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Andy’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 18 Jan 2007

Location: Luang Prubang, Laos

MapLUANG PRUBANG - THE ROYAL PALACE AND MOUNT PHU SI
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For days we debated what to do. Visit the Plain of Jars or not.
Should i visit another archeological site of world importance or take the stunning journey back to Vientiane. It's not often in life that one is faced with such choices every day. These are the stresses i am faced with while travelling. How awful i'm sure you'll agree.

The Plain of Jars is a large group of historic, cultural sites consisting of thousands of ancient stone jars, some two metres tall, scattered over large fields. Archeological authorities are still unsure of their raison d'etre, but it has been hypothesised they once contained the cremated human remains.

Sounded fascinating. Unfortunately this mysterious site was situated eight hours east of Luang Prubang and required backtracking that eight hours to Luang Prubang when we were already travelling 12 hours back from LP to Vientiane to reach the south of the country - all because the road from the Plain of Jars (Phonsovan) down south is a notoriously dangerous Special Military Zone where a low level insurgency and secretive counter operations are being waged.

Moreover, the Plain of Jars remains a dangerous site of unexploded bombs which still cause injuries every week. I did not trust my feet.

So we spent another day in Luang Prubang and visited the Royal Palace Museum. Originally, as the name suggests this building was the royal palace, residence of King Si Savanguang. Since the revolution it has been converted into a museum.

The museum pieces were a mixture of Laos art and Buddhist relics including the Phra Bang (from which the town takes its name), a Buddha cast of a gold, silver and bronze alloy. The secretary's reception room is filled with diplomatic gifts from a variety of countries grouped into "socialist" and "capitalist" countries.

The palace, a museum piece in itself, surprised me. Built in 1904 and reflecting the dominant newer styles of the time the buildings is a hybrid structure commissioned by the French colonial administration, mixing French and Lao architecture. Fleur-de-ly emblems and french mirrors, three headed elephants and Lao embroidered silk; a deliberate synthesis to cement the (unequal) relationship.

Relatively small, and slightly plain, with white-washed walls and wooden furniture, the building contrasted sharply with my preconceptions of rich, delicate and ornately decorated palaces of tropical south-east asian kingdoms.

The Kings reception room and the throne room were the only exceptions, but even the grandest rooms were plush rather than lavish.

I found the most interesting sections to be the royal living quarters preserved much as they were on the eve of revolution. They provided interesting snapshots of family life before they were exiled to the north. Built in 1904 the palace clearly echoed the newer syles of the time.

In the afternoon we climbed Phu Si hill, a tree covered mount dominating the centre of the town effectively splitting it in half. The summit is capped by a small temple with a gold-topped stupa and we both sat, with the other tourists watching the bright orange disc of the sun set over the landscape; the wide bronze Mekong criss crossed by tiny fishing boats, the mist covered mountains, and the small winding streets of the town.

For our last night we spent the time shopping at the outdoor market which runs along a stretch of the main road and eating congealed rice dessert squares and greasy deep fried chinese sausages.

The next day we would embark on the dreaded Route 13 again.