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Luang Prabang: A spiritual heritage

By TONETTE MARTEL Published May 21, 2022 5:00 am

A small and enchanting town, Luang Prabang had a proud yet turbulent past. It was the 14th-century royal capital of Laos, a Buddhist Kingdom, and once a French colonial outpost. I read that the town’s elders had seen momentous changes — from the colonial period to the declaration of independence, the decades-long civil war, a takeover by a communist regime, and the opening-up of the economy.

Still regarded as the cultural heart of Laos, Luang Prabang exuded the aura of centuries long gone and still bore the vestiges of its colonial past. The town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 to preserve an architectural and artistic heritage that brought together Lao traditional architecture with that of the colonial era.

On the grounds of the Royal Palace Museum stands the Haw Pha Bang, a temple built to enshrine the Phra Bang, Luang Prabang’s most sacred image.

When I first came to Luang Prabang in 2013, it seemed that the town had gone the full distance to attract a wide spectrum of travelers. Former colonial homes were converted into boutique hotels, restaurants offered international and contemporary fare, guesthouses stood on the banks of the Mekong, and shops traded in Lao antiques, crafts, and collectibles. This former royal city is home to 34 temples decorated with bas-reliefs, mural paintings, wood sculptures, gilded pillars, and colonnaded verandas.

French colonial architecture as seen in a street in Luang Prabang.

From the across the Mekong River, the vista of verdant mountains imbued the town with a gentle beauty and a quiet charm. But it was the spiritual aspects of the land that touched me most deeply — the fact that Buddhist rituals and practices were woven into the rhythms of everyday life, that they marked the seasons, and that they all sprang back to life. Ancient royal traditions and a cultural heritage that spanned seven centuries had not been lost to time.

During the Festival of Lights, temples are illuminated and fireboats docorated with colored paper are paraded down the main street.

A year had passed after my first visit to the town when I decided to write a book chronicling my encounters with spiritual Asia. I returned to Luang Prabang in time for Boun Ok Phansa (Festival of Lights), known as one of the most important Buddhist festivals of the town. Celebrated in October to mark the end of Buddhist Lent, I had read that it was one of the most beautiful and meaningful festivals of Luang Prabang.

 Novice monks during evening prayers.

At the start of the festival, devotees brought their donations and offerings to the temples. In the evening, a candlelit procession began at the temples and wound its way across town. By nightfall, I saw monks and devotees setting candles along the perimeter of Wat Visoun and around its watermelon-shaped stupa named That Mak Mo.

Luang Prabang was a reminder that no matter what trials we faced, there would be a time for starting over. This ancient town had gone through a time of renewal — the chance to revive and strengthen the aspects that were part of its identity.

A young monk stands in the courtyard of Wat That Noi. Paper lanterns are lit in celebration of the Festival of Lights.

At Wat That Noi, young monks placed candles in colored-paper lanterns along the temple courtyard. The next day, a series of fireboats — handcrafted bamboo boats decorated with colored paper shaped in various forms — was brought down the main street. At the end of the street, people gathered so they could carry each boat down the long flight of stairs at Wat Xieng Thong that led down to the Mekong River. There, it merged with banana-leaf boat offerings of flowers, incense sticks, and votive candles set afloat by devotees to pay homage to the Buddha, the guardian and water deities. The ritual was said to dispel negative elements such as illness, accidents, and bad luck.

The Chariot Hall at Wat Xieng Thong. The wat is known as the finest example of sacred architecture in Laos.

The following evening, I walked along the back alleys of the town and onto to the street fronting the banks of the Mekong to see the procession of fireboats. It was a joyous and colorful event, when it seemed the whole town came out to celebrate. The sounds of Lao drums and percussion instruments came from a distance. Fireworks and sky lanterns lit up the night. The lanterns were made from rice paper and bamboo. Each lantern was released by lighting a fuel coil at the base of the lantern, holding on to the frame until the lantern was filled out, and letting it float slowly upward as it rose toward the sky.

An offering of flowers, candlelight, and burning incense sticks for the Festival of Lights.

After the procession, we boarded a boat to cruise the Mekong. There, I watched the townspeople send tiny banana-leaf boats afloat on the river. I saw hundreds of people making their way down the stairs of Wat Xieng Thong to place candlelight offerings on the Mekong, and fireboats merging with these offerings. It was pure visual splendor and a symbol of joy, hope, and faith. I had seen one of the most meaningful rituals of Luang Prabang — one that symbolized a time of renewal. Such religious rituals gave the months and seasons here greater significance.

