An elderly woman in a traditional Lao skirt sits skilfully winding tiny pale pastel birdcages out of strips of coloured bamboo. On a tray in front of her are the finished products, jittering with the motion of tiny brown and white bodied birds her son has spent the day capturing. I pause for a rest at her stall panting from the climb to the peak. Up here a soft cool breeze cuts the cloying humidity, but that’s not why I’ve come.
It’s the view that drives so many to the top of Mount Phu Si every day, in particular the sunset. From here the white walled and red roofed houses and temples of Luang Prabang’s old city thrust out from among the lush jungle-like forest. Alongside the city the wide expanse of the muddy Mekong River drifts slowly towards the East Sea peppered with ferryboats, carrying locals and tourists across the river to the quiet traditional villages on the other side.
Hemming the city in on all sides is an endless pattern of steep mountains and narrow valleys that creates the sensation of an isolated and forgotten world. The swollen red sun is just now slipping gradually behind the mist and mountains. Obscured by the gold temple which crowns the peak of Phu Si is the meeting of the Mekong and its tributary, Nam Khan, a small river that weaves through the city centre.
On the road directly below the hill, the nightly market is being assembled as dusk rapidly comes on. The street, Sakkarin Road, is closed to traffic and a neat line of coloured tarpaulins has been stretched over metal frames to shelter Lao handicrafts, hand-woven silks, paintings, carvings, and jewellery.
Bulbs strung from the temporarily assembled frames illuminate the stores. One boy is polishing pressed metal kerosene lanterns. Another woman sits in front of an ancient wooden loom, expertly picking the coloured threads and then flying her shuttle through to create stunning silk sins, the traditional long Lao skirt. Each one takes a week to make by hand.
Resisiting Vang Vieng
Luang Prabang is in central Laos, one of South-East Asia’s least developed nations. Laos has long been the poor cousin to the rest of its ASEAN neighbours, and similarly attracts far lower numbers of tourists. Places like Luang Prabang, however, are beginning to put this mountainous and obscure nation on the map.
The city has played host to a score of mostly forgotten regimes and rulers. From the glory days of Laos’ 17th century precursor, the Kingdom of Lan Sang, to French colonialists, marauding Chinese bandit armies, and Siamese and Burmese invasions.
Yet little seems to have changed since the French era, whose elegant pale two-storey shuttered buildings still line the old city. It is honour of the well-preserved nature of the capital's architecture that the city has earned the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The modern capital, Vientiane, is some ten hours by bumpy road south or a mere hour by plane. Luang Prabang’s World Heritage status, unique beauty and culture regularly attract a moderate amount of tourists. Even the road in is staggeringly beautiful, winding its way over jagged forest peaks where tiny villages hang precariously off of narrow passes.
Halfway between Vientiane and Luang Prabang lies a rapidly growing town that is in every way the antithesis of this seemingly time-locked city. Vang Vieng, a sort of water park free-for-all playground for pleasure seeking backpackers, is everything this city is carefully trying to avoid. Signs all over town request foreigners respect Lao sensibilities by dressing modestly and a midnight bar curfew is enforced.
Morning Monks and Monarchy Missing
Come morning and the night market has gone, replaced by the occasional motorbikes or tuk tuks. Just a block up the road from the market locals are gathering on the side of the road. They arrive rapidly in packed tuk tuks carrying bamboo baskets overflowing with bananas and rice and roll out woven mats on the pavement.
All around the city gongs are beginning to chime, a signal for the monks to wake. The sounds of the gongs, and the ubiquitous crowing roosters, drift down the streets and in the dim bluish light of dawn the locals kneel, holding their offerings skyward.
The gongs stop, all sit motionless. Bright orange robed columns of monks pad down the streets. They pause by each proffered offering, gathering a small handful, which will be blessed at their temples, before making up the monks’ morning meal. This ancient Buddhist ritual is still held in most Laotian communities, through it the participants gain merit for their next life.
There’s something magic in this scene: in the reverential silence that permeates the ceremony, the fervent and earnest faces of the devotees, and the sense of an immense cultural tradition stretching back to the earliest days of Buddhism in Laos.
The heat is returning, and I duck into the Royal Palace for some respite. Built in 1904 by French architects for Laos’ reigning monarch, King Sisavang Vong, it remained the home of the royal family until they were deposed in 1975 when the present communist government took power. The palace is an elegant blend of traditional Lao architecture, with its low sloping roof, and French colonial, with marble floors and columns.
Now a national museum, it has been kept virtually intact since the royal family’s departure. Even the crown jewels and personal clothing of the family are laid out. I get an eerie sense that the occupants may return at any moment, but it is quickly shrugged off by the appearance of a trio of giggling young cleaning staff.
Braving the New World
By night I start to see another side to this until now oh-so-traditional city. A whole slew of funky looking bars have opened along Kingkitsarath Road, on the far side of Mount Phusi. The French-Canadian owner of a local foreign-language bookstore, Celine Drean, has invited me to see “something a bit different”.
