Of course, the dire warnings were issued. When an airport was finally opened, when hotel rooms were increased, when new roads reached it through the rugged, forested, low-lying mountains, when Mekong River passenger craft increased in frequency, when visas were no longer rationed or withheld, then South-East Asia’s Shangri-La, the dreamy outdoor-museum-cum-tropical-garden, would lose its intimacy, its shimmering, ethereal tone, its ancient almost fabled allure as a largely inaccessible and perhaps even forbidden destination.
Like reports of Mark Twain’s death, the warnings were greatly exaggerated. The old royal capital, Luang Prabang (great holy image) – the Angkor Wat, Bagan or Xian of Laos, a landlocked nation just a tad bigger than Great Britain in the heart of the toned and textured Indochina Peninsula – is far too set in its ways to be disrupted unduly by a greater flow of curious onlookers.
Ways that were set as far back as 1353, when the settlement in the shape of a large bird’s head and beak on a spit peninsula at the convergence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers that can be traced in recorded history to 698 (when, as Muang Sua, it was conquered by Thai prince Khun Lo) assumed importance as both a spiritual, artistic and political hub of the first Lao Kingdom, the “Land of a Million Elephants”, and a trading conduit between China and the smaller empires below it. None of which went to its head for a moment. Tranquil, harmonious, languid, sedate and even indolent are words that have been enlisted to describe the pace of the place.
The French instinctively understood that when they arrived as colonisers at the end of the 19th century, stumbling upon an isolated, untouched jewel in the jungle, a preserved-in-aspic cultural cascade of temples, monasteries, palaces and golden-spired stupas that had been exposed to little of the non-Asian world. Though they were given to grand boulevards, public buildings and ceremonial quasi-Parisian arches in Vietnam and in the eventual Lao capital, Vientiane, they were prepared to largely leave it be, as “the land of the lotus eaters”.
In fact, the country itself – once the French grasped that the mountainous terrain and unreliable Mekong ruled out much in the way of plantations, mining, commercial trade and exports beyond opium – was thought to be not worth a great deal of bother and only a few hundred French folk were left on the ground to oversee the Vietnamese civil servants who effectively ran the show.
But while the French hand laid light upon Laos, as the new century dawned they did put in place a modest infrastructure that gives the town a fair portion of its present distinct charm. The colonial buildings, particularly the cool wooden houses, reflected what they’d learned in Vietnam and Cambodia about adapted practicality. A hybrid French-Lao architecture took form and found its most striking manifestation in a Royal Palace for King Sisavang Vong, which is now the National Museum and an essential starting point for a leisurely stroll about what has been listed in its entirety, alongside the likes of the Taj Mahal, Petra, Cappadocia, Stonehenge and Ha Long Bay, as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
Erected to house a long line of Lao monarchs, that king’s son, Savang Vatthana, would be the last head of a 600-year dynasty to enjoy its splendours – French mirrors and murals, Czech chandeliers, Lao lacquered Burmese teak furnishings and those quaint little keepsakes that pass between visiting leaders or their emissaries in the exalted realms of royal privilege and power. In his time, the tragic king and his striking Queen Khamphoui, who gazes down at you with a wistful regality from a wall portrait, were favoured with gifts from Mao, LBJ, Brezhnev and a brace of regional leaders, all on display. But it’s mostly a motley lot of kitsch and bric-a-brac – medals, teacups, firearms, a boomerang, a chunk of moon rock from the Apollo 11 mission and a cheap scale model of the lunar vehicle. There is a white Edsel car still parked in the royal garage.
Though it was officially acknowledged to the outside world in 1989, the death of
Savang has never been formally declared to the Laotian people who are apparently still told, with a certain Orwellian flourish, that he is in the North “for seminars”. Like the Romanovs, the king and his kin met their fate at the hands of aggrieved Bolsheviks; for when the Pathet Lao forces came out of the jungle around the Plain of Jars to claim their country in August 1975 much on their mind was the fact that he had given royal sanction to an American covert counter-insurgency program and a bombing campaign (aimed at the Ho Chi Minh Trail and their own strongholds) that saw more tonnage dropped on Laos than on Germany over the entire span of WWII.
Like an Asian Poland, the “peaceful kingdom” of Laos has a history of tragedy on a near continual basis. Described as a “pawn in the hands of intrusive neighbors and colonising powers”, it has been a mountainous battlefield upon which Thai and Vietnamese armies played out territorial disputes, the Burmese ruled for half a century, the Mongol hordes took as a province for about a century, and an American Goliath went to war with a Vietcong David. Even when the Japanese, facing defeat in 1945, proclaimed it independent on the way out the door, the French overlords paid no attention.
Had it not been for its strategic positioning, the laconic Luang Prabang might have been able to remain aloof from the ravages of rivalry; its political prominence lasting just 12 years until 1545 when the capital was switched to Vientiane. But while it has known some destruction, it did, like Japan’s Kyoto, sidestep consuming catastrophe by virtue of its treasures. And its importance as a centre of Buddhist study and practice, which manifests itself most plainly in the morning promenade of hundreds of saffron-robed monks who file barefoot through the streets in the pale light with their alms bowls, accepting food from residents and visitors alike. It is a ritualised Theravadan procedure with women, who are not permitted to stand higher than the monks (some of whom are but boys), kneeling respectfully on bamboo mats, clad in shawls.
