Laos              
Luang Prabang
           

Luang Prabang, named after the town's first Buddha image, the Phra Bang, enters the 21st century with a new phase in its long and bloody history: it is a world heritage centre with more than 30 working wats and an easy-going desire to share it with you.

The classic site is Wat Xieng Thong, on a finger of land stretching into the confluence of the mighty Mekong and the smaller Khan river. It is a serene place, a complex of quiet contemplation mixing easily with playing children and a few falangs working their way through the town's wealth of historic temples.

The sim – the chapel where monks are ordained – was first built in 1560 when Luang Prabang was the capital and it remained under royal patronage until the communists broke the link in 1975.

Today, there are few of the scars of the intervening centurries, though Wat Xieng Thong escaped the worst of the horrors to be visited upon Luang Prabang. When the rest of the town was sacked by Chinese invaders in 1887, the wat was desecrated but not destroyed – as almost everything else was because their leader had studied there and used it as his headquarters.

Its name translates into 'golden city monastry'', a reminder of the pre-Buddhist era when the area was known as Muang (municipality) Xieng Thong. By the time the sim was built, Buddhism had arrived with a gift to the king of a large Buddha image, called Pha Bang, and the area had been renamed Luang (royal) Prabang.

Now the temple is held to be the finest example of Luang Prabang religious architecture, with the deeply sloping roofs with their stylised nagas to protect the temple from bad spirits falling from the sky.

Inside, there is a magnificent Buddha image; and above the heads of the monks, is a wooden channel, in the shape of a naga, that carries the water for the new year and ordination ceremonies before it flows out through the trunk of an elephant image.

Outside, on the rear wall of the temple, there is a 'tree of life' in mosaic. Novices, ever on the look-out for someone to help them practise their English, say the tree of life was made because the wat's bodhi tree died and the monks wanted to make sure they were never left without a holy tree again.

Other buildings in the complex include what the French called The Red Chapel, which contains the rare and beautiful black reclining Buddha that was carved at the time the wat was started.

This Buddha image, like many others, has travelled: the French took it to Paris for the city's 1931 exhibition and, when it was returned to Laos, it stayed in Vientiane before finally being returned to Xieng Thong.

Another remarkable sight is the massive carriage that was paraded through the area, carrying the ashes as part of royal funerals. The ashes are protected by a fearsome naga (right).

That Makmo

That Makmo, or 'watermelon stupa', in the most immediately striking feature of Wat Winunalat, which dates back to 1513 and is the town's oldest working wat: the great dome of the stupa, blackened by the grime of time despite being rebuilt when it s was destroyed and looted in 1887 and broken by the weather in more recent years, looms over the grounds.

But, while That Makmo draws the curious, it is the collection of historic wooden Buddhas – many in the classic Luang Prabang 'calling the rain' standing position – that fascinate. Among them are images from Buddhist stories, including a magnificent gold naga, deep red eyes burning in each of its seven heads (see index page photograph).

Other wats

Almost every step in Luang Prabang brings forth another temple, another ruin of a temple, another link with Buddha.

Some, like Wat Aphai in the shadow of Phu Si, the hill in the middle of the town, strike a strange note without the riches, today or historically, of Wat Xieng Thong. Others have the feel of centuries of veneration. And everywhere are monks and novices, saffron and brown, umbrellas and flipflops.

Royal Palace Museum

The French built the royal palace soon after taking Laos as a colony at the end of the 19th century. Today it is splendid as a museum, with visitors being stripped of their shoes and their cameras and then allowed to wander through the rooms where once the royal family lived.

The palace has been the home of the Pha Bang, the Buddha image given to King Fa Ngum in 1357 – and which led to the area being renamed Luang Prabang in its honour instead of Muang Xieng Thong, the golden city.

Like Wat Xieng Thong, it is near the Mekong so that visitors to the king could arrive by boat instead of suffering the hardships of land travel.

The serenity of the palace and its grounds belie the violent end of the monarchy at the hands of the communists. The last king, queen and prince were take away in the mid-seventies and held in a remote cave until they died.

Now their possessions can be viewed, their beds inspected, the floors which once felt their footsteps open for you to walk on and, as beautiful as the contents are, there is a strangely empty feeling in the high-ceiled rooms.

In the grounds, a new pavilion has been built to house the Pha Bang: a creation of gold and vivid red and green, with ornate decorations and nagas to guard it from evil spirits on the ground or falling from the air.

A few yards away, girls in bright white cycle to school, monks and novices go about their business, and falangs trundle by in jumbos – the living reality of a Buddhist town.

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