FEATURE: Luang Prabang: still a visitor’s dream

VIENTIANE (Vientiane Times/ANN) - I’ve been to Luang Prabang many times and like most people I think it’s a stunning town, especially given its location nestled within a mountainous embrace. For the most part, I think it’s a wonderful place and clearly many others have the same opinion and visitors always seem to want to linger longer than planned.

The great thing about this place is that each visit unfolds something new. On my last visit, for example, my eye was caught by the sight of a swathe of bright green rice fields which blanketed a hilly area I had never noticed before. I spotted this picturesque scene on the way to Kuangsi waterfall and its unexpected beauty made a deep impression on me.

Farmers in the north of Laos have cultivated rice on terraces for centuries and their counterparts in neighbouring countries do the same.

Terraced farming involves the construction of several small flat fields on different levels. The rice that is grown is fed by water that flows naturally downhill and irrigates each field in turn.

This view was so awe-inspiring that we stopped by the side of the road to absorb it, rather as one gazes at a painting by a great artist.

Everything felt and looked good. The air was fresh and the green rice plants looked so vibrant. As a cool breeze blew over my face and body, I felt rejuvenated and youthful feelings of hope and energy returned.

But my sense of reinvigoration disappeared as we left and my feelings of youthfulness dissipated. I was so entranced by the place that I will be sure to pass by again when I’m next in Luang Prabang.

From here we walked to Kuangsi waterfall, which took us about 40 minutes. When I stood in front of the rushing cascade I immediately felt cooler. This is an ideal spot for those who don’t like hot weather as you can feel the sudden drop in temperature as soon as you approach the waterfall, almost as if you’re stepping between two worlds.

The site is cooled not only by the flow of cold water but by the trees on the overhanging cliff that block out the sun.

It’s about a 10-minute walk to the main cascade and once you’re there you’re greeted by a refreshing rush of deep green water.

Luang Prabang is Laos’ most popular tourist attraction but visitor numbers always tail off in the low season. However, there’s always a crowd of people at Kuangsi.

To get there you can take a lodsongthaew, tuk-tuk or a motorbike. The falls are 29 kilometres from central Luang Prabang and the journey takes about 40 minutes.

There are public toilets around the site and bamboo waste bins in an attempt to make the place eco-friendly.

Most visitors are happy to spend several hours here to enjoy the natural air-conditioning.

The trees cool the air by a process called dehydration and release water into the atmosphere from their leaves via transpiration, cooling the surrounding air.

Sitting in the shade of trees and watching other visitors swim and jump into the series of pools beneath the falls is a very relaxing and enjoyable pastime.

Another of my favourite places in Luang Prabang is Xiengthong Temple, which is one of the many structures in the town that earned it world heritage status. The town, which is flanked by the Mekong and Khan rivers, was so designated by UNESCO in 1995. It is a small place and is sometimes dwarfed by the many large Chinese tour groups.

The people of Luang Prabang are keen to preserve their traditions such as the daily morning almsgiving ceremony when monks parade through the streets. The colourful temples are used for prayer, merit-making and the chanting of scriptures by monks and novices.

Popular events throughout the year include the lively Lao New Year celebrations, the boat racing festival, festivals to mark the start and end of Buddhist Lent, and the lighted boat festival.

Luang Prabang was once the capital of the Lane Xang Kingdom and has been variously called Muang Swa, Meuang Xiengdong and Meuang Xiengthong over the years.

In the year 1,358 of the Buddhist calendar, King Fa Ngum brought the sacred Prabang statue to Meuang Viengkham and in 1,489 the revered Buddha image was moved to Meuang Xiengthong for public worship. The name of the town was then changed to Meuang Luang Prabang in acknowledgement of the presence of the statue, and has remained unchanged ever since.