood dogs join this tradition in hopes that some sticky rice will fall their way.

Haw Pha Bang, Sisavangvong Road, Luang Prabang, Laos
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4 Gilded Buddha at Altar at Wat Mai in Luang Prabang, Laos

Wat Mai was founded in the late 18th century by King Anourout and was the temple for the royal family as well as the home of the highest Laotian Buddhist dignitary called Pra Sangkharat. Also called The New Monastery, it used to house the 50 foot gilded Prabang Buddha statue before it was moved into the Royal Palace Museum nearby. Today, this golden Buddha sits at the altar surrounded by Corinthian columns and a red interior.

Wat Mai, Thanon Sisavangvong, Luang Prabang, Laos
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5 Golden Bas Relief at Wat Mai in Luang Prabang, Laos

This exquisite gilded bas relief is one of the panels that decorate the porch of the main temple building, called a sim, at Wat Mai. It illustrates scenes from the reincarnation of Buddha along with images that represent life in local villages. Although The New Monastery was built during the 19th century, these panels were not added until the late 1960s.

Wat Mai, Thanon Sisavangvong, Luang Prabang, Laos
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6 Three Buddha Statues in Courtyard at Wat Mai in Luang Prabang, Laos

These three golden Buddha are in the courtyard of Wat Mai. The one in the middle with two palms extended outward represent the Buddha “Repelling the Waters” and “Preventing Relatives from Fighting.” On either side are Buddha statues in the “Calling the Earth to Witness” pose.

Wat Mai, Thanon Sisavangvong, Luang Prabang, Laos
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7 Stupa of the Great Lotus at Wat Visounnarath in Luang Prabang, Laos

This Stupa of the Great Lotus called That Makmo is part of the oldest temple in Luang Prabang. Wat Visounnarath was built during the reign of King Wisunarat in 1513 but mostly destroyed by the Chinese in 1887. Although the sim was reconstructed a few years later, this domed stupa with an usnisa crown was not rebuilt until 1932. It contained many Buddhist relics and statues. Some of them are displayed here at Wat Wisunalat while others are exhibited at the National Palace Museum.

Vat Visounnarath, Luang Prabang, Laos
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8 Buddhist Monk with Playing Dogs in Luang Prabang, Laos

Approximately 67% of Laotian people believe the teachings and principals of Theravāda Buddhism yet the standards and disciplines are different for laymen verses ordained monks. The latter strictly follow the Theravāda orthodoxy that includes the seven stages of purification. I thought this image was interesting because while the neighborhood dogs played, this monk and his companion remained steadfast and disciplined.

Wat Siphoutthabath, Kingkitsarath Rd, Luang Prabang, Laos
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9 Flat-bottomed Boats on Mekong River in Luang Prabang, Laos

Laos is a small, landlocked country in Southeast Asia that is highly dependent on the Mekong River. This waterway starts in the mountains of China’s Tibetan Plateau and flows for over 2,700 miles through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before emptying into the South China Sea at the Mekong Delta in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Cross River Ferry, Khem Khong, Luang Prabang, Laos
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10 Slow Boat Moored Along Shore in Luang Prabang, Laos

The workhorse along the Mekong River in Laos is the wooden slow boat. The colorful vessels are only ten feet wide but can stretch up to 150 feet. Historically, they have been crucial for ferrying Laotians between villages and for delivering supplies to locations without roads. They also offer tourists short cruises along the river.

Ferry Terminal, Vehicle Ferry Landing North Shore, Luang Prabang, Laos
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11 Small Community on Mekong Riverbank in Luang Prabang, Laos

Along the Mekong in Laos you will see small villages and isolated, thatched homes where Laotians live along the riverbank just as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. This scene is typical. On the left is a small garden, in the middle are fishermen climbing aboard their three-planked wooden canoes and on the right (just off camera) was a woman washing clothes along the shoreline.

