• JH

Luang Prabang - an ideal place to start out shooting another culture

by Jeremy Horner

If you are starting out on your journey as a travel photographer, there are few places better suited to a first assignment than the old royal capital of Laos, Luang Prabang. Built on a peninsula, the city is located at the shady confluence of the mighty Mekong River with its tributary, the Nam Khong. From shooting portraits and local people going about their daily routine, to capturing landscapes and detail shots, this popular and tranquil destination, 300km north of Vientiane, has it all within walking distance of your hotel front door.

The city’s busy population of around 50,000 people spend most of their daily lives outdoors like much of Asia, perhaps unaware of how photogenic this World Heritage Site really is. The classic Lanna style of temple architecture intermingles with the French colonial residences to provide a range of colourful and textured backdrops. Moreover, both are preserved to UNESCO standards, making you spoilt for places to anticipate shots and work around scenes. It is no accident that the four main streets that delineate this peninsula city play host to many photographic workshops.

At each dawn, the hundreds of novice monks that belong to the monasteries, or ‘wats’, single file through the town in pursuit of alms, their bright orange robes piercing the twilight. At the same time, market traders fill the narrow streets of the commercial district with flowers, fruit and vegetables, rice, eggs and meat, as well as fish freshly caught from the waters of the Mekong.

At each dawn, novice monks file around a temple circuit to collect alms from the residents and visitors of Luang Prabang. Nikon D700 Nikkor, 17-55mm f2.8 at 45mm, 1/100 sec at f5, ISO 1250.

There are few places anywhere on the planet that are as manageable and compact as Luang Prabang when considering the range of imagery on offer to the travel photographer. In this city, the world really comes to you: all its important aspects can be seen on foot within a day, making a recce around the streets and alleyways an especially worthwhile exercise.

If you can develop this discipline from the outset, it will reward you again and again, enabling you to plan your shooting schedule for each location more efficiently, as you eliminate any unknowns. To hone in on a striking image possibility that is capable of standing the test of time and to capture something beyond all the hordes of travellers that pass through with their iPhones, you need to be in command of your craft.

Engaging with your subject is a very personal, as your own characteristics of shyness or sociability will project onto those you choose to engage with. Laotians are generally very relaxed people and will accommodate your enquiring lens, as long as you are polite. As foreign tourism is a huge component of the local economy of Luang Prabang, it is unlikely that you will encounter hostility. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware of the constant attention the locals receive from prying lenses and refrain from overstepping the threshold of trust.

Luang Prabang is a living city, capital of a province of the same name, not just a tourist attraction. Indeed, the novice monks participate in farming and handicrafts, as well as the maintenance of their monastery buildings. From May to October, the rainy season swells the banks of the Mekong to irrigate the higher ground. Meanwhile, during the dry season the receded water levels reveal extensive sand bars that become beaches of a kind, flanking the main channel of the Mekong. At this time, monks can be seen tending to their crops along the riverbanks.

The decoration and adornments, both external and internal, of Luang Prabang’s important ‘wats’ are both exquisite and unforgettable. This makes them an important challenge for the travel photographer: if you can’t make an interesting image of a Buddhist temple here, you are not going to make one anywhere.

These buildings are lavished with gold leaf, colourful decorative elements and quirky designs. Wat Mai is just such an example, once the residence of the head of Laotian Buddhism. Meanwhile, perhaps the most famous and important temple, Wat Xien Thong on the northern tip of the peninsula, dates back to the 16th century and has over 20 structures on which to test your craft.

A young novice monk enters the Buddhist temple of Wat Mai, via its elaborately decorated golden portico. Nikon D700, Nikkor 17-55mm f2.8 at 26mm, 1/125 sec at f5.6, ISO 400.

If you take a short hike up to Wat Chom Si, which sits atop Mount Phu Si and presides over the city, you will be rewarded with a spectacular panoramic view of Luang Prabang. However, if you are feeling even more adventurous, there are treks to be made to nearby tribal villages or boat excursions upriver to the Buddhist caves of Pak Ou, both of which are unique and rewarding.

The mighty Mekong is one of Asia’s principal waterways, winding down from its origins high up on the Tibetan Plateau. Cascading through the jungles of Northern Laos, there is nowhere that the river takes on a more romantic complexion. Without the Mekong there would be no Luang Prabang: indeed, the commercial barges that moor together in parallel at the end of each day stand as testament to the commercial heartbeat of the city and its vibrant markets of fresh produce.

As the sun disappears each day over the hills beyond the Mekong, the atmosphere in Luang Prabang builds – there is a sense of daily renewal, and the jungle soundtrack begins. Meanwhile, the manoeuvring of boats upon the river heralds the anticipated activity at dawn for the new day to come. Really, there is never a moment in Luang Prabang when you cannot just decide to sit down to observe life as it goes passes by.

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