With no idyllic beaches or secluded islands, no major cities and very little nightlife, the landlocked South East Asian state of Laos faces tough competition for the tourist dollar.
Having opened up to tourism only as recently as 1989 – and being labelled as the most heavily bombed country on earth – cannot help. But that isolation may be working in its favour as the sleepy little town of Luang Prabang in north-central Laos, offers a peace and tranquillity, and an ambience and authenticity, that is increasingly hard to find elsewhere in Asia.
Buddhist monks and temples, coffee and baguettes, calmness and serenity, are the relaxing order of the day here.
Although it wasn’t always that way. According to one source, in order to stop the spread of communism in Asia, from 1964 to 1973, the US dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions – equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. It’s a wonder that there is anything of the country left to visit.
But of course there is – and it is unassumingly delightful. Our one and only destination when we visited in February 2006 for a five-day trip was Luang Prabang, which, with a population of just 55,000, is Laos’ second biggest city. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 it is a well preserved blend of Laotian and French architectural and cultural styles.
And The Grand Luang Prabang Hotel, located a couple of kilometres southwest of the town centre, is a perfect example of this. Situated on the 59,000 square metre estate of a former palace, the design combines French two-storey colonial architecture with Laotian interior decoration. The gardens slope down to the mighty Mekong River, and the room’s generous balconies provide tranquil views of the river and the mountains beyond. Perfect for an afternoon with a book or an evening’s gin and tonic.
But where the hell is everybody? Either all the other guests were extremely private people, knew something we didn’t, or there genuinely was no on else there. We encountered barely another soul. After one or two nights another couple checked in and were duly put in the room next to us. Countless other rooms to choose from and they put them right next door. We woke one morning to a dulcet Australian tone querying where his f*****g boxers were. So that was nice.
Bicycles provide an optimum way of getting around Luang Prabang – there isn’t very far to go after all. The short ride into town is slow and leisurely, passing a local market selling locally produced fruit and veg, a school from which curious children emerge to offer a shy hello, and a modest wat or two. The town centre sits on the confluence of the Mekong and the Khan rivers and is well known for its numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries. Every morning, monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms, from locals and tourists alike. Shame on us…we couldn’t be bothered getting up that early, and missed it.
There are dozens of wats dotted about here and there, perhaps the most significant being the 16th century Wat Xieng Thong, with its sweeping tiered roofs reaching almost to the ground and its intricate interior gold stencil work. The grounds contain a number of other stupas and chapel halls…and a garage. Well I guess you have to keep your ceremonial carriage somewhere.
Mount Phou Si, a modest 150-metre high hill, has an equally modest shrine on it, but it does afford a panoramic view of the town and the rivers.
What was once the Royal Palace is now the Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum. The exhibits include various religious objects, weapons, statues, and paintings… and another garage, this one containing the last king’s collection of cars. When the communists came to power in 1975, they took over the palace and sent the royal family to a “re-education” camp, where I guess they were schooled about the evils of capitalist greed, selfishness and vanity, and collecting foreign vehicles. But they kept them all anyway.
With five days to spend in the area there was no need to rush anything. One activity a day was sufficient. The rest of the day was given over to hanging out in coffee shops, drinking locally-produced espresso and eating baguettes as the saffron-robed monks strolled by, their parasols protecting them from the sun’s glare. Or sitting in a cafes overlooking the rather shabby riverbanks with a thirst-quenching Beerlao in hand.
Fine dining has reached Luang Prabang and we did give it a try. But we found ourselves spending most evenings hanging out in the night market enjoying all-you-can-eat meals for USD1 each; fresh spring rolls, delicious larb, papaya salad, sticky rice and fermented sausages.
Come 8pm and the town is quiet – perhaps not surprising if everyone is up at dawn to feed the monks. In Laos’ second biggest city you can walk down the middle of the main street in the early evening unmolested by anything, least of all traffic.
The Pak Ou Caves make for a pleasant day trip away from the town. Situated twenty-five kilometres upriver from Luang Prabang, a car and driver took us to the nearest village before we boarded a boat to cross the river from the nearest village. It is possible to take a boat all the way but two hours there and two hours back on a thudding longtail held limited appeal. One of the most respected holy sites in Laos, the caves are a shrine to the river spirit and Lord Buddha, and are set in a dramatic limestone cliff at the point where the Mekong joins the Nam Ou River. And they are jam-packed with around 4,000 figures of the Buddha. There are two caves to visit and while some light filters into the first one, the second requires a torch to find any of the thousands of hidden icons. It’s an eerie and ghostly experience, poking around in the dark, waiting for the weak torchlight to illuminate the sometimes tiny figures.
Twenty nine kilometres south of Luang Prabang are the Kuang Si Waterfalls, set in the midst of the Laos jungle, set in the midst of the Laos jungle. The bright turquoise river pours out of the jungle down a number of falls, then tumbles gently over a number of small limestone ledges creating calm and cooling swimming pools. As the water flows over the ledges between the rocks and the trees with shards of sunlight streaking through the canopy it feels like swimming through a flooded world.
Which is probably about as exciting as Luang Prabang gets. It really is a world apart from, well, everywhere. It’s the urban equivalent of a lovable sloth. Time slows down. Life slows down. You slow down. The rest of the world doesn’t really matter. Everything becomes so somnambulant you can literally sleepwalk through the days.
For an urban environment, it does not get much more restful and relaxing than this.