Asia Articles & Reviews
Laos: Asia's New Cultural Hot Spot
In Luang Prabang, T+L revels in the winding lanes, ancient Buddhist temples, and buzzing markets.
By Guy Trebay
“Consider the dragonfly,” said Nithakhong Somsanith, erstwhile prince of an old lineage in Laos. On a warm day in the ancient royal capital of Luang Prabang, the two of us were seated on the wood veranda of a French-colonial villa. Nearby, in one of the many collect ponds that demarcate neighborhoods in this city of 103,000, a squadron of iridescent insects dive-bombed a cloud of pesky gnats.
The dragonfly, Somsanith said, is his emblem, the animal he chose as a motif in his art. Among the last practitioners of the royal craft of gold embroidery, Somsanith is, like most Lao, a Theravada Buddhist. His work, the panels he makes and sells at galleries here and in Paris, is intricately patterned with glittering insects. And his beliefs are patterned with the animism that in the lives of most Lao meshes the physical and the spiritual worlds.
“I choose this insect because it is ephemeral and at the same time very solid, a very Buddhist concept, that the world is real but also an illusion,” said the prince, as dragonflies zigzagged past us in a shimmering blur. “The only real thing is death,” he went on with an implacable half smile. “But we won’t think about that now.”
That was fine by me. After flying halfway around the world, I had arrived in Laos direct from the horn-blaring tumult of Bangkok and was only just emerging from the coma of serious jet lag. Fortunately, as I would learn, Luang Prabang is a rare place in Asia—a calm and somnolent city, a town of narrow lanes and polychrome temples and worn timber houses and scabbed colonial colonnades, all set along a peninsular thumb that juts toward a bend in the Mekong River and is surrounded by mountains that are like palisades shutting out the wider world.
There are other protections as well. Since 1995, when UNESCO inscribed Luang Prabang on its list of World Cultural Heritage sites, designating it “the best-preserved city in Southeast Asia,” teams of architects and planners, mostly French, have labored to hold back the inevitable tide of development, retarding if not altogether halting the changes that often spell doom when some lovely and untouched backwater becomes the next destination. And Luang Prabang is surely that place. The rate and the scale of development throughout Southeast Asia over the past several decades would induce melancholy in anyone whose good fortune it was to have visited Hanoi, say, when that city at nightfall was still mostly lighted by cook fires in charcoal braziers; or Phnom Penh when there were still more bicycles than cars; or Siem Reap before resorts were thrown up willy-nilly alongside the former killing fields.
The stopped-time quality of places like Laos is not in all ways a good thing, resulting as it often does from war or political and cultural isolation. In Burma, for instance, the ruling generals deliberately keep the population in poverty and backwardness. In Bhutan, in the Himalayas, the national constitution and a de facto theocracy conspire to hold modernity at bay. In Laos, it was Communism that deterred progress and, until an international airport opened in Luang Prabang a decade ago, only the intrepid managed to trek this far into the landlocked north.
Now a town that for decades was mainly a haunt of backpackers and hippies has accelerated its transition to a high-end destination. The stoners are still around, of course, with their tie-dyes, their bedrolls, and their matted dreadlocks. But, alongside guesthouses where adequate lodging can be had for $10 (including free filtered water and a complimentary banana), new luxury hotels have sprung up with suites featuring private plunge pools and staff-to-guest ratios that help account for tariffs of $800 a night.
The latest of these is Amanresorts’ Amantaka. Built on the grounds of a former French hospital at the edge of town, Amantaka was under construction when I took a hard-hat tour of the place last spring with Trina Dingler-Ebert, the company’s marketing director. “The key to understanding Luang Prabang is the atmosphere and the culture,” Dingler-Ebert said as we picked our way through the mud of a walled compound just up the road from a tacky new market. At that precise moment I did not see what it was about Luang Prabang that might lure well-heeled travelers to this city and away from the established comforts of locales and monuments like Angkor Wat. Despite Luang Prabang’s fabled reputation, it had seemed underwhelming at first glance. “You have to spend time here to get it,” Dingler-Ebert remarked. And, as it happened, she was correct.