Slow Boat Terminal, Luang Prabang, Laos
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12 Slow Boat Capsized on Rocks in Luang Prabang, Laos

Laotian captains of slow boats have a deep respect for the Mekong River. Although it is their lifeline for transportation and commerce, it is also very challenging to navigate because it is constantly changing by location, season and day. Sometimes it has a gentle current while other times it is a fierce rapids over submerged rocks which can quickly victimize a boat’s wooden hull.

Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Laos
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13 Logs Staged for Cargo Ship on Mekong River in Luang Prabang, Laos

When you fly over Laos you see that nearly half the country is covered by forests. But this is down significantly from 70% only 50 years ago because timber and wood products account for about a third of the country’s exports. There is a growing concern that legal and illegal harvesting is causing deforestation in parts of Laos. Some bans have been imposed but this attempt at preservation has only increased the smuggling of logs.

Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Laos
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14 Tree Roots Exposed on Mekong Riverbank in Luang Prabang, Laos

When I saw this leaning old tree with its massive root system exposed I thought it was symbolic of living along the banks of the Mekong River in Luang Prabang, Laos. Every day existence is dependent on the water but is also challenged by it. Yet, by sheer willpower, life finds a way to grow and thrive.

Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Laos
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15 Carriage House at Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, Laos

The façade of the Carriage House at Wat Xieng Thong is covered with ornate panels that illustrate the epics and teachings of Ramayana from Hindu literature. They portray Phra Lak Phra Ram which is the national epic in Laos. What made these beautiful reliefs by Thit Tanh even more impressive is that they had just been re-gilded that week and their golden glow almost hurt your eyes.

Wat Xiengthong, Khem Khong, Luang Prabang, Laos
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16 Carriage House Panel at Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, Laos

This gilded panel above the entrance of the Carriage House at Wat Xieng Thong shows two brothers, Phra Lak and Phra Ram, in battle with humanoid monkeys called vanone. It is part of the Phra Lak Phra Lam story that was adopted by the Hindu epic Ramayana. Scenes from this story are a common element in the dance, songs, literature and art of Laos.

Wat Xiengthong, Khem Khong, Luang Prabang, Laos
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17 Royal Funeral Carriage at Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, Laos

King Sisavangvong ruled the Kingdom of Luang Prabang from 1904 until he was deposed in 1945. The following year he was reinstated and remained the monarch of the Kingdom of Laos until his death in 1959. This beautiful funeral carriage, which has seven nagas on the prow, is in the Royal Funerary Chariot Hall called Hor Latsalat. His ashes are in the center urn. The remains of his father, King Zakarine, are in the front.

Wat Xiengthong, Khem Khong, Luang Prabang, Laos
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18 Altar Inside Sim of Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, Laos

This Buddha statue in the meditation position wearing a saffron robe is the centerpiece of the altar at the sim at Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, Laos. I was very impressed with the intricate gold stenciling that covers the interior walls and ceiling. This building is just one of several at the monastery complex that was founded in the mid-16th century.

Wat Xiengthong, Khem Khong, Luang Prabang, Laos
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19 The Red Chapel at Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, Laos

The Red Chapel at Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most unusual that I have seen at a temple or wat in Southeast Asia. Its red stucco façade is covered with glass mosaics that illustrate the religious and everyday activities of Laotians. They were added in 1957 to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s death. Inside is a 16th century reclining Buddha that represents his achievement of Nirvana.

Wat Xiengthong, Khem Khong, Luang Prabang, Laos
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20 Tree of Life on Sim at Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, Laos

The Wat Xieng Thong is also called the Golden Tree Monastery and this is symbolized by a mosaic of the Tree of Life at the backside of the sim or main temple. You will also notice the extensive use of gold stenciling and gilded doors among the black lacquer facade.

Wat Xiengthong, Khem Khong, Luang Prabang, Laos
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21 Bamboo Footbridge over Nam Khan River in Luang Prabang, Laos

This rickety bamboo footbridge spans the Nam Khan River at the base of the Phousi Mountain. The Mekong River is the primary waterway that defines the peninsula where the city of Luang Prabang is located. It is much wider and requires a boat to get across.