A devotee brings an offering of candlelight, burning incense, and flowers to set afloat on the Mekong River during the Festival of Lights.

The next day, I met Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith, whose forebears were once advisers to the kings and viceroys of the land. Tiao Nith devoted much of his time to passing on royal and traditional art forms to a new generation. He gave an informal talk at the Amantaka resort, where he spoke about art, spirituality, and Buddhism in Luang Prabang. He told us that there was an intermingling of Buddhism, animism, and ancestor worship in this ancient town. The charm of Luang Prabang, he related, was that you couldn’t quite define its essence. He described Laos as an enigmatic country. The heritage of Laos was infused with cultural aspects of India, China, Burma, Tibet, and Lan Na Thai. Yet Buddhism has been a source of resilience. Thus, the elder monks often said, “Everyone comes, everyone goes, and we stay here.”

A girl holds a traditional offering of flowers and candlelight to celebrate Boun Ok Phansa.

Before leaving town, I met the German photographer and writer Hans Georg Berger, the director of research at the Buddhist Archive of Photography. I first saw his work in the lounge of Amantaka — evocative black-and-white photographs of Luang Prabang’s monks, captured in meditation and the rituals of monastic life. These photographs were among the most potent and enduring images I retained of my visits to Luang Prabang.

The Buddhist Archive has curated a rare collection of photographs taken or collected by the monks of Luang Prabang since the 1880s. The collection consists of 30,000 images covering 120 years of Theravada Buddhism in the town. Berger also produced a body of 15,000 black-and-white photographs that speak volumes about the role of the sacred in everyday life. Monks both young and old are captured in pensive moments, in the aspects of their daily lives, and at forest meditation retreats.

Lao traditional dances performed at the Amantaka resort to celebrate Boun Ok Phansa.

I saw depictions of festival elements — fireboats captured at night or stupas made of sand. I saw images of children radiating joy in their faces as they held offerings of flowers, incense sticks, and candles on the night of Makha Busaa to honor the Buddha, the Buddhist teachings, and the community of believers.

I caught up with Hans Georg Berger at Sala Thammaviharn in Wat Khili, a monastic building that housed the Buddhist Archive of Photography. Berger told me that it was an honor for him to become part of chronicling Lao spiritual heritage and its rituals, such as the Vipassana meditation retreats that had not been practiced since the 1975 revolution.

Sky lanterns made from rice paper and bamboo are released toward the sky during the Festival of Lights.

Dating back to the early days of Buddhism, Vipassana was a method of awakening the mind and mastering awareness. After nearly three decades, the Vipassana meditation retreat was reintroduced by the sangha of Luang Prabang in 2004.

Berger showed me a group of wooden Buddha images created for the project, “One Thousand Buddhas,” initiated by the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija for The Quiet in the Land, a cultural conservation project based in Luang Prabang from 2004 to 2008. These images were offered to temples and religious sites throughout the town.

At the end of my visit, Berger gave me two carved wooden Buddhas that were a part of the project. With this gesture, he shared an important aspect of Luang Prabang’s heritage with me. I learned that Lao folk art included the making of small Buddha images crafted from carved wood. The images were brought to places of pilgrimages such as the Pak Ou Caves, and hundreds of these were given as offerings during festivals.

The golden bas-reliefs seen at the facade of the ordination hall at Wat Mai.

On my last evening in Luang Prabang, I headed for the night market. Vendors had set up shop along Sisavangvong Road with an array of crafts from the ethnic communities — Hmong embroidery and stuffed toys; lanterns and paper products made from mulberry bark; pottery and silverware; antiques; and paintings. Food stalls offered a sampling of local fare: grilled meats and fish, papaya salad, sticky rice, and fruit shakes. The sound of the evening prayers from Wat Mai drifted onto the street. I sat outside the ordination hall to listen to the chants of the novice monks.

After some time, I walked back to Amantaka. Inside the resort, time seemed to stand still with no hint of activity from the outside. Amid the quiet and serenity, immersed in the symbols of past and present, I couldn’t think of a place I would rather be.

Wat Visoun is illuminated at night to commemorate the Festival of Lights in Luang Prabang.

It was the end of one journey. But it would illustrate the many ways the sacred and the ordinary came together to define a people and give life greater purpose. Luang Prabang was a reminder that no matter what trials we faced, there would be a time for starting over. This ancient town had gone through a time of renewal — the chance to revive and strengthen the aspects that were part of its identity.

From a Buddhist perspective, life would always be marked by impermanence and change. Yet that could pave the way for new beginnings. I felt blessed to see part of this unfolding story during my visits to Luang Prabang.