Northern Light – a visit to Laos’ Luang Prabang

Gafencu Magazine, September 2007. 

If you’re a fool for the leafy, romantic streets of Hanoi, the faded colonial architecture of Phnom Penh or Hoi An and the religious drama of Chiang Mai’s old wats, you’ll be equally beguiled by this lesser known cultural cache, nestled into Laos’ northern mountains.

Arriving in the late afternoon, Luang Prabang lies gleaming serenely in the dying sunlight, its ochre spires, old wooden shop houses and leafy, somnolent roads cast in a tangerine glow. Therapeutic chants rumble on the breeze from a monastery across the road. It’s the closest thing to a civic pick-me-up you’ll ever experience.

Luang Prabang’s change in status from remote outpost to burgeoning tourist mecca has been relatively swift since a modern airport was finished in 1998, and this culturally rich northwestern town is most easily reached from Bangkok or even Ho Chi Minh City. This convenient option has lately transformed Laos’ former royal and religious capital of around 22,000 into a beacon for discerning travellers and overworked vacationers.

[See Gafencu LP for the original PDF feature]

STA Luang Prabang pix

Laos’ communist government only opened the country to tourism in the early nineties, its hesitancy explained, perhaps, by the fact that during the 1960s, more bombs were dropped on the tiny country by the US than were used in World War II. Laos also spent time

under the French in the early 1900s. Although Vientiane has sprung up and sprawled out as capitals do, the rest of the country is remarkably undeveloped and the north remains particularly elusive. Hill tribes here are less in touch with the outside world, and tigers can still be spotted in its topmost reaches.

Some reports speak of a place of captivating charm and fantastically intact heritage, evidenced by buildings such as The Royal Palace (now a museum), which was built in 1904 for King Sisavang Vong and his family. One of the reasons UNESCO intervened here in 1995 is because of the town planning structure, which dates back to medieval times, something seen in only a handful of places. Tiny neighbourhoods make up the whole, each arranged around a wat and a pond.

There are about 34 wats – one for every occasion. Wat Saen is keeper of the monastery’s racing boats and one of the most striking, the small, quaint Wat Pa Khe, houses an impression of Buddha’s footprint. The heavily gilded Wat Xieng Thong is the most popular complex, and showcases a beautiful mosaic of the tree of life, along with the royals’ old golden funeral carriage.  All are breathtakingly beautiful, but feel real and active. Younger monks carry out cleaning chores, others bend over Sanskrit texts in shady corners. Many will stop what they’re doing to shyly practise their English.

As old as the place may be, it has learned how to shape up for the twenty-first century traveller. After Luang Prabang Airport was installed, intrepid pilgrims were overtaken by the more sophisticated traveller. Its restaurants, hotels and spas have upgraded accordingly (under the beady eye of UNESCO) and today the city is the master of the double act. It may ooze antiquated charm on the surface, but contemporary Asian interiors and fine culinary adventures lie within.

Two of the five star options that greet the Luang Prabang visitor are literally palatial. In 1992 Villa Santi – a former royal mansion – became one of the first high end hotels in Northern Laos, and though small it’s still one of the grandest. Swathes of polished rosewood give the place an old world smell and the stately dining room makes dressing for dinner a distinct possibility. The Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel channels glamour from the more recent past. Laos’ last royal Prime Minister used to live here and it’s a light, breezy affair with a large lush garden and a classic 50s-style pool. Wide verandas and an Angsana spa lure guests out from their rooms, and the place achieves a secluded feel, though it’s just a stone’s throw from the action.

More modern still is La Residence Phou Vou, slightly out of the hub, on a hill. I’d heard about the hotel’s spectacular sunset perch, and, gin fizz in hand at the bar, was not disappointed. The only step up would have been the view from the infinity pool. This spa hotel – under the luxury Oriental Express brand – was not renovated from royalty, but it pretty much serves it, depending on your definition of the word. Both the King of Cambodia and Mick Jagger have stayed here.

Much of Luang Prabang’s charm lies in its scale though, and I have always preferred my history in bite-sized chunks. The short walk between the main street and the riverbanks turns up a variety of converted boutique hotels, all looking to put a little hip into heritage.  My favourite The Apsara does this with industrial concrete floors and the driest martinis in town, while The 3 Nagas – near the banks of the Nam Khan – goes for a more minimalist approach.  Just a quick search turns up a handful of similarly well-situated gems.

All of these boast excellent dining options. Lao cuisine may not have travelled far but it is appreciated for its distinct flavours: spicy, savory and often loaded with raw, fresh herbs and galangal. You’re also rarely far from crisp white table cloths and a decent wine cellar:  the French did not have a hand in this country for nothing. Over the past ten years the international and fusion scene here has matured, and a few independent restaurants in particular offer an exhilarating experience for a fraction of the price you’d pay in Paris, or Hong Kong. L’Elephant Restaurant Francais is at the top of its game. Under French management, the place is all wood panelling, modest chandeliers and lazy ceiling fans, and offers a menu du chasseur, often featuring game from the surrounding forests. Consider wildboar in a Luang Prabang chanterelle sauce or crème brûlée with coconut. Near the night market the Blue Lagoon Cafe & Restaurant comes highly recommended by staff at Phou Vao. “International and Laos cuisine and Swiss management – good cuisine and atmosphere,” notes resident manager Denis Simonne, also extolling the virtues of the traditional Laotian menu at the 3 Nagas.

