Luang Prabang – Buddha city (01.02.16)
Charmingly located on the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and surrounded by a backdrop of mountains some 700m high, Luang Parbang literally means ‘Royal Buddha Image’. A more majestically apt name there could not be.
Described as the ‘jewel in Laos’ crown’, it is without doubt one of Nomadic Thoughts’ favourites in Indochina, retaining all its regal splendour. From the moment you step foot in the ancient Lan Xang Kingdom Royal capital, you’ll see that it is home to a huge community of monks, thirty-three temples and more golden Buddhas than you can shake a stick at.
Of all Asia’s Buddhist metropolises, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most exciting. Not only for its golden Buddha-dominated temples and monasteries, but also for the way the 50,000 strong local community embrace and practise their religion. This takes many forms, from shaven-headed monks collecting alms in the early mornings, to the many city landmarks and Theravada Buddhism shrines.
Historically Luang Prabang is fascinating, bearing vestigial signs of encounters with fascism, communism and the French colonials (among others) who left their mark in faded French architecture. Legends about royal rulers abound, dating back to when Buddha himself once smiled and rested his much-travelled head here, before prophesying that it would one day be a rich and powerful city.
These photos, taken by my Nomadic Thoughts friend and colleague Caroline Findlay de Concha two months ago, show how the rich architectural and artistic heritage of Luang Prabang is truly reflected in the Buddhist influence across the city and surrounding area. Whether visiting the 16th century magnificence of Wat Xieng Thong, sacred Mount Phousi, a traditional religious ceremony or an old wooden Laos house, you will do so to a backdrop of golden Buddhas, ornate golden carvings and richly decorated sculptures, engravings, joss-stick offerings, paintings and big, brassy and brash Buddha icons.
The monks are ever present, moving though the city’s impressive collection of stone temples, colonial brick houses and the swathe of traditional wooden structures. Their calming influence stretches from the gentle urban sprawl of the city to outer rural regions. When travelling along the Mekong and Nam Kan rivers, the essence of rural Buddhism appears to be as alive today as it has ever been.
Each Laos village has its own Wat (temple), which is central to all community festivities and rituals. Everyday life follows a holy schedule, starting with daily offerings by monks as well as temple visits, as shops, cafes, market areas, homes, schools and hospitals house innumerable Buddhist statues, trinkets and images.
Visiting the city today you will find the welcoming spirit and ambiance of the people close to the true principles of their Theravada Buddhism traditions. Young boys entering monkhood soon learn that this revolves around a belief in tolerance towards all, with an attitude to other religions and their followers that is neither prescriptive, authoritative, nor exclusive.
So if you can find the time I do urge you to embrace the ‘Royal Buddha Image’, as you delight in the gentle and most welcoming karma of this most special of Laos cities.