Nestled between Thailand and Vietnam, Laos is a landlocked country with a difficult recent history. After gaining independence from the French, Laos enjoyed a brief period of monarchy with a modest but beautiful palace in the city of Luang Prabang, where we spent most of our stay in Laos.
Unfortunately, this period of peace was followed by a long period of strife, as Laos was invaded by Northern Vietnam in the late 1950s, and was heavily bombed by America along the Ho Chi Minh Trail (which functioned as a Northern Vietnamese supply line during the Vietnam war). Laos then experienced a long period of civil war and violence as the country completed its transition to socialism.
Compared with Eastern Laos, Luang Prabang was left relatively intact. The entire city is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning it is of special cultural or physical significance. The whole of the old city is filled with beautiful Buddhist temples, restaurants, and resorts, topped off with incredible views of the Mekong river. The whole city also smells like flowers, which makes Luang Prabang the most aromatic destination we’ve experienced on our trip.
As Laos is now a communist country, the Lao government has no interest in restoring the temples or Buddhist statues that were destroyed during the country’s periods of war and neglect. At the Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum, we observed a Japanese group who volunteers one month every year to visit Luang Prabang and teach local university-level art professors how to properly restore damaged Buddhist statues. We also had a chance to visit the former Royal Palace (unfortunately, there were no photos allowed inside).
We were somewhat surprised at the modesty of the former royal residence. Although there were ornate and intricate mosaics and murals on the walls of many of the reception rooms, the size of the palace itself was quite unassuming. The inner rooms were outfitted with quite simple furniture, and paintings of the few generations of the Lao monarchy. On display were gifts to the Lao government from many different countries, including a presentation of small moon rocks from the United States.
While in Luang Prabang, we had the chance to visit several well-kept Buddhist temples, Wat Souvanna Khiri, and the spectacular Wat Xiang Thong, the most well-known temple in the city. The temples were covered in gold leaf designs applied by hand, gilded relief carvings, and mirrored tile mosaics. They were truly spectacular to behold, but it gave us pause to think of the disparity between the lavish temples and the third of the country that lives on less than $1.25 per day.
The interiors of the larger temples tend to feature a large image of either a seated or reclining Buddha surrounded by smaller sculptures of Buddha and his followers. Most of the temples also feature a statue of a particularly revered monk who practiced in that temple or city.
Luang Prabang is home to an enticing night market where primarily tourists can sample Lao cuisine and handicrafts. Of particular interest were small aluminum trinkets and jewelry made of recycled bombshells.
Despite its tumultuous history, the Lao people remain friendly and welcoming to all visitors. Luang Prabang is a city that’s used to tourists, so it’s hard to gauge the general feeling in other areas of the country. Laos is a country that’s rapidly developing, and still lacks much-needed physical infrastructure like highways and railways, particularly in rural areas. Still, it’s a country that appears to have a lot to offer and look forward to, especially as neighboring Thailand continues to grow.