During my own explorations I dined on steamed fish with coconut at the Coleur Cafe, a small elegant bistro that offers, ‘cocktails et jazz’, and perused a pretty good wine list from the roof terrace of the Samsara Restaurant and Gallery. These small places make it easy to avoid the casual pizza joints that, though atmospheric, offer pretty generic food on the main strip. Down by the Nam Khan riverside things get a bit more local. Fruit shakes vendors set up shop, and I tried alfresco Laotian options like bamboo salad for as little as U$1. Low bottomed fishing boats drift by on one side, ladies on bicycles coast by on the other, bundled up against the sun. Being there at its off peak hottest and least busy was like vacationing on a stunning, high budget movie set peopled by a small cast of convincing extras.

Though tuk tuks and taxis hover semi-discreetly, the old quarter is easily explored on foot. It’s a skinny peninsular, less than a kilometre square, and lies at the confluence of two rivers – the Mekong and the Nam Khan. The main thoroughfare, Xiang Thong is a postcard worthy street lined with shophouse-restaurants and small hotels, and I wandered the length of it in about fifteen minutes. Early mornings see it come alive at six am for takbat; a gliding procession of brightly-clad novice monks receiving alms. Sleepy eyed travelers mingle with residents and are usually rewarded with hypnotic, technicoloured photographs – splashes of bright orange against the dusty pink hues of a morning sky. I chose a respectful, effortless distance for my takbat experience:  reclining on my balcony, a steaming cup of Lao coffee in hand.

The heat of the afternoon sends all but the tuk tuk drivers scurrying for shade on Xiang Thong. A favourite refuge of mine, JoMa, is a Canadian-owned organic bakery that blasts coffee tinged air-conditioning. Its pastries are flaky and delicious, the owners often around for a chat, and upstairs the Mulberries boutiqu showcases a range of free trade, floaty clothes and accessories worth a peruse.

Few can leave Luang Prabang with luggage that weighs the same. As night falls and the stupa on the small, forested Phou Si (“sacred hill”) provides the perfect perch for sunset groupies, part of Xiang Thong gets cordoned off to traffic below. Merchants pour in, a few in traditional garb, and it quickly becomes awash with night market produce; a swimming, shimmering landscape of gleaming silk swatches, bed spreads, lamps and handmade toys. I picked up a pair of patchwork style slippers for as little as a US$1.50, or 15,000 kip.

Although many of the villages in the north are known for their skill at weaving, finding a great piece of silk or cotton in the markets can be a challenge. One on afternoon ramble I came across a large three storey shophouse with an unpronounceable name, filled with beautiful textiles at surprisingly steep prices.  One of the co-founders is a British photographer, Joanna Smith, who had set up Ockpoptok with a Lao weaver friend to help provide a sustainable link between the more remote, impoverished villages, and tourist demand. The shop works with the Lao women’s union and development agencies to help training villagers in product design. “They may be expensive,” she remarked as I balked at the US$100 price tag of a small aquamarine wall hanging, “but they’re nothing like the quality or workmanship of the stuff in the night markets.” Regular exhibitions at Ockpoptok take visitors into the technicalities and cultural significance of Laotian weaving, making use of Smith’s photography skills.

Travellers with extra time tend to head for the hills, and Xiang Thong supports a number of adventure travel companies. I took a day trip with Tiger Trails, which specialises in small, eco-adventure excursions through hill tribe villages and beyond. It was one of the firm’s easier options – a relaxed ramble through dry bristling hillsides, visits to a few obliging Kamu villages with their stilted houses and piglet armies, and a kayak trip down the Mekong. The day was neither super taxing or incredibly thrilling, but it was pleasant, and the villagers seemed happy to have our small group around. The company is a co-operative effort with the hill tribes, Markus Peschke, its German owner had explained, and the warmth in the smiles we were met with led me to believe him.

Most Tiger Trail excursions involve a meal or a few nights stay at its luxury eco lodge, the Lao Spirit Resort, which sits across the river from the elephant camp, and I spent a memorable meal in the open air restaurant, being eyed by the establishment’s tame owl and listening to enthusiastic pop song renditions by the Mahouts, rising above the rush of the water.

Those that look can find more to Luang Prabang than its old wat-heavy hub, but most visitors choose to miss the typical urban sprawl of its suburbs, with their basic business hotels, utilitarian shop fronts and motorbike traffic. Many Laotians feel certain impatience at the pristine preservation of the downtown area, and the building codes that thwart their thirst for progress. They are just coming across the twenty first century and it must be infuriating to be told that the past is much more in fashion. Still, as someone from a city that has chosen commercialism over its cultural assets at every turn, I find myself glancing around Luang Prabang, and whispering a quick word of thanks to UNESCO.