Falling in love with Luang Prabang

This item appears on page 32 of the September 2012 issue.
Wat Xieng Thong, a Buddhist temple dating back to 1560.

by Michael Kasum; Gulfport, FL

The Immigration official handed our passports back to my wife, Pat, and me with the visas for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, issued on arrival, pasted inside.

As we passed through the arrivals hall at Luang Prabang International Airport, I noted that the old hammer-and-sickle laurel on the pink-and-blue visa had been replaced by an image of Pha That Luang, or the Grand Stupa, a pagoda that represents the Buddhist cultural traditions of the nation. After 20 years of civil war and another 15 of isolation, Laos has welcomed the return of Buddhism to a central position in Lao culture.

Passing through Customs was easier than exiting Walmart with a shopping cart full of groceries. There were no soldiers with automatic weapons lurking anywhere in sight. Laos has indeed come a long way from the days of the Bamboo Curtain, a time when it was cut off from the rest of the world — especially from travelers from the West.

A troubled past

Our guide met us with a nop, or wai, the deferential greeting in which you press your palms together in a prayerful way, instead of the egalitarian handshake. At our hotel, the Maison Souvannaphoum, we again experienced this traditional greeting. It delighted me to see that the people of this fascinating country felt comfortable returning to their old customs, which had been discouraged after the 1975 revolution.

For years, Laos had been torn between North Vietnam, the USSR, China and America in what the Lao politely refer to as the Secret War, secret because the Geneva Accord prohibited all foreigners from stationing military troops in Laos. While the North Vietnamese army supported the Pathet Lao (the Communist insurgency) in the northern mountains, the Americans provided humanitarian aid, weapons and advisors to the Hmong tribesmen who were loyal to the royalist government of Laos.

Long-tail boat on the Mekong River as seen from Pak Ou Cave.

With the war in South Vietnam escalating from 1964 through 1973, Laos, on the periphery, became the most bombed nation in the world, per capita, in all history when Americans, flying 580,344 missions, dropped more than two million tons of ordnance — that’s two-thirds of a ton for every man, woman and child in the country — in the Lao mountains in an effort to slow the North Vietnamese advance in northeastern Laos and choke off supplies coming down to South Vietnam through Laos on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Up to 30% of the bombs dropped on Laos failed to detonate. Each year, hundreds of people, many of them children, are killed and maimed by contact with unexploded munitions. In 1994, a British organization, Mines Advisory Group, began the work of clearing this danger in the countryside. At the present rate of clearance, it is estimated that it could take 100 years to make the country safe.

COPE (Vientiane; phone/fax +856 21 218 427), an organization that aids victims of unexploded munitions tragedies, specializes in providing therapy and high-tech, low-cost artificial limbs for Laotians. A donation of $75 buys an artificial leg; $150 pays for a prosthetic arm.

Luang Prabang

Today, Luang Prabang, the old royal capital, stands as a charming contrast to that dark period in Laos’ history. Tucked into a peninsula at the confluence of the Nam Kahn and Mekong rivers, this town of about 103,000 residents has one main street, where the standard pace is that of a slow-motion home movie. A few cars and trucks mosey along the road. An occasional motorcycle or tuk-tuk trundles by in the shade provided by big, old trees.

The languor of the place, a feature of its people and climate, affected Pat and me within moments of our arrival. We walked slower, talked lazily, left sentences half finished. This was, indeed, a place in which to unwind.

Everywhere we looked, we saw Buddhas of all shapes and sizes. Although I didn’t try to take a census, it seemed there were 10 statues for every person I saw.

UNESCO gave Luang Prabang World Heritage status to protect its gold and emerald temples. Wat Visoun, built in 1513, is the city’s oldest continuously operating temple, and the magnificent Wat Xien Thong, with its roofs sweeping low to the ground, is a nice example of classical Luang Prabang temple architecture. Other sites include Wat Mai and the shrine of Wat Aham.

We passed crumbling French villas (under restoration) dating back to the colonial period, when, through gunboat diplomacy, France had wrested from Siam control of the territory that would become Laos. Within hours, we had lost our hearts to this timeless city, which has the feel of a small town and the pace of a village.

Mount Phou Si and its sacred golden stupa, reached after a climb of more than 300 steps, towers above the city. It offers a glorious sunset view of the peninsula and the Mekong River to those willing to brave the ascent.

