Laos is still Asia, where pussycats have balls, unless they’re pregnant. Children play happily in the streets, utterly oblivious to any stranger danger, and the price of anything is however much you’re prepared to pay. The saffron-robed monks carry mobile phones and make plans to study in Texas. Old-style communism is dead and buried, although the hammer and sickle sometimes still puts in an appearance.
Last time I was here, Luang Prabang had just acquired direct-dial telephone lines to the outside world. A decent highway was still some months off. Today the main street is lined with internet cafes offering high-speed broadband connections. But the Mekong still flows muddy, wide and strong and some time before six each morning, hundreds of saffron-robed monks move silently through the streets, extending their bowls to receive alms in the ritual which enriches the donors.
Returning after eight years, I found it novel enough simply to purchase seats on a scheduled, air-conditioned bus service linking Luang Prabang with the capital, Vientiane, still a sleepy hollow in comparison with any provincial capital on the Thai side of the Mekong. No matter that we endured eight hours of Lao pop, or that our driver occasionally overtook three-wheel scooters on blind bends. We didn’t face the choice between enduring a lengthy riverboat journey, boarding an aircraft of dubious provenance or a two-day journey on roads liable to ambush by bandits or rebel guerillas.
On the drive through limestone mountains, their lower slopes scarred by slash-and-burn cultivation of the hilltribe peoples, the bus weaves through villages constructed entirely from traditional thatch and bamboo, hamlets reliant on a single water pipe fed from a stream or a spring. Other tarred roads now continue east to the notorious Plain of Jars, or north and northeast to the very borders of China and Vietnam.
Arrival in Luang Prabang is, as ever, like chancing upon an oasis. As the road descends into a broad valley amidst the jungle of jagged green-swathed sawtooth ridges, we catch glimpses of the tiled roofs and temple spires where the Nam Khan with the mighty Mekong. Phou Si, a steep limestone bluff, commands the peninsula formed between the junction of the two rivers.
In the fourteenth century King Fa Ngum, raised at the royal court of Angkor and introduced there to the Buddhist religion, sent for Khmer scholars and elders who arrived bearing the sacred Pra Bang image of the Buddha. After many vicissitudes, this potent symbol of power returned home in 1867 just as the first French colonists arrived. The talismanic image resides today on its dais in the Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang.
Deceptively simple, the traditional wooden houses reflect local beliefs regarding the behaviour of nagas and other spirits of the land and rivers. Mingling harmoniously with the timber homes mounted high on stilts are the more formal brick-and-mortar structures – notably the many Wats or monasteries – the early twentieth-century French colonial buildings distinguished by their pitched, tiled roofs and shuttered windows, and the Chinese-inspired shophouses. Since the city’s designation in 1995 as a World Heritage Site, foreign consultants have overseen many restoration projects.
Wats are meeting places for monks and the wider community, where children play whilst saffron-robed figures enjoy the cool of the evening and often engage the foreign visitor in conversation. The Sim or congregration hall, where monks are ordained, is the seat of the main Buddha image; in the Luang Prabang style its high, pointed roof typically swoops down in many tiers. Meditation and living quarters are complemented by the spires of the whitewashed stupas, which contain relics of the Buddha or of other dignitaries. There may also be a shelter housing wooden boats launched annually for races.
Tourism has grown so strongly that falang rising early to witness the centuries-old ritual of alms-giving are likely to be accosted by godless entrepreneurs trying to take advantage of naïve foreigners lacking a ready supply of sticky rice. A handcraft market co-opts several blocks of the main street each evening, a veritable surfeit of shimmering silk wall hangings, zany stitched elephant cushion covers, tribal silverware and enough tee-shirts to have kept half the sweatshops of Saigon busy for weeks, all at absurdly low prices.
Many of the French-colonial villas have become boutique hotels, or simply less ambitious guesthouses for the backpackers descending like an avalanche. Villa Santi, the elegant former residence of a princess, remains pre-eminent, although challenged by such newcomers as the 3 Nagas. At sixty US dollars for an air-conditioned double you aren’t shelling much more than the price of a motel in Moree; your evening cocktail costs less than three dollars. In the guesthouses, meanwhile, twenty-five dollars buys an equally acceptable version of the same. In May, before the rains break, the heat is almost overwhelming, forcing one’s adaptation to a different pace of life. By midday one really should retreat back to the nearest café for a fruit shake or an ice coffee, not stepping out again before three.
“Thank you for your coming” reads the sign at Luang Prabang’s sleepy airport terminal. I wonder if the Belgian transvestite in the stiletto heels and cocktail dress enjoyed his/her coming as much as we did.
More images of Laos