From Luang Prabang, you can easily explore the surrounding villages and countryside. top, but it's worth it for the view of the Mekong snaking away to the south and the dipping hills on the western side of the river. Much of Luang Prabang's simple street grid is visible from here too, so it's a useful place to get your bearings. Inevitably, the view is dotted with the colourful arches and glinting stupas of the temples. As you descend on the opposite, eastern side of Mount Phousi, the flash of orange robes hanging from seminary cabins in the trees catch your eye, and the novices, some as young as 11, lounge in shady pavilions and gaze at the valley spread below with an air of other-worldly wisdom that seems too great for their age. BEST WAT EVER Luang Prabang's Wats vary from the intimate and slightly neglected to the expansive and opulent. Wat Xieng Thong falls into the latter category, and a visit here is recommended before temple fatigue sets in. In fact, if you could only visit one Wat in Laos, you would probably want to make it this one. The grounds of the temple and monastery, at the far end of the promontory close to the mouth of the Nam Khan, are shaded by vivid tropical gardens and contain a fantasy of swooping wooden eaves, sparkling glass mosaics and gold-leaf inlay. A royal funeral chariot, decorated with the ubiquitous Naga, is housed in one of the chapels; a reclining bronze Buddha shelters in another. Another of Luang Prabang's charms is the ease with which you can explore the surrounding villages and countryside. Take the broad 42 BLUE WINGS NOVEMBER 2008 stairs leading down from Wat Xieng Thong to the Mekong quay, for example, to hire the services of a boatman to take you six kilometres upstream to the village of Ban Phanom. The weavers and other craftspeople living here are descendants of migrants from Yunnan in China, and this is a great place to watch the entire silk weaving process in action, from yellow cocoon to completed shawl or wall-hanging. Paper-making, from hand-made mulberry tree pulp, is another handicraft demonstrated at Ban Phanom. Longer excursions, arranged by agencies in the town, take you further along the river ABOVE: Luang Prabang's night market offers a superb source of affordable, colourful and handmade gifts. TOP RIGHT (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT): A decorated shrine; Buddhist monks receive alms in the morning Tak Bat ceremony; the Mekong serves as a playground for local children. Laos in a Nutshell Capital: Vientiane Population: 6 million Language: Lao and China Myanmar Vietnam Luang Prabang various tribal languages; French; English Currency: The kip: 10 euros = 135 kips. Religion: Mainly Buddhist Economy: Laos is the poorest nation in South-East Asia and one of the last communist states in the world. Woods products and garments are prime exports. GDP per capita is about 1,165. Laos Thailand Vientiane Kambodza
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