Patience a virtue: sunset over Luang Prabang

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Sunset over Luang Prabang and the Mekong river, as seen from the top of Phu Si. Picture: Chris Mannolini

One place springs to everyone’s mind when they think sunset in Luang Prabang. Phu Si is a 100m-high hill right in the middle of the historic centre of town, and everyone mentions it when you arrive. “You must go up Phu Si,” my hotel receptionist tells me. “It’s very good to see the sunset.” My breakfast waiter asks the next day; “Have you gone up Phu Si?”

 

Hence come sunset, when I do finally make it up the steep steps one late afternoon, of course, the place is packed. There is not much space around the small temple at the very top of the hill, and all space on the western and southern side is taken up. The crowd spills around the north and the east side, where I take some photos of the town bathed in a golden afternoon light and wait patiently for the sun to get even lower in the sky.

Approaching sunset I venture to the south-side of the temple, overlooking the river, and look for a vantage spot. It’s packed full of people with smartphones, tablets and cameras. As they hold up their device screens at the fading light the scene looks like a congregation at a religious ceremony. The sun worshippers, I dub them.

No room, then. So what to do? Have patience. I am confident I know what is going to happen. As the sun nears the horizon over the western hills there is an increase in crowd buzz and yet more device screens are held up above heads in worship. Then the moment comes and very quickly goes. There are oohs and ahhs, hundreds of camera clicks, quite a few useless flashes, and even a round of applause from the appreciative crowd.

Then, no sooner has the sun disappeared from the horizon, the majority of the crowd head off, a mass exodus of the sunset faithful down the steep stairs and back to their hotels, or out to restaurants, to eat, drink and compare their photos.

Patience is a virtue when you’re photographing sunsets. Now there is plenty of space in the best vantage points on the western side of the temple high above Luang Prabang looking out over the town and across the Mekong river. And it’s about 15 to 20 minutes after sunset, when the majority of people who climbed Phu Si and took their snaps are already downing their first Beerlao in a cafe or hotel, that the sky lights up in a celestial sea of oranges, pinks and reds.

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Looking down Phommathat Road and the east of Luang Prabang during late afternoon from atop Phu Si. Picture: Chris Mannolini

It’s only the photography conoscenti here now, and couples/lovers, soaking in the sky show we all knew earlier was on the way. And there is plenty of room. I find the top of a large boulder perfect and there is room for a couple seated at the front, me and another photographer to get our shots.

I notice in my viewfinder my photos are not reflecting the deep oranges and yellows in the sky, then realise my white balance is still on automatic. I switch it to shade. Cameras are dumb, and unless you tell them otherwise, during sunsets or sunrises they will try to compensate for the lack of light by lighting up the scene for you. Selecting shade as your white balance tricks it into thinking low light is OK and produces a much warmer image, better reflecting what is actually happening above you.

Everyone is in a good mood, is happy with their photos and their decision to have patience, which has paid off. As it gets darker, the photographer next to me even offers me the use of his tripod. I decline as I think I have what I came for; sunset light over the Mekong with still just a little light to expose the tops of the houses and temples, and the dense foliage of Luang Prabang below.

So on Phu Si and elsewhere, remember: have patience. The sun disappearing below the horizon is only the beginning. And be ready to tell your cameras what is happening by switching away from AWB.

One tip: bring a torch up Phu Si if you have one. The steps are steep and uneven in parts, and because you have waited for the sunset late show, you will be descending in the dark, with no lights around.

by Chris Mannolini

To see more of my photos taken during my trip to Laos, see my Flickr album here.

Have you been atop Phu Si in Luang Prabang for sunset? Had a similar experience with sunset hordes leaving before the main show? Do you have any other sunset photography tips? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

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