Poor from war, rich in culture

There's so much to enjoy in one sleepy Laotian town

by Jim Algie

The serpentine road to Luang Prabang winds around mountains that rise above green valleys and rocky gorges, alongside ramshackle villages with no electricity and past fields of corn and rice. If you’re not much of a daredevil, then don’t get a window seat, because the bus has to navigate hairpin turns, with no guardrails, the wheels crunching over dirt shoulders only 30 cm away from dizzying drops

Once the bus rattles and belches into Luang Prabang, you’ll quickly see why the 700-year-old city was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995 for its melange of Buddhist temples alongside French colonial and Laotian traditional architecture. Because of building restrictions, the highest points of its skyline are stupas and coconut palms.

Near the banks of the Mekong River is the Laotian peninsula’s most venerable temple. Wat Xien Tong was built in 1560 at the behest of King Saisetthathilat and remained under royal patronage until 1975, when the socialist Patet Lao Party took over the country, exiling the royals to a cave where they subsequently died. The multitiered roofs of the main chapel, along with the many Buddha images and the wildly colorful mosaic of the “Tree of Life” on the exterior, inspire as much artistic admiration as religious reverence.

Another must-see is the Royal Palace Museum where, entering through the front gates, you’ll see a pagoda on your right. Two golden serpents with crested heads that form the balustrades are representations of Naga, the serpent king who, as legend has it, protected Buddha from the elements when he sat under the bodhi tree in his quest for enlightenment.

Inside the museum, you’ll find such treasures as the city’s most sacred Buddha image (known as Prabang), a former king’s golden sword (which has a Naga head on the handle), and an ornate metal chair once strapped to an elephant’s back for use in warfare.

For a socialist country, modern Laos is something of an anomaly. Back in 1990, the comrades in charge removed the hammer and sickle from the national seal; even before that, the banking system was liberalized, and farmers are free to own their land and livestock.

Still, the country has yet to recover from the successive tugs-of-war of its neighbors and occupiers: 60 years of French colonialism; Japanese wartime occupation; and an unenviable entry in the history books as the most heavily bombed nation of all time thanks to American action during the Vietnam War.

At times, the poverty is depressing. The sight of dirty, shoeless children kicking around a plastic bottle in lieu of a football, and armless beggars hobbling (and sometimes crawling) through the streets are living proof that Laos remains one of the poorest and most underdeveloped nations in the world. As one Western expat put it: “Socialism here means that 20 families are equally rich, and everyone else is equally poor.”

Life in this town of 20,000 ambles along at a sleepwalker’s pace. Along the main thoroughfare in the old part of town, Photisalat Road, there are far more tuk tuks (three-wheeled taxis), motorcycles and bicycles on the street than automobiles. It’s not unusual to see friends driving by on their motorcycles at a leisurely 10 kph, having a three-way conversation as they go. Nor is it hard to spot a family of four riding by on one motorcycle .

The two-story shop-houses along this street are mostly in the old colonial style. The French-style windows and doors — painted in brown, blue and white — contrast sharply with the colorful fabrics hanging down like pennants across the doorways. Fantastic arabesques of color snake through these hand-woven silks; animal, bird and geometric motifs are prevalent.

Around the intersection of Photisalat and Setthathirath, there’s another jumble of shops and stalls where women from the Hmong hill tribe, dressed in colorful regalia, hawk their fabrics and handmade scythes for harvesting rice. Other handicrafts on sale include wood carvings and silverware, and haggling with cheerful insistence is the norm.

If you want to eat local food, there are some decent restaurants around the Khan River. Made out of bamboo, with thatched roofs and propped up on stilts, they provide good lookout points for observing river life. Women wrapped in sarongs bathe in the water. Fishermen cast their nets. Children holler and splash around, while an old man ferries passengers from one bank to the other in a slender boat.

Spicy, mint-flavored dishes like laab with chicken, fish or pork are usually eaten with sticky rice, which the locals form into balls with their fingers and then dip into the dishes. Another local specialty is Mekong seaweed, pressed flat and fried with sesame seeds.

While nightlife in Luang Prabang is quite comatose, the locals certainly enjoy drinking and partying. It’s not uncommon for revelers to get invited to sit around on the floor in the home of a Laotian family sharing some food and drinks. The liquor of choice — and economic necessity — is lao lao (a rice wine which packs a boxer’s punch).

The drinking ritual is a communal experience. An older man plays bartender, pouring out the rice wine into a shot glass and then handing it the man on his left, who raises his glass, looks around to acknowledge his fellow boozers, and knocks back the shot in one gulp. He passes the glass back to the bartender, and it’s time for another round.

It’s these kinds of close encounters that make the best “souvenirs” of any vacation — and that’s part of the reason why Laos is such a hot spot for travelers in Southeast Asia.