Heritage on the Mekong

Luang Prabang of Northern Laos has a special place in my heart.

A protected city


A lot of what I love about the city is made possible because of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the number of local ordinances that protect the city's culture and appearance.

It's why this city hasn't built up vertically, why there aren't that many vehicles, and why no large trucks traverse the roads. It's why monks still play an influential role in the city, preserving the monasteries they inhabit and involving the broader community in their ritual. There's also a curfew on nightlife, which keeps most evenings quiet. Those wanting to stay out past midnight either cab it to the next town or hit the bowling alley.

More than anything though, the UNESCO designation means that visitors can continue to explore Luang Prabang's rich heritage for many years to come.

As large as trucks come in Luang Prabang.

A city with no tall buildings.

Quiet streets


A walk through this city is like a walk through another era. Gains from an economic boom in this area went towards preservation and improvement, not new construction.

French influences still persist and are every bit a part of Lao culture and appearance. Baguettes and croissants are as common as sticky rice on the menus and window shutters look an awful lot like the ones you'd find in Europe.

A side street for pedestrians.

An outdoor cafe along the Mekong River.

Alleyway leading to a shrine.

Vat Sensoukharam.

Monastic Life


This "another era" is also when Buddhism flourished. No where else have I seen so many monks in discourse or in meditation on the streets or along the hillside as I have here.

I spend an afternoon at a local library to volunteer. They've organized a twice weekly program where locals can practice their English with native English speakers. This is a program I wish more cities had. It's such an intimate way to learn about a place as the locals see it.

One of my conversation partners is a novice monk who's actually quite fluent. I learn from him that most novices who enter the temple usually have aspirations outside of it. Most of his peers end up doing other things and he's thinking about becoming a tour guide.

Then there are some anecdotes he shared about monastic life. There's a lot of what we see in pictures: the rituals, the meditation, the chores around the courtyard, but these monks have just as much fun interacting with the visitors who come to Luang Prabang. Often, my new friend tells me, he'll strike up conversations with guests at a nearby hotel. Usually it's to practice his English, but every so often it's to coax a Wi-Fi password out so he can get on the internet from his dormitory. We're Facebook friends.

I've written a separate post for The Morning Procession, an important ritual that happens in Luang Prabang.

A monk watches the Nam Khan.

The wat gallery


Temples and shrines dot the map. Most are incredibly well preserved to the point where it's impossible to guess that some are centuries old. They're also incredibly vibrant, covered in rich coats of red and gold paint.

Wat Phol Phao

A view of the mountains from the third floor terrace.

Wat Xieng Thong

The urn house stores urns of past Lao monarchs.

Inside of the urn house.

A shrine with the Tree of Life mosaic.

Tree of life in detail.

The Royal Palace

Royalty of kingdoms past called Luang Prabang their home. This palace actually went up more recently during the French colonial era. It's where the king, at this point more of a figurehead, received official visitors traveling on the Mekong.

Today the palace is a national museum. It was closed when I visited, so I wandered around the royal yard instead. The buildings and paths are surprisingly worn.

The Royal Palace.

The Royal Lawn and the groundskeeper.

The Royal Palace's Servants Quarters.

French window shutters.