The amazing history and culture of Laos,Angkor Wat

Read the article by Andrea Maitland in New Ceramics Magazine


Excursion highlights
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Excursion Highlights

Cradled among the high forested mountains of northern Laos, Luang Prabang is the splendid old capital of the Lan Xang (“Million Elephants”) Kingdom, founded in 1353. The city is encircled by peaks and camouflaged by dense tropical foliage and features a cluster of shimmering royal temples, remnants of the faded grandeur of the Laos monarchy, as well as beautiful French colonial architecture. Hmong, Mien and Thai tribal people can often be seen walking around town on their way to and from the markets. Orange robed Buddhist monks and novices, who occupy 32 of the original 66 historic temples, make their rounds with parasols to ward off the midday sun.

Theravada Buddhism became state religion in Lan Xang, when King Visounarat accepted the Pha Bang, a gold Buddha image, as a gift from the Khmer monarchy in 1512. The city was then named Luang Prabang (Great Pha Bang) after this venerated image. Luang Prabang remained the main source of monarchical power until the end of the Lan Xang period in 1694. The following independent kingdom, set up in Luang Prabang, chose to accept French protection after a destructive attack by the Chinese in 1887. The French allowed Laos to retain the Luang Prabang monarchy, and imported Vietnamese workers to erect the brick- and stucco offices and villas that today give the city its faded colonial atmosphere. The royal family was exiled to northeastern Laos after the 1975 Revolution. Laos finally reopened to tourism in 1989 and Luang Prabang was awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1995, ensuring its glorious temples, royal architecture, culture and traditions will remain pristine for residents and visitors alike. The UNESCO report identified 33 temples, and 111 historic Lao-French buildings for specific restoration, citing Luang Prabang as the best-preserved traditional town in Southeast Asia.

The historical and cultural heart of the city straddles a peninsula inside the confluence of the Khan River and the Mekong River. Here are found the city’s most important religious edifices along with the residences of the former nobility and trading aristocracy. The ordination hall of Luang Prabang’s most magnificent temple, Wat Xieng Thong, was constructed in 1560 and represents the classic Luang Prabang temple architecture, with roofs that sweep low to the ground. The compound that remained under royal patronage until 1975, comprises several small halls including the Red Chapel, a sanctuary that contains an especially rare reclining Buddha. Several walls in the compound are decorated with impressive mosaics depicting scenes of local village life and the “tree of life”.

Admire also the remarkable veranda of Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham with its decorated columns and the sumptuous gold relief walls that recount the tale of Buddha’s penultimate birth, as well as scenes from the Ramayana epic. If you step into the grounds of Wat Xieng Muan during the day you’ll see the young monks learning artistic skills needed to maintain and preserve Luang Prabang’s temples, such as wood-carving, painting and Buddha-casting.

Visit the Royal Palace Museum, built in 1904 as a residence for the king and his family. The building features a blend of traditional Lao motifs and French beaux-arts styles and most of the private chambers are preserved as they were the day the royals were forced into exile.

Stroll around in this graceful neighbourhood of ponds and coconut palms, with old wooden or colombage (bamboo lattice daubed with natural mortar) homes in the traditional Lao style; brick-and-stucco colonial buildings with tiled roofs, constructed between 1920 and 1925; and neo-colonial houses that mix Lao and French motifs, with ground-floor walls of brick and plaster and upper-floor walls of wood.

Each morning we will take a traditional boat down the Mekong river from Luang Prabang to nearby Ban Chan. There has been a tradition of wood fired earthenware pottery in this small riverside village for centuries, and today most of the families in the village continue the tradition, using ancient methods to form the local terracotta clay. Participants will work directly with the local potters in this hands-on pottery workshop. The primitive wheels require two persons; one to spin the wheel, and one to form coils which are joined to form a rough shape. This piece is then “thrown” into its final elegant vase or storage jar. You will share this process with a village potter, engaging in an amazing non-verbal exchange to develop your skill. They are also eager to learn our methods of working and so a very interesting exchange develops.

We will witness a community firing, where many potters share in the loading, firing and unloading of the large wood-fired underground scorpion-shaped earthenware kiln. These kilns are constructed by digging out a stoking hole, stacking chamber, and chimney underground, and then the surface of the clay hole is hardened with the first firing.

We will be a part of a traditional welcoming ceremony and participate in local festivities and events in the village ,and have a unique opportunity to get to know the people in a way not experienced by the average tourist.

Discovery Art Travel has volunteered to help with various village projects since 2005, including the restoration and village temple, the development of a water system, and the building of a basketball court in the school playground, and to this end, a part of your excursion fee will assist the villagers in achieving their goals.

See more Laos workshop photos

There are several day and half day excursions included in the program :

We will journey along the Mekong river to the mouth of the Nam Ou river, and visit the famous Pak Ou Buddhist cave temples. Two caves dramatically positioned in the limestone cliff facing the river are packed with classic Luang Prabang style Buddha statues . We will visit the village of Ban Pak Ou, which is beautifully situated at the confluence of these two rivers, and enjoy a lunch of roasted fish in a river side eatery. On the return boat trip to Luang Prabang we will visit several villages noted for silk weaving, rice whiskey-making, and basketry.

Another day trip will include a relaxing visit to the scenic Kuangsi waterfalls.

We will enjoy an elephant riding experience in the high country. We will follow a river course and a have breathtaking views of the jungle and mountains.

See more Mekong excursion photos

Extra Excursions:

Light trekking options to Hmong hill tribe villages are available for the participant as an add-on option. Longer and overnight boat trips to more remote areas can be arranged.