I arrive at 8pm for what turns out to be a fashion show held in the trendy beer garden of a local bar, The Hive. Only the ‘something different’ is that the show displays the traditional fashions of local ethnicities, complete to a pumping Western electronic catwalk soundtrack.
As the small crowd of foreigners enjoy beer, cocktails and pizza, local men and women parade around in the traditional clothing of some thirty different local ethnic minorities. The great variety in cuts, colours and styles hints at the great wealth of relatively unknown Lao ethnic minority culture.
After dinner, an even more unlikely sight replaces the fashion show: the local Laos boys’ break-dancing crew. A more bizarre combination wrought by the effects of the globalisation of western culture is hard to imagine. And as I discover, there’s more where that came from.
Celine explains Luang Prabang happens to also be the proud home to a regional film festival held at the beginning of December and small modern art scene. It’s exciting to see a city that can so comfortably blend a quiet, respectful, traditional culture with a vibrant arts scene.
The next day I decide to wander further afield. I hire a bicycle and ride out. Beyond the city there are various small villages known for their handicrafts, waterfalls, and caves. I feel as though I’m drifting back through time as views of villages of wooden houses, chickens skittering off the road as I pass and ancient near-toothless women peering out from shuttered windows replace the city. The only sign of the modern world in these towns is the neon BeerLao sign, the national beer and pride of Laos, and packets of Thai chips and canned drinks in the towns’ shops.
Children chase my bike waving and shouting “Hello!” Pausing to offer treats to the kids leads to me being swamped by friendly villagers offering me a place at their lunch table. There’s an immense propensity for hospitality in Laos, where even in the biggest cities people will earnestly invite an outsider to join them for a meal and a drink at their family table. This is always a recipe for a fantastic time, and a good opportunity to practice some basic Lao. Sabaidee! (Hello)
Finally, about thirty kilometres out of Luang Prabang, the Kuang Si Falls and a chance to wash off the dust of the road. The falls consist of many separate small cascades and three large pools. Floating on my back I stare up at the water streaming down tiers of rocky outcrops and just relax. The quiet atmosphere is soothing and a perfect counterbalance to a long bike ride.
My time is running out in Luang Prabang, but certain memories linger strongly. My most lasting impression is the view from Mount Phu Si. From here the whole span of the city's history is laid before you: The Mekong, whose epic silt flows have fertilised the soil and provided for the inhabitants since time immemorial; the ancient temples and 19th century French colonial buildings. The one generic communist concrete building is the soaring grey radio station, notable mostly for being the only structure of its sort in the area, showing how much this city seems to have drifted through the last two centuries only occasionally being touched by the outside world.
For the most part, Laos is great for the cash-strapped backpacker. Sightseeing costs are minimal, while most popular sights charge admission the cost is likely to be under US$2 (VND42,000).
At the low end, guesthouses will offer rooms for around US$8 (VND168,000) to US$20 (VND420,000) a night. These can be not only reasonably furnished and clean, but should offer amenities such as free wifi and a small breakfast. For the mid-range traveller, most of the city's fancier river-view hotels will offer rooms from US$25 (VND525,000) up to US$60 (VND1,260,000). At the far top end some offer literal palatial luxury. The most up market hotel in town was in fact a former palace for extended members of the Lao Royal Family. Prices in the five-star range will cost upwards of US$100 (VND2,100,000). Be aware, prices may be hiked a little in the busier dry season, November — April.
If you are happy to eat with the locals in simple street canteens, meals can cost under US$1 (VND21,000). For an actual restaurant, especially one serving foreign food, meals will be in the US$2 (VND42,000) to US$6 (VND126,000) range. Eating in-house at a fancy hotel will prove more costly.
Getting there and back
Flights are available to Luang Prabang’s international airport from Hanoi, Siem Reap, Bangkok, and Laos’ capital Vientiane. Buses from Luang Prabang are available daily to Hanoi (US$45 / VND945,000), Vientiane (US$15 / VND315,000), Bangkok (US$35 / VND735,000), Chang Mai (US$35 / VND735,000) and Kunming, China (US$50 / VND1,050,000). The roads within Laos are quite poor, so expect a rough trip and potential delays. Often it is really worth it for the dramatic scenery nevertheless. Detailed transport advice and maps are available at www.hobomaps.com.
Luang Prabang has a reasonable share of ATMs accepting Visa and MasterCard, and some up-market shops and hotels will also have card facilities. For the most part, cash is a must. Kip, the local currency, is preferred, but most will also accept Baht or US dollars. The Kip has been fairly steady with the US dollar at an 8000Kip to $1 rate for the last few months. Keep in mind, however, if paying in other currencies you are unlikely to be offered anything near accurate exchange rates.
Thirty-day visas to Laos are available at the border to most nationalities. Providing a passport photo is preferred. Prices vary by country from US$30 to US$40.
How long do I need?
The city’s basic sights can be covered in a day, but a few days is highly recommended to really let the atmosphere soak in and to provide time to see the villages and sights just outside town. For those looking to go further afield, elephant and hiking eco-tours are a great alternative and can be customised to last anywhere from one to five days.