From this windswept perch, visitors can watch lanterns wink on as the roads are cleared of motorized traffic, making way for the night street market.

In the market, Hmong women from the mountains of northeastern Laos offer silver ornaments, embroidered slippers and carvings for sale.

Women from the nearby village of Ban Phanom displayed the handwoven fabrics for which they are famous. Colored lanterns in a tented stall illuminated narrow bottles of rice wine from the village of Ban Xang Hai. Not unlike sake but much more raw, it beckoned the unwary.

We wandered among the stalls, bargaining using hand gestures, doing the math on our fingers and joining in friendly laughter. Even haggling was easygoing. Everyone seemed cheerful, carefree.

It was hard to believe we were in a country with a one-party system, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), capable of brutal repression of dissent. Our guide said, “As long as the tourists keep coming, we will be all right.”

When asked his age, our guide smiled and answered, “Older than I look,” his only evasive reply to any of our questions. He was young enough to have been born after the 1975 revolution, but he was old enough to remember the deep poverty of his country during its period of isolation, when his father saved him from a lifetime of working in the rice paddies by taking him, at the age of eight, to Luang Prabang.

The monks enrolled him as a novice in a Buddhist monastery, where he was educated in English, math, Lao literature, Buddhism, geography, chemistry and biology. The monasteries have been a consistent alternate source of education for young Lao men, from the period of French colonization to that of the LPRP.

As our guide, he dressed with the dignity befitting his profession, wearing a pristine white shirt with French cuffs and black slacks. An official guide’s license in a clear plastic holder hung from a slender ribbon around his neck.

The food

Our guide introduced us to the cuisine of Luang Prabang by taking us to the Tamnak Lao Restaurant (Sakkarine Rd.), where a new generation is being trained in the art of preparing and serving food.

Our lunch consisted of Mekong River shrimp, which tasted a lot like Louisiana crawfish, in a spicy sauce; assorted vegetables prepared tempura style; a crispy salad concoction; a beef (or was it water buffalo) stew, and river fish steamed in lotus leaves and seasoned to our taste with local condiments — chilies, curries and lime. Our banquet ended with a quartet of fresh fruit: papaya, passion fruit, banana and pineapple.

Novice monks taking a break from repairing a temple roof.

At the Maison Souvannaphoum, breakfasts offered a choice of Western or local food. One morning I tried a Lao breakfast of khao poon, a soup with noodles and fish seasoned with curry, chilies, scallions and lime juice.

On some mornings I dined on eggs, bacon, garlic potatoes and croissants with jam. When I requested hot sauce for my eggs, our attendant presented a small bottle of Tabasco, much to my delight. She stood by while I doused my hen fruit with the lovely red elixir, then she took it back to the kitchen for safekeeping.

We ate lavishly at every meal, enjoying the local delicacies, with almost nothing imported except the solo bottle of liquid fire from Avery Island, Louisiana. We had traveled to Luang Prabang hoping for exactly that kind of gustatory experience.

The national museum

Luang Prabang’s old Royal Palace, built by the French in 1904 for King Sisavangvong on the foundations of a much older palace, is now a national museum housing the relics of a bygone era.

Near the main entrance, the reception area for the Chief Secretary displays gifts to the king and queen from heads of state. We saw a silver penholder from President John F. Kennedy and a plaque from President Richard Nixon stating that the Lao royal flag had been carried to the moon and back by American astronauts.

There were also gifts from the USSR and China, which supported the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao against the Royal Lao Government. They serve as reminders of the great powers that plunged Laos into a conflict that ripped their nation apart.

Other rooms displayed the thrones of the king and queen; the king’s howdah, the platform used for riding elephants; ancient weapons of war; royal furnishings; displays of Lao musical instruments, and the Phra Bang, a sacred golden Buddha.

Visitors to the museum are kindly requested not to wear shorts, T-shirts or sundresses and to leave shoes, bags and cameras outside with attendants.

Located across the road from Mt. Phou Si in the heart of the city, the national museum is a blend of French and Lao architectural styles.

Nearby, a new building, the Haw Phra Bang, has risen. Constructed entirely in the Lao style, its steep roofs drop gracefully in a long curve. It will house the sacred Phra Bang standing Buddha when completed.

