Luang Prabang, one of the fabled cities of the Orient
Down by the banks of the Mekong in the cool evening air, monks were picking frangipani blossoms outside the walls of Xieng Thong Temple, probing among the branches with long, forked bamboo poles, separating a single flower and delivering it to an accomplice. There was a kind of balletic quality to this performance – the flapping, mango-flesh robes of the monks, the fluid precision of the movement and the final triumphant moment as one blossom at a time was landed like a delicate fish – that summed up in a single moment the very essence of Laos.
Luang Prabang is the royal and ancient capital of Laos, and one of the fabled cities that once fuelled the rose-tinted view of the Orient. The city sits at the junction of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, and it’s easy to be seduced. The finger of land at the confluence of the two rivers bristles with temples which are surrounded by sacred bodhi trees and giant Buddha statues – an isthmus of holiness, administered by monks. A constant, colourful traffic of cargo vessels and garfish-thin passenger boats carves the caramel crust of the Mekong and in the background, saw-toothed blue hills fade to pearl as they retreat toward China. Its cultural splendours won for Luang Prabang a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list – where it joins Venice, the Grand Canyon and the Pyramids.
Luang Prabang is also compact. The standard tour of this city takes only a half-day, although my guide managed to squeeze the highlights into a couple of brisk hours, sprinting me up Phousi hill, shepherding me around the premier temples and shooing me politely but firmly away from the riverbank.
One of the great attractions of Laos is that there are so few “attractions”. Over the past couple of hundred years, Laos has been looted by Thailand, divided among various warlords, colonised by France and comprehensively bombed by the USA. Laos has no Angkor Wat, and apart from the Luang Phabang, the Plain of Jars and a handful of temples, no compelling cultural treasures – which can be a great relief. The essence of Laos is to be found by poking about in its streets, the morning market and hanging around in the temples and for this, Luang Prabang is perfect.
The only essential excursion from Luang Prabang is the boat trip upstream to Pak Ou Caves. The caves – deep cavities in the limestone hills that line the river – are crammed with thousands of Buddha statues that date back to the time even before Luang Prabang was founded – some in metal, some in wood, some that look suspiciously like cement. Even for a devout Buddhist, an hour or so will exhaust all possibilities at Pak Ou. The real attraction is the puttering journey along the river – past fishermen casting their nets into the river, past villagers panning for gold, past water buffalo and palm trees and little villages of sticks and thatch where children dance along the bank like sprites.
After a few days in Luang Prabang, a kind of infection set in. Not of the body but the spirit. Nothing much mattered any more. Getting up later each day, meandering into town, bantering with the hill tribe girls and taking long, idle boat rides to watch the sunset over the Mekong, followed by dinners in teak restaurants that leaned out above a river brimming with moonlight. I recognised the symptoms. It was the classical languor of the lotus-eater – entranced and drifting – and so I packed my bags before it was too late.