“We think most people should stay a week here and know that they won’t,” Dingler-Ebert said and, at the time, I felt that two days would be more than enough. But then two days became three. Three dissolved into four. My resolve to leave Luang Prabang at all began to wane as I idled through town, drank sweetened Lao coffee with my French baguette at breakfast, mooched around the city’s many temples, and drifted past the stalls of the Night Market. Hmong tribespeople trek down from the mountains to sell their handloomed indigos and sophisticated patchwork here and, increasingly, the cheap Chinese copies of those special crafts that they purchase from middlemen jobbers along the way.
It is certainly true that the mass tourism some locals like Prince Somsanith tend to decry is coming. But it won’t have arrived by the time you are reading this article. The city I found was dozy and small enough to cover on foot in a day or two but best experienced over the course of a week. Like the mandalas some Buddhists use as aids to meditation, Luang Prabang turns out to be a city of recurrent patterns, of images and motifs explored and repeated, refined across centuries and with the clear-cut goal of hastening enlightenment. It was for centuries a royal city, but just as important was its role as a monastic center. Even now the temple complexes are active centers of worship and learning. The saffron-robed monks you see everywhere are more than local color. They are the animating force of the city, the engine whose sound is the always-audible hum of their prayers.
Getting around Luang Prabang is easy enough. A single main road longitudinally bisects the peninsula. Fanning out from it is a congeries of what amount to small villages. Each has its own distinct atmosphere and most are organized around one of the ponds where the dragonflies feed. Each is tied to the next by a network of brick lanes where you can happily lose yourself walking—if by getting lost you mean wandering through a grove of banana trees and past clumps of green bamboo or blood-red cannas, emerging into the courtyard of a 15th-century temple where young monks are playing a pickup soccer game.
The spatial and the architectural rhythms of Luang Prabang were established during the six centuries before the Communists dissolved the monarchy in 1975, imprisoning the royals in a remote reeducation camp and setting up their own government in what had long been the royal capital. The buildings by and large are limited to temples, villas, warehouses, and riverside shacks. The simple outlines—the swooping volutes of the temple eaves; the blocky toy shapes of the colonial structures; the toothpick verticality of the bamboo-walled eating houses—are repeated again and again until the repetition insinuates itself into one’s consciousness.
The city’s 58 temples and the Royal Palace are filled with the requisite riches: thousands of gilded Buddhas (of mixed provenance and in varied states of disrepair), lacquered chariots and boats, and silver bowls for alms. The palace itself is a cruciform building that was constructed in 1904 for a francophone king who fathered 50 children and that is perhaps most famous for containing the gold Khmer Buddha that lends the city its name. As it turns out, the golden icon, tucked in a dim shrine behind painted security bars, is hard to see and in any case may well be a copy or fake. Of greater interest to me were the spartan royal apartments and the National Museumcontaining a collection of oddball artifacts, among them a fragment of moon rock presented, in a moment of oblivious irony, to the Lao people by their American “friends” as a souvenir of Apollo 17.
It is estimated that, from 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of ordnance over Laos during 580,000 bombing missions, the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes for nine years. As aUNESCO World Heritage site, Luang Prabang may be, in the words of one guide, “littered with graceful Lao timber dwellings, colonial colonnades, and grandiose stairways.” It is also littered with rusting bombshells repurposed as markers and planters, and some of the latter can be found along the famous 328-step stair up to the peak of sacred Phou Si hill. The hill rises as a scruffy green hump from the midst of the city, looming above the old temples and facing out on the prospect of serrate mountains and the wide and mighty Mekong, stained the color of tea.
