I’ve seen this little jewel of the orient described as an over-the-top Disneyworld drunk on its own preciousness. But only a terminal cynic could sustain that view. True, there is a self-consciousness to it, being a UNESCO World Heritage site and all, and the landscape beyond this pocket of prosperity is another story. But there are real people here living real lives and many of them are not only the benefactors, but also caretakers of an ambience that is surely unique and worth preserving.
Nestled at the confluence of the Nam Khan and the Mekong rivers, this post-colonial enclave, a small part of a larger city, features appealing architecture, narrow residential walking lanes planted with flowers and tropical vegetation, low population density, slow-paced and light traffic, no traffic lights or stop signs (nor anywhere else in the city), a cultivated cafe culture for those privileged to be able to visit. It seems far less westernized than most Asian cities, certainly less “developed” and so far at least, seems far from exhibiting the intrusive commercial intensity of modern global culture. Not a single multi-national or franchise in sight!
There is certainly a large segment of the population completely catering to and dependent on the tourist flow and some are making a pretty good living at it. For others, the repeated construction and deconstruction of the night bazaar, for example, the constant hustle and marginal existence of small businesses, transport or street stalls must surely be stressful, but otherwise no different from every other city. And here, at least, the tourists have the means to support it all.
And the tourists do come. If my ear is any judge, a large percentage are western European, mainly French, German, Nordic and Italian, along with generous complements of Brits and Aussies. Americans, Eastern Europeans, Chinese and others are less numerous. It’s seems largely a younger backpacking crowd, considering that Luang Prabang is not a business center, a metropolis known for the arts, night life or much of anything else–except the relaxing subtlety of riverside lifestyle.
The ethnic variety and color and Buddhist culture is also a draw, including the history of an exalted monarchy unable to cope with political turmoil and forced into communist re-education camps by the Pathet Lao when they abolished the monarchy in 1975. Several members of the royal family died in those camps, yet the former Soviet flag is flown prominently throughout the city along with the Laotian flag.
The former Royal residence, now a national museum (strictly no photos) in Luang Prabang includes an entire room painted and inlaid with semi-precious stones depicting scenes of Laotian history. Gifts offered by many nations to the royal family are also displayed including inlaid wood furniture and intricate ivory carvings from China, stunning silver pieces from Burma, Thailand and Vietnam. European nations sent equally finely crafted objects. President Nixon sent a piece of the moon.
But I digress.
Ambling down the main commercial street is sheer delight, that is if you do it early in the day before the punishing humidity (three showers per day) rises with the heat. This is not the coolest time of year. But moving from one beautiful building to another, white tablecloth restaurants and shops featuring art, textiles, all hardwood construction, cafes sporting European style pastries, and gazing down the brick-laden alleyways is all quite sublime.
The hotels and guesthouses along the river are the same, hardwood shuttered windows and french doors, open seating and festive lighting overlooking the river.
There are a few galleries selling off the Lao cultural treasure, religious objects sawed from temple sites, objects recovered from destroyed temples many years ago. But otherwise, it’s as though one is walking through a set for a movie that just keeps playing day after day.
There is also less english spoken here than Thailand. People are more modest in dress. Prices are on average higher than Thailand and less negotiable. Or, I don’t know, maybe Laos are just better negotiators.
There are a number of very attractive temples in the old town, their grounds all swept perfectly clean. The pre-dawn ritual of giving alms to the monks is exercised daily. Announced by drums, the monks file by seated residents and tourists offering sticky rice, wafers, fruit and other foods. This is not mere ritual. This is also industry. The livelihoods of numerous women depend on tourists buying the items they prepare to be given to the monks.
Today, a motorbike trip to the Kuangxi waterfalls, a swim, picnic, a little sightseeing along the way–all while I try to update the software on my new phone on a network that is far less reliable than anything I enjoyed in Thailand. And then, maybe a sunset at the river, sipping an enchanting little 90-proof concoction made from rice called Lao-Lao.