A drum tower in Luang Prabang.

This 83-centimeter-tall bronze statue, covered with gold, arrived in Lan Xang, the 14th-century kingdom that preceded present-day Laos, from Angkor, Cambodia. It was a gift from a Khmer king to provide Theravada Buddhist legitimacy to the rule of his son-in-law, Fa Ngum. Luang Prabang, the royal capital, was named after it.

Religion in Laos

Among the temples we visited, Wat Xieng Thong was the most magnificent. Built in 1560 at the northern end of Luang Prabang’s peninsula, it was under royal patronage until 1975.

The sim, or ceremonial hall, with its tall gilded crests is a classic example of Luang Prabang temple architecture, its red-tile roofs sweeping almost to the ground. The back exterior wall is covered in a mosaic of the tree of life on a rose-colored background, with mosaics of peacocks on each side and a leopard sitting at its base.

As I passed through the temple’s golden portal, I stood in awe before a huge golden, seated Buddha surrounded by smaller statues. In the courtyard of another temple, a gilded Buddha sat peacefully meditating as a 7-headed snake with gnashing teeth rose behind him.

Buddhism has, through the centuries, provided a universal doctrine of thought that has had the power to draw disparate people together into a common group. Many Lao people have incorporated animism — the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena and the universe, itself, each possess a soul — into their religious beliefs. It is common practice to ask permission of a tree before cutting it or to seek the consent of the crops before harvesting.

One morning, Pat and I rose before dawn and meandered along Sisavangvong Road, the rising mist from the river glowing in the first rays of the sun as we neared the old Royal Palace. There, figures already waited, kneeling at the red-brick curbs with their gifts of food.

A white-haired old woman in a violet floral print sat on a tiny stool cradling a pot of sticky rice in her lap. Next to her on another stool sat a gray-haired man in brown holding a stalk of small bananas. Near a banyan tree beside the road, a woman stood with a clear plastic bag of baguettes slung over her shoulder. I glanced at my watch — almost 6:00.

Soon, saffron-robed monks with heads shaved to a bluish-black sheen appeared as if from the mist, itself, and processed in single file down the road. Barefoot, each carried a tiny bowl in which he would receive the gifts of these poor people, his food for the day, in exchange for better karma — a Buddhist tradition that is a constant in a land that has been torn by ancient feudings, modern wars and revolution.

When they return to their cells, the monks often find small bills of Lao kip, Thai baht, Vietnamese dong, Chinese yuan, US dollars and even the occasional euro in their bowls, gifts made by travelers who had joined the pilgrims to pay homage to the unifying force of Theravada Buddhism.

Pak Ou Caves

Later that morning, umbrellas in hand, we made our way through a monsoon downpour down the left bank of the Mekong River. Walking across planks to keep our feet dry, we boarded a long-tail boat for a 2-hour trip upriver. These narrow-beamed wooden craft, measuring a third of the length of a football field, are designed to ride high in the water to minimize their drag in the strong current. The view of the impenetrable jungle revealed more shades of green than I knew existed.

Some of the retired statues of Buddha brought to Pak Ou Cave over the centuries.

The deluge had slowed to a drip by the time we docked below Pak Ou Caves. After climbing the stairway carved into the cliff, we entered the cave a hundred feet above the river.

When my eyes got accustomed to the half light, I saw hundreds of Buddhas in all shapes and sizes surrounding me. Some had legs missing, others were missing arms and yet others had chipped noses or gilt worn thin. Every ledge of the cave was crowded with standing, reclining and seated figures, some with shoulders draped in saffron fabric, others with necks garlanded with wreaths.

Our guide explained that the cave was a resting place for Buddhas retired for whatever reason, taken there over the centuries by monks and laypeople. I wandered among the statues for an hour marveling at the gentle people who had such respect for their treasured icons that they carried them to a home inside a mountain instead of tossing them in the trash.

Our tour was arranged by Northern Travel & Tours Co., Ltd. (Luang Prabang, Laos; phone +856 71 260 567, fax 856 71 260 568).

The cost of our 3-day, 2-night July ’11 tour was $310 per person, including all breakfasts, one lunch, a driver and English-speaking guide, a private boat trip up the Mekong and all site entrance fees.

We fell in love with Luang Prabang. Perhaps you will too.