On the dusky evening when I huffed my way up Phou Si, I passed a heavily rouged drag queen selling nuts in paper packets; bomb casings spilling over with frowsy pink bougainvillea; and village women hawking the caged songbirds one always find at Buddhist sites. Not buy all animals from locals because it will encourage them to hunter read a sign I had seen that morning at the Pak Ou caves, two hours upriver from Luang Prabang. High above the water, along steep steps cut into the pocked limestone cliffs, there are caves in which for centuries the faithful have placed Buddha statues of all sorts and sizes. Cramming them onto rock shelves, jumbling them into crevices, the Lao make offerings of the Buddha to the river spirits, in another melding of superstition and faith. At bends on the stairs to the caves, sharp-eyed hawkers sheltered beneath tamarind trees and proffered cages containing sad obligatory good-luck birds.
Wherever you go in Asia, wild-caught birds are sold at shrines to pilgrims who release them to gain merit in the next life. Distressing as it is to doom these animals to their bamboo prisons and to ignore their desperately beating wings, the reality is that buying one does indeed “encourage locals to hunter.” And then soon enough there will be no more birds.
So instead this evening I forced some of the American dollars that are a parallel currency in Laos through a slot in a box with a sign that read Your donation help maintenance shrine. It was nearing sunset when I reached the top of Phou Si. Tourists were sprawled along the stepped walls of the shrine, their eyes and their lenses trained on a bladed disc slicing its way through a vermilion sky. The psychedelic atmospherics owed to the season, I was informed, but whether or not it is true that the lurid sunset was caused by farmers burning stubble in their fields and was not instead the aftermath of slash-and-burn deforestation, I never learned.
As I watched I tried hard to summon up the heady feeling the hour seems to induce in all those eHarmony hopefuls perennially hunting for someone with whom to share sunsets and long walks on the beach. But my unruly thoughts kept straying. My stomach was talking. It reminded me that dinner was approaching and that I had a reservation at L’Eléphant.
That morning I had visited the Sunday food market to test an assertion made by a pedicab driver that “the Lao will eat anything,” not excluding, it must be said, dog. I saw no smoked dog at the market, but there was—among the stalks of bananas and bags of marigold petals and riverweed in slick mounds and pyramids of fiery chiles and neatly arrayed trays of roast beetle and hunks of honeycomb—a single splayed and leathery-looking creature that I later discovered was smoked fox.
Fox appears nowhere on the menu of L’Eléphant, which is run by an expatriate Frenchman and his Lao partner. Because I detest gastro-porn almost as much as the saccharine delirium of online dating, I will say this about my experience: If you are lucky enough to take even one meal at L’Eléphant, you will know that you have accumulated blessings, in this life if not all the preceding ones.
That night I selected from a tasting menu of local specialties, and dined on betel-leaf soup with a confetti of minced beef; steamed pork stuffed in lemongrass stalks; chicken salad with local herbs and roasted rice powder; Mekong perch and Kaffir lime leaves steamed in a banana leaf; riverweed sautéed with sesame seed; quail and forest mushrooms and sticky rice. There was a decent white Burgundy to wash it all down. There was pineapple ice cream and, as a Gallic fillip, tuiles. The bill, with wine, came to about $30. I decided I could happily eat at L’Eléphant every week for the rest of my life.
I took the long way home from L’Eléphant to my hotel, La Résidence Phou Vao, walking the tip of the peninsula where Wat Xieng Thong, the most sublime of the city’s temples and the one most critical to its UNESCOdesignation, sits at the head of a broad flight of steps leading down to the Mekong. Strolling the dimly lighted lanes, with the slow-moving river on my left, I thought about a remark Somsanith made when we met. In Luang Prabang, he said, the often exalted beauty and harmony and scale of the built world is intended not so much to dazzle as to remind us of our own transience. “Appreciate just one moment, just one instant,” he said, invoking the mindfulness that is a core Buddhist precept. “All is ephemeral. This is the Lao concept, the Lao way.”
Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.