Luang Prabang Culture

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Luang Prabang Culture
Luang Prabang's culture is a blend of the syncretic and the eclectic, a mélange of traditional, religious, tribal, royal, and colonial influences, mixed with a healthy dose of the famously laid-back Lao attitude.
Photo by Justin Lancy
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    Royal History
    The Laotian monarchy was overthrown by the communist Pathet Lao in 1975, but remnants of the town’s royal past remain if you know where to look. From subtle echoes in streets named after Lao monarchs—Sisavangvong, Kingkitsarat, Sakkarine—to former residences turned into hotels—Maison Souvannaphoum, Villa Maly, the Grand—Luang Prabang’s regal history is just below the surface. For the curious, the king’s residence was turned into the Royal Palace Museum, which houses artifacts of the former regime along with the gold-alloyed Buddha statue that gives Luang Prabang its name.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    Tribal and Ethnic Diversity
    “Laotians” are actually a collection of around 150 ethnic subgroups and there are also strong Chinese and Vietnamese communities that have lived in Laos for generations. Though there are at least 80 languages spoken in Laos, almost all of the people you’ll encounter 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). Located on Phousi Hill above the Night Market, TAEC showcases Laos’s diversity with permanent and rotating exhibitions. At least 50% of the profit for items sold at TAEC’s gift shop go directly to artisans to help preserve their traditional crafts.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    The Land of Sabaidee
    Laos’s official name is Lao People's Democratic Republic, but the local joke is that PDR really stands for “Please Don’t Rush.” It’s not a bad tagline for the languid pace of Luang Prabang. Lao culture values soft, unhurried interactions between people, so slow your own pace accordingly. A great way to get yourself into the groove is to do a little shopping at the Night Market. The right way to haggle, Lao-style, is to take some time to admire the item before asking the price. If it seems high, smile gently and ask if the vendor can do any better. Remember—it’s supposed to be fun and playful. In a place where the greeting, sabaidee, translates literally as “good and relaxed,” getting wound up should not be an option.
    Photo by Jean-Pierre Degas/age fotostock
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    Ancient Temples
    Theravada Buddhism encourages most young men to become monks, if only for a short time, and you'll inevitably see novice monks in saffron robes walking around Luang Prabang. The town's oldest active temples date back at least 600 years; they remain religious and educational centers for the community. The most famous, Xieng Thong, is near the end of the Peninsula, but don’t miss others scattered throughout town. Of particular note is a compound near Phomathat Road containing Wat Aham, with its beautiful banyan trees, and Wat Wisunalat, home to a 115-foot-tall dome called the Watermelon Stupa. Appropriate dress—long skirts or pants, and shirts with sleeves—is a must, and don't forget to remove your shoes before entering.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    A Multicultural Past
    Laos's isolation has had at least one beneficial side effect: The relative lack of development has preserved important remnants of the town’s history. Modern Luang Prabang is superimposed on top of traditional villages built around the temples. You can see early evidence of colonialism in the figures of Dutch merchants carved into the temple doors of Wat Pak Khan (which also houses a lesser-known staircase to the top of Phousi Hill). UNESCO-protected French beaux arts architecture (such as its own headquarters, housed in the former customs office) is a major tourist draw, but a little-known fact is that the Chinese-style shophouses on the main street are themselves historical artifacts, built by Vietnamese workers brought in by the French.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    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 has a variety of beautiful woven goods; its staff also offers classes on traditional dyeing and weaving techniques at its Living Craft Center. Higher-end stores, such as the boutique at Amantaka Resort (south of Phousi Hill on Kingkitsarath Road), are also emerging as the town attracts more luxury-minded travelers.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Markets for All Times of Day
    No trip to Luang Prabang is complete without a wander through its markets. The Night Market in front of the Royal Museum has come a long way from its candlelit beginnings. These days, fluorescent bulbs illuminate hundreds of vendors selling an eclectic mix of highbrow and lowbrow items, often presented side by side. You’ll see intricately woven traditional clothing right next to T-shirts, and beautiful wood carvings astride cheap bamboo “iPhone Speakers.” The Morning Market (in the alleys off Sisavangvong Road) is where you’ll find all sorts of great Lao foods, fresh fruits, and vegetables. For the traveler who wants to step off the tourist trail, a five-minute tuk-tuk ride to Phousi Market provides a grittier market experience.
    Photo by Otto Stadler/age fotostock
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    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, the boat racing festival held during July and August, brings out the competitive spirit in the normally reserved Laotians. Lai Heua Fai, the festival of the fire boat, is perhaps the year's most beautiful, corresponding with the last day of the Buddhist Lent season in late September / early October. And for the truly hearty, there's Pi Mai, a three-day water fight to celebrate Lao New Year. The town’s festivals aren’t solely traditional; each December, Luang Prabang Film Festival highlights the best offerings of Southeast Asian filmmakers with outdoor screenings and cultural events.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    Wellness Culture
    Luang Prabang has become an important destination on the Southeast Asian wellness trail and the town is positively teeming with spa and massage offerings. Luang Prabang Yoga offers affordable classes almost every day. For an extra helping of bliss, join one of their sunset sessions on the banks of the river. You’ll also see dozens of small massage shops all along the Peninsula where you can duck in and get a quick (and cheap) foot rub. Luang Prabang’s hotel spas offer great value if you’re looking for deeper pampering. Local favorites include the Spa at Kiridara (which offers free pick-up in town) and Maison Souvannaphoum's Angsana Spa.
    Photo courtesy of Tony Deary/Luang Prabang Yoga
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    Giving Back
    Even if you're in town for a short time, there are ways for visitors to engage with the community. The Luang Prabang Library’s Book Boat project brings books directly to remote villages. Pay them a visit on Sisavangvong Road to donate books or money. Another community center worth supporting is @My Library, accessible from the lane opposite Wat Aham on the way to Utopia restaurant. Bring your unneeded digital camera and laptop or stay to play a game of chess with a student. Laos is still recovering from the exceptionally heavy bombing it suffered between 1964 and 1973; fourteen of 17 provinces still suffer from unexploded ordnance (UXO) contamination. Visit the UXO Laos Visitor Center behind Chao Anouvong Monument to learn more.
    Photo by Justin Lancy