Pad Tad Ke Botanical Garden, Luang Prabang

Pad Tad Ke Botanical Garden is relatively new, a work in progress that has assembled plants from all over Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia. The garden project is a privately funded non-profit supported by corporate sponsors. A visit to the garden costs around $20, which is a bit pricey for these parts. Any surplus revenue beyond operating expenses is invested in training programs for Laotian and ethnic minority farmers. Experts visit villages to help farmers understand sustainable agriculture, among other things, teaching farmers who practice slash and burn agriculture how to burn without doing lasting damage to the forest, and how to cut down trees in ways that are sustainable.

The Look of Luang Prabang

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.

Hmong Fabric Shop, Luang Prabang

Laos is a multi-ethnic country with Lao people making up only slightly more than 50% of the population. After the Lao, the two largest ethnic groups are the Khmu accounting for about 11% of the population and the Hmong accounting for about 9%. Much of Laos is mountainous and this is where the Hmong people can be found – around Luang Prabang and in other highland areas, including in the eastern part of the country along the border with Vietnam. There are also Hmong living in the Vietnamese highlands. That border between Laos and Vietnam runs through some rugged, wild country that is sparsely populated. There are few main road (though no doubt there are un-mapped secondary roads and paths) and no urban areas of any size. I cannot help buy wonder how porous that Lao-Vietnamese border is. Although Hmong on both sides of the border are citizens of and have assimilated to some extent within their respective countries, they are nonetheless one people with a common language. Are Hmong people from the two countries who live in communities on either side of the border able to move relatively freely back and forth across the border? By freely here, I mean without passports, border stations, and border formalities. Or as a part of the state-building process, have Laos and Vietnam hardened their borders, making it difficult for ethnic minorities like the Hmong to move back and forth between the two nation states? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I am definitely curious.

A number of Hmong shops in Luang Prabang sell handicraft fabric and items like bags, pillow covers and decorative tapestries made in Hmong villages. Some of it is quite beautiful.