Luang Prabang is known for the distinctive architecture of its buildings, and from temples to houses, there was much to catch the eye. However, while I found the city visually exciting, I know little about the history of architectural styles I saw. The designs of some buildings resembled the Lanna style that is common in Chiang Mai, about 225 miles to the southwest in Thailand. Others like the structure pictured here are rather different than anything I have seen before. Learning more about how Luang Prabang came to look like it does is a project I hope to undertake before I make a return visit.
The building in this photo, which stands out from its surroundings and caught my eye immediately, is along one of the main streets of the city, not far from the Luang Prabang Royal Palace (now a historical museum) more or less in the center of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage site. I went looking for information about this structure, but found nothing except a photo in Google Maps. In that photo the building was opened up – it appears to house a shop selling clothes on the ground level. I am not sure why it was shuttered the day I passed by. Maybe the place was closed for the low tourist season in May.
Not all of the Buddhist temples in Luang Prabang were gilded and affluent looking. The grounds of Wat Siphoutthabath were rather overgrown and some of the buildings were locked and appeared to be not in use. Beauty of a different sort.
This stately temple is located next to the Royal Palace formerly occupied by the king resident in Luang Prabang. Today the palace is a historical museum, part of the UNESCO Town of Luang Prabang World Heritage Site. Though I did not see any activity when I was there, I assume the temple is still in use.
There was a group of a couple of dozen young monks visiting Wat Xiengthong when I was there. The monks I have seen in Thailand have not been particularly outgoing, so I did not pay much attention to this group and went about my business taking photos. Eventually, one of the group approached me and said hello. It turned out the monks were students at a university in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. I am not sure if they were at a Buddhist school of some kind or attending a public university. In any case, they were touring several places in Laos to visit well-known holy sites, of which Wat Xiengthong is definitely one.
Once the first guy worked up the nerve to say hello, it was open season and a number of people came up to meet and talk with me. All of them were very friendly and disarmingly charming. Most spoke decent English and one monk spoke very good Chinese. It was fun talking to him for a few minutes, as I rarely use my Chinese these days. Meeting an American was definitely a novelty and there were numerous questions asked. Pictures were taken. I was invited to accompany the group to another site somewhere in Luang Prabang. I was interested, but this was my final day in Laos and I had to make my way back to the guesthouse soon to check out. I could not really figure out how far away the other place was and so had to decline the invitation. Alas.
Luang Prabang is a small city along the banks of the Mekong River in Laos. The city has a long, complicated history, having been a part of the various struggles between Thai, Khmer, Lao and other groups that long vied for control of this part of the world. The city was the capital of an independent kingdom for a period of time. When Laos eventually became a part of French Indochina, Luang Prabang was recognized as the royal seat, and after the French were driven from Laos, the king in Luang Prabang become the head of state of the Kingdom of Laos until the Pathet Lao seized power in 1975 and disbanded the monarchy.
The city is famous today for its Buddhist temples, traditional architecture that resembles the Lanna style one sees in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and the spectacular scenery of the mountainous countryside surrounding the city.
This image is of the principal temple at Wat Xiengthong, one of the city’s best known Buddhist sites.
Why do people choose to build and live in a raw, undeveloped area like this, remote from the city center and almost completely lacking in amenities and services? Money. That is certainly my first guess. Land costs closer to the center of Da Nang are prohibitively high for many Vietnamese families. An area with lower land costs like this one makes home ownership affordable to people who would be hard-pressed to buy in more developed parts of the city. You can be sure the families that have built the homes pictured here expect their investments to appreciate significantly in the years to come. And this will almost certainly happen as more people move to the area and businesses serving the new residents follow in their wake.