Wat Siphoutthabath, Kingkitsarath Rd, Luang Prabang, Laos
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22 Nāgas Guarding Staircase on Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

The image of Nāga serpents is common in Laos. Tradition suggests this mythical deity lives in the forests along the Mekong River and can protect the entrance of a temple or holy place. They are typically seen in pairs like these guarding the base of the Thanon Phousi staircase. After you walk by them, there are 355 zigzagging steps to climb before reaching the top of Mount Phousi.

Wat Siphoutthabath, Luang Prabang, Laos
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23 Buddha with Extended Palms on Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

This standing Buddha with two extended palms is called the double abhāya mudrā. It can have several meanings: that the Buddha is displaying fearlessness, forbidding relatives to argue or is teaching on reason. It is a very common Buddha statue position in Laos. This gilded statue is at Wat Tham Phousi on Mount Phousi.

Wat Tham Phousi, Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang, Laos
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24 Reclining Buddha Represents Nirvana on Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

This gilded reclining Buddha at Wat Tham Phousi is at the midway point up the summit of Mount Phousi. This resting position represents the Buddha during his final illness just before attaining Nirvana. He is typically shown with his head on a pillow supported by his right hand with a facial expression of contentment and inner peace for reaching Enlightenment.

Wat Tham Phousi, Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang, Laos
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25 Novice Monks on Terrace at Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

These novice monks, called samaneras, were on a pilgrimage to Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos. They stopped half way up the 328 foot holy mountain to visit a nearby cave with the imprint of Buddha’s foot. Then they stood on this terrace at Wat Tham Phu Si overlooking the Nam Khan River before proceeding to the summit.

Wat Tham Phu Si, Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang, Laos
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26 Gilded Happy Buddha on Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

The Happy Buddha, known as Ho Tai, is usually depicted as shirtless, chubby, bald and with a big smile on his face or laughing. According to legend, this monk allowed himself to get fat in order to ward off women and physical temptations. In the Chinese culture he is popular among children for the gifts he bestows on them after they learn religious teachings.

Wat Tham Phousi, Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang, Laos
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27 Golden Pagoda on Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

In the center of Luang Prabang is a 328 foot hill named Mount Phousi. At the summit is this golden pagoda which shines brightly in the sun. When you stand on the white platform of Wat Chomsi, you can enjoy a panoramic view of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers, the northern end of the Luang Prabang Mountain Range, dense forests and the city below. Watching the sunset from here is spectacular.

Wat Chomsi, Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang, Laos
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28 Contemplation Buddha on Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

Each part of a Buddha statue has a meaning to the Lao people. This standing position or madrā with arms crossed over the chest is the Contemplation Buddha. It signifies determination, patience and understanding. The monastic robe is shown in the open mode leaving the right shoulder exposed which demonstrates humility. The spike or spire on his skull is called an usnīsa. The long earlobes depicts when he was weighed down by earthly processions.

Wat Tham Phousi, Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang, Laos
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29 Bamboo Grove near Luang Prabang, Laos

Bamboo is indigenous to Southeast Asia and can reach a height of nearly 100 feet. It is used in many ways, including ornamentation, construction, scaffolding, medicine, food, textiles, musical instruments and, in ancient times, for weapons and paper. It grows so quickly in the forests of Laos that many locals consider it a weed. But recently there have been proposals to convert this sustainable natural resource into a cash crop as a source for bio-fuel.

The Living Land Farm, 1, Laos
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30 Community Garden in Luang Prabang, Laos

Less than five miles from Luang Prabang, in a small village called Ban Phong Van, is The Living Land Company that sponsors this organic vegetable garden. It pays unemployed local villagers and agricultural students to plant and harvest rice, herbs, lettuce and vegetables that are sold to local restaurants. They also provide scholarships, promote agricultural practices and help to improve the local infrastructure.

The Living Land Farm, 1, Laos
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