Few places in the world are as fascinating as Angkor, the heart of the immense Khmer empire that flourished in Southeast Asia from the 9th to the 13th century, stretching from Burma to Vietnam. The Khmers exploited the special features of the Angkor plain and created an incredible hydraulic network of basins, canals and rice paddies that guaranteed subsistence for a million persons. The Khmer kings were skilful and warlike rulers who, drawing inspiration from the Indian concepts of regality and from the local cults of spirits and deified ancestors, built monumental pyramid temples as reproductions and representations of the mythical cosmic mountain, Meru.

Jayavarman II was the first to unify Cambodia’s competing kingdoms in 802 and established himself as a “god-king” (devaraja) whose all-reaching power embodied the godlike qualities of Shiva. Since then, the god-kings each strove to better their ancestors in size, scale and symmetry, culminating in the world’s largest religious building – Angkor Wat.

The temples that are now the highlight of a visit to Angkor – Angkor Wat and those in and around the walled city of Angkor Thom including the Bayon temple – were built between 1002 and1219. The evolution of Khmer architecture was the elaboration of a central theme: the idea of the temple-mountain, represented by a blunt-topped tower mounted on a tiered base. At the summit was the central sanctuary, usually with an open door to the east, and three false doors at the remaining cardinal points of the compass. As the temples grew in ambition, courtyards enclosed by colonnaded galleries came to surround the central tower. In Angkor Wat and the Bayon, these galleries are richly decorated with long series of intricate and astonishing bas-reliefs, depicting scenes from famous Hindu epics and everyday life in Angkor.

Other features that came to be favoured included an entry tower and a causeway lined with naga (mythical serpent) balustrades or sculptures leading up to the temple. Smaller towers were placed on gates and on the corners of walls. In Angkor Thom and the Bayon temple, the gates and towers were decorated with smiling, enormous faces of the bodhisattva Lokeshvara with whom the great king, Jayavarman VII (1181-1219) identified himself. The faces with the features of the king look in all the directions of the kingdom, guaranteeing protection: here, Hindu symbolism is reinforced by Buddhist symbolism.

It is a very special experience to visit some of the smaller temples that were overgrown by the jungle and look the way most of the monuments of Angkor appeared when European explorers first discovered them in the 19th century: The crumbling towers and walls are locked in the slow muscular embrace of vast root systems; trees, hundreds of years old, tower overhead, their leaves filtering the sunlight and casting a greenish pall over the whole scene. The presence of this greenery adds to the ineffable artistic beauty of the Angkor temples a magical atmosphere of distant times and remote worlds.

We shall approach the temples in very small groups using local guides where necessary. We will stay at a small charming character hotel, with shady grounds and a small swimming pool, and renowned for its cuisine.

See more photos of Laos and Angkor Wat:
Angkor photos
Participants' photos
Denys’s Photos from past excursions to Laos & Angkor Wat

February 16, early morning: Bangkok airport. (Feb 14 or 15, departure from Vancouver)

March 3, early morning: departure from Bangkok. (March 3, arrival in Vancouver)

Please note that the package does not include airfare (see options below).

Package Includes:
Airfare return from Bangkok to Luang Prabang, Laos
2. Airfare return from Bangkok to Siem Reap (Angkor), Cambodia
3. Airport-hotel-airport transfers in Luang Prabang and Siem Reap
4. Airport to hotel transfer on final night in Bangkok
5. Accommodation (based on double occupancy) in Luang Prabang
6. Accommodation in Bangkok, including breakfast and dinner
7. Accommodation in Siem Reap (swimming pool), 3 nights
8. All breakfasts and 2 special dinners
9. Several Mekong River boat excursions
10. Tuition in a 6 day hands-on pottery workshop and firing experience
11. Daily Mekong River transport to pottery village
12. Elephant riding excursion in Luang Prabang area
13. On-board local guide and translator in Luang Prabang
14. Guide and translator and transportation in the Angkor region
15. On-board ceramic artist and trip organizer


â–ºSpecial return air fares from Vancouver to Bangkok with Cathay Pacific Airlines including transfers can be arranged on request.

â–ºVariable return dates are available. Extend your Asia experience with an add-on experience from Bangkok.

Tentative Itinerary

Day 1/Feb 16 – Air transfer from Bangkok to Luang Prabang, sunset drink by Mekong river and special dinner.
Day 2 – Boat trip to pottery village: introduction to village and potters. Observation and hands-on clay work.
Day 3 – Pottery village. Visit to observe woman potters near Luang Prabang.
Day 4 – Pottery village continued.
Day 5 – Pottery village continued. Visit to Luang Prabang temples.
Day 6 – Pottery village or possible free day.
Day 7 – Excursion: Day trip on Mekong river to Pak Ou Buddhist cave temples and villages enroute.
Day 8 – Excursion :Day trip to villages, waterfalls and temples.
Day 9 – Final work and ceremonies in pottery village.
Day 10 – Excursion: Elephant riding and silk weaving village.
Day 11 – Air transfer to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Guided sunset trip to temples.
Day 12 – Angkor temple guided tour. Dinner with traditional music and folkloric.
Day 13 – Guided tour to outlying Angkor temples
Day 14 – Angkor temple guided tour.
Day 15 – Free day: markets, city museums etc. Transfer to Bangkok. Final dinner.
Day 16 / Mar 3 – Departure or add-on Thailand or other country trip extension

Read the article by Andrea Maitland in New Ceramics Magazine

See video of pottery coiling & throwing, Ban Chan, Laos (Windows Media Video, 1.2mb)

There is no refund for arriving late or leaving the trip early.

Discovery Art Travel reserves the right to cancel the trip due to low enrolment, or if we feel that the quality of the trip or the safety of travelers would be compromised. In such a case ,we will refund all payments received to date, which constitutes full settlement.

text & Photos: Denys James & Denise Okan


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For More Information: Ph/Fax (250) 537- 4906 • E-mail: Denys James.