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Luang Prabang Culture

Royal History
Luang Prabang Culture
Luang Prabang’s culture is a mélange of traditional, religious, tribal, royal, and colonial influences, united by a healthy dose of laid-back Lao attitude.
Photo by Justin Lancy
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    Royal History
    Royal History
    While the Laotian monarch was overthrown by Communist Pathet Lao in 1975, you can still find remnants of Luang Prabang’s royal past if you know where to look. The city’s regal history lurks just below the surface of everyday life, from the streets named after Lao monarchs (Sisavangvong, Kingkitsarat, Sakkarine) to the former-residences-turned-hotels (Maison Souvannaphoum, Villa Maly, the Grand). If you’re curious to learn more, visit the Royal Palace Museum, housed in what was once the king’s residence. It features everything from artifacts of the former regime to the gold-alloyed Buddha statue from which Luang Prabang takes its name.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    Tribal and Ethnic Diversity
    Tribal and Ethnic Diversity
    Laotians aren’t an easy people to define. The population is actually a collection of 150 ethnic subgroups, plus strong Chinese and Vietnamese communities that have lived in Laos for generations. Though there are at least 80 languages spoken across the country, almost all of the people you’ll meet in Luang Prabang will speak Lao—and, in touristy parts of town, probably at least a few words of English. The best place to learn more about the people of Laos is the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC), which showcases the country’s diversity through both permanent and rotating exhibitions. For an even deeper dive, consider visiting a minority community village with tour operator Tiger Trail Travel.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    The Land of Sabaidee
    The Land of Sabaidee
    While Laos’s official name is Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the local joke is that PDR stands for “Please Don’t Rush.” In fact, it’s not a bad tagline for Luang Prabang, a city known for its languid pace. Lao culture values quiet, unhurried interactions between people, so slow down accordingly when visiting. A great way to get yourself into the groove is to do a little shopping at the Night Market, taking time to admire each item before asking its price. If something seems too expensive, smile and politely ask if the vendor can do any better—remember, it’s supposed to be fun and playful. In a place where the most commonly used greeting, sabaidee, translates literally to “good and relaxed,” getting wound up isn’t really an option.
    Photo by Jean-Pierre Degas/age fotostock
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    Ancient Temples
    Ancient Temples
    Theravada Buddhism encourages most young men to become monks, if only for a short time, so you’ll inevitably see novice monks in saffron robes walking around Luang Prabang. The city’s oldest active temples date back at least 600 years and remain both religious and educational centers for the community. The most famous, Wat Xieng Thong, is located at the end of the Peninsula, but don’t miss the others scattered throughout town. Of particular note is Wat Aham, with its beautiful banyan trees, and Wat Wisunalat, home to a 115-foot-tall dome called the Watermelon Stupa. Be sure to wear appropriate dress—long skirts or pants and shirts with sleeves—when visiting any temple, and don’t forget to remove your shoes before entering.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    A Multicultural Past
    A Multicultural Past
    While Laos remains somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, the country’s relative lack of development has helped to preserve important aspects of its history. You can see early evidence of colonialism in the figures of Dutch merchants carved into the temple doors of Wat Pak Khan as well as in the city’s Beaux-Arts architecture, which is protected by UNESCO and serves as a major tourist draw. Even the Chinese-style shophouses on the main streets are historical artifacts, built by Vietnamese workers brought in by the French.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    Traditional Crafts
    Traditional Crafts
    Luang Prabang is well-known for handmade goods of all kinds. Intricate Lao wood carvings and silver work are available in the Night Market and in shops along the main streets. You’ll also find paper products, weavings (look for the “Handmade Luang Prabang” sign), embroidery, and pottery—though you’re better off going to villages just outside town if you’re looking for a bargain. Ock Pop Tok’s boutique on Sakkaline Road features a beautiful variety of woven goods and even offers classes on traditional dyeing and weaving techniques at its Living Crafts Centre. Higher-end stores, such as the boutique at Amantaka Resort, are also emerging as Luang Prabang attracts more and more luxury-minded travelers.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Markets for All Times of Day
    Markets for All Times of Day
    No trip to Luang Prabang is complete without wandering through the city’s markets. The Night Market in front of the Royal Palace has come a long way from its candlelit beginnings. These days, fluorescent bulbs illuminate hundreds of vendors selling an eclectic mix of items, from T-shirts and bamboo “iPhone speakers” to intricately woven clothing and beautiful wood carvings. The Morning Market, located in the alleys of Sisavangvong Road, is where you’ll find all sorts of fresh produce and Lao food, while Phousi Market, just a five-minute tuk-tuk ride out of town, provides a grittier, more authentic experience.
    Photo by Otto Stadler/age fotostock
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    Traditional and Modern Festivals
    Traditional and Modern Festivals
    Time your visit to Luang Prabang just right and you’ll get to enjoy one of the many festivals that occur throughout the year. Boun Souang Heua, a boat-racing festival held in July and August, brings out the competitive spirit in the normally reserved Laotians, while Lai Heua Fai, the festival of the fire boat, is perhaps the most beautiful, corresponding with the last day of the Buddhist Lent season in late September and early October. Also worth checking out is Pi Mai, a three-day water fight that celebrates the Lao New Year. For something less traditional, visit in December during the Luang Prabang Film Festival, which highlights the best of Southeast Asian filmmakers with outdoor screenings and cultural events.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    Wellness Culture
    Wellness Culture
    A popular destination on the Southeast Asian wellness trail, Luang Prabang is teeming with fitness and spa offerings. Luang Prabang Yoga offers affordable classes almost every day as well as sunset sessions on the banks of the river. Along the Peninsula, you’ll also find dozens of small massage shops, where you can duck in for a quick—and cheap—foot rub. For deeper pampering at an equally great value, head to one of the city’s hotel spas. Local favorites include Angsana Spa at Maison Souvannaphoum and the Spa at Kiridara, which offers free pickup in town.
    Photo courtesy of Tony Deary/Luang Prabang Yoga
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    Giving Back
    Giving Back
    Even if you’re in Luang Prabang for only a short time, you can still find ways to meaningfully engage with the community. Donate books or money to the Luang Prabang Library’s Book Boat project, which delivers books directly to remote villages, or bring your old digital cameras and laptops to the @My Library community center and stay to play a game of chess with a student. Laos is still recovering from the exceptionally heavy bombing it endured between 1964 and 1973, with 14 of its 17 provinces suffering from unexploded ordnance contamination. Visit the UXO Laos Visitor Center behind Chao Anouvong Monument to learn more.
    Photo by Justin Lancy