After the monks and novices – there are some 700 of them – return to their monasteries, the well-awakened visitors, themselves clad in the aura of this rarified realm, set out to do the rounds – walking, cycling or chauffeured – of architectural highlights. When UNESCO welcomed the town into its elite fold at the end of 1995, it identified 33 temples and more than a hundred Lao-French buildings for restoration and preservation. Most are arrayed before you as you ascend Mount Phou Si, the 150-metre-high wooded rock outcrop, festooned with shrines, in the heart of town. From the Wat Chom Si temple atop it, the colour changes of dusk, across the river and the town, sear into the consciousness. On a nearby ridge, an old revolving Russian machinegun speaks again of the trials the town has known.
Though there were once – before marauding Chinese and Thai tribes razed them – twice as many as there are now, temples survived in Luang Prabang because, before the French came along, they were the only constructions permitted to be of brick. The magnificent structures of Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai and Wat Visoun, originally built in 1513, are replete with sculptures, bas-reliefs, paintings, ornately-carved doors, pillars, low sweeping roofs and Buddhas of myriad shape and size, with monks moving silently about them. Held close to the Lao heart is Wat Khili, the only surviving temple in the country built in the Xieng Khuang style – all else in that area having been obliterated by Nixon’s secret bombing sorties.
Just as with a cathedral tour of Europe, there is an undeniable fatigue factor that can set in as one wat-wanders the compact town, with riches tumbling upon riches. Most visitors then take to the Mekong, journeying west 30 kilometres or so on long passenger boats to the two Pak Ou Caves etched into a towering limestone cliff above the current and whirlpool-prone river. Within, are seemingly haphazard terraces of Buddhas – thousands of wooden and gilded images. With a torch you’ll be able to locate the small graveyard of broken Buddhas. During the Vietnam War (or the American War as the Vietnamese and their neighbours prefer to call it) Pak Ou was targeted by professional art thieves, in the same manner as Sulawesi’s Torajaland and Cambodia’s Angkor, with many prized pieces ending up in private collections in the U.S. and Europe.
On the outward journey, there is an obligatory stop at the river village of Xang Hai where tasty moonshine whisky distilled from fermented rice is coaxed through miles of tubing out of oil drums brewing over charcoal fires. The potent lao lao, said to be aged in a matter of minutes, is very much an acquired taste. Purchasers can watch it brewed and bottled, often with snakes and scorpions for the enhancement of one’s virility.
To escape antiquities altogether, you can arrange an hour-long drive through the mountains, rice fields and “ethnic minority villages” to the Kwang Si Falls where clean cold water plunges at considerable velocity over limestone formations into surging pools and the swimming experience ranges from tame to tempestuous. Midway from the entrance to the falls is a large enclosure housing Phet the tiger and three Asiatic black bears rescued from poachers’ clutches. Also within reach are blacksmith and textile villages and, by the Nam Khan River, the grave of explorer Henri Mahout, the first foreigner to come upon Angkor Wat in its jungle setting, he having died of malaria at just 35 while living in Luang Prabang.
Further afield is the lightly-visited Plain of Jars, about 130 kilometres to the south-east, where a hundred or so of what was once thousands of large stone jars pointing to the sky and weighing up to six tons are found in two groupings, on a small hill and across a shallow valley. Perhaps wine fermentation jars, perhaps tombs, perhaps water vessels in a region of winter aridity, they pose the same puzzles as Easter Island’s heads. Given that around a quarter of the two million American bombs dropped on Laos fell here, it is some sort of a miracle that eyes are able to alight upon as much as they do.
The ease, casuality, enveloping ambience and plentiful eateries, guesthouses and, now, quality hotels has given Luang Prabang a growing reputation as a destination that is no friend to the tightly-planned itinerary. There are those who come for days and stay for weeks, oft uttering that word Shangri-La.
Thanks to UNESCO, which has imbued a pride in culture and tradition, exploitation and rampant development is curbed. There are no garish advertising billboards, dangling cables and power lines, franchised shops, eyesore office buildings or the Soviet-style concrete blocks that blight Cuba. The planning is sympathetic to what the United Nations body hailed as the enticing “blending of two distinct cultural traditions”. Integral to maintaining character has been a push to resist the building of new hotels in the fully-protected zone in favour of converting existing colonial mansions and great houses.
Into the picture in 1992 came the Santi family – Lao’s Princess Kampha and husband Sani Inthaong – who transformed an old French mansion into Villa Santi, initially with just 11 rooms. With a new Lao Wing, antiques and artefacts, lush gardens (accommodating classical dance performances), restaurants, a large pool and a well-integrated spa, it is a sumptuous retreat.
Popularity and recognition may be growing but Laos will always be sufficiently remote and removed from the tourism mainstream for it to be whispered about by the world’s wayfarers. The country’s entire population is about a million and a half less than that of Ho Chi Minh City alone. A few motorbikes and cars make their way along Luang Prabang’s few streets, tourists’ gasps are sometimes caught on the wind, children squeal at play and the night markets are lively with good-natured bargaining but nothing much disturbs a nonchalance as deeply rooted as the thick stands of trees that encase it all.
Text and images copyright Glenn A. Baker 2014.