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August 20, 2009

Traditional Buddhist culture in Luang Prabang, Laos

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Luang Prabang is a wonderful place to experience the rhythms of a traditional Buddhist culture. The atmospheric town in northern Laos sits on the banks of the slow-moving Mekong River, and traditional wooden houses, French colonial architecture, abundant palm trees, and a lack of high-rise buildings give it a low-key, unspoiled charm.

Dozens of modest but well-preserved Buddhist temples, or wats, spread throughout Luang Prabang are essential to the town’s unique ambience (and its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site). They also play an integral role in the moral, religious and educational life of the local population.
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Many Lao boys are initiated into temples, where they study for several years to gain a general education and a firm grounding in Buddhist doctrine. Temples are great places to observe novices going about their daily routines, such as sweeping the grounds, studying on the steps of the temples, and participating in prayers.

One of the highlights for many of our travelers to Luang Prabang is watching hundreds of saffron-robed monks stream through the streets each day collecting alms, small handfuls of sticky rice offered by devoted locals kneeling along the pathways.

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The most revered Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang, and one of our favorites, is Wat Xieng Thong. Built in 1560, the temple has a distinctive swallowtail roofline, elaborate gold leaf and gold stencil decoration, and a sparkling glass mosaic of a Bodhi tree covering an exterior wall.

Another place we like to take our travelers is Mount Phousi, a verdant hill that rises from the center of Luang Prabang, to see the golden Buddhist stupa on top and take in panoramic views of the town, the river, and the surrounding mountains. En route, many of our travelers have the good fortune of hearing the monks at nearby Wat Thum Thao–every three hours they beat drums, cymbals and gongs to keep dragons at bay.
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One of our favorite day trips from Luang Prabang is to cruise on the Mekong River to the Pak Ou Caves, where thousands of Buddha statues have been placed inside limestone grottoes on the edge of the river. The journey is also a great way to experience the river, see life in rural Laos, and relax among the verdant landscapes.

An¬†exclusive experience we arrange for our travelers is a visit to Luang Prabang’s unique Buddhist photo archive. Using cameras left from the French Colonial days, local monks have¬†taken the images over the past 100 years, recording a visual history of temple life in the town.

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When not visiting wats or touring around Luang Prabang, we like to visit the local market, watch local children bathe their water buffalos in the Mekong River, stroll pedestrian-friendly streets lined with French colonial buildings, and browse shops for local crafts such as mulberry paper and elegant silk weavings.

Though Buddhist culture permeates life in Luang Prabang, our travelers need not forgo material pleasures. The town has two beautiful hotels. La Residence Phou Vao, an Orient-Express property, has a colonial atmosphere and hilltop views. The new Amantaka occupies the former French colonial-era hospital and brings the famed Aman touch to Luang Prabang, with large rooms and private plunge pools. Both properties have luxurious spas and excellent dining options.

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Luang Prabang combines well with many of our favorite destinations in Southeast Asia, including Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Siem Reap and Hanoi.

Destinations:  Asia, Laos, Southeast Asia

Tags:  alms processions, Amantaka, artisans, Artisans of Leisure, Asia tours, Buddhism, Buddhist alms, Buddhist tours, excursions, French colonial architecture, Indochina, Laos tours, Luang Prabang, luxury Asia tours, luxury resorts, markets, Orient Express, Pak Ou Caves, photography, private, private guides, Residence Phou Vao, resorts, silk, temples, UNESCO, Wat Xieng Thong, wats