Luang Prabang, Laos: Mekong musings and much more

by Jeff Kingston

Watching sunset over the swirling Mekong River from one of Luang Prabang’s riverside cafes while sipping a therapeutic Beer Lao is hard to beat.

This is one of the most enticing destinations in Asia, a sacred site of Theravada Buddhism. There are many exquisite temples, and Wat Xiang Thong is an especially beautiful and ornately decorated complex, but don’t miss Wat Visoun and its collection of old and weathered Buddha statues arranged along the walls looking like phalanxes of terra cotta warriors whose beautifully carved faces peer out eerily from the shadowy light filtering through the balustrade windows.

At dawn, barefoot monks and novices emerge from the monasteries to receive alms from the faithful who squat on straw mats along the streets. It is an unforgettable sight to see hundreds of monks in their colorful saffron robes, alms bowls hanging from their shoulders, bending down and opening the lids to accept offerings from laypeople earning merit through their support for the monasteries.

Naturally, this photogenic custom has attracted tourists who sometimes disturb the processions with insensitive intrusions — flashing cameras, loud voices, getting in the way — but there is a concerted local campaign encouraging more responsible tourism.

It is a decade since my first visit to Luang Prabang, and much has changed under the guidance of UNESCO. The capital of Luang Prabang’s eponymous province is now a World Heritage site because of its numerous temples, rich culture, lovely colonial architecture and captivating location at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.

Over the past decade, many of the decrepit colonial buildings have been lovingly restored to their former glory, based on strict rules governing new buildings and renovations. The former charms of fading beauty, crumbling and moldy mansions, ramshackle corrugated- tin roofing, narrow dirt lanes and haphazard paving have given way to a more genteel, upscale aesthetic.

Visiting Luang Prabang used to feel like falling off the end of the planet and landing in a scruffy but charming Eden. Now there are Internet cafes, smart shops, great restaurants and an appealing array of lodgings to suit all budgets. Some grouse about the Disneyfication of the town, but Siem Reap, adjacent to Angkor Wat, is a useful reminder of how much worse unchecked development can be.

Luang Prabang has not navigated the currents of development unscathed, but it has done remarkably well. In short, it is a lovely, compact town perfect for wandering on foot.

It is possible to sit and listen to prayers, meditate or — by arrangement — help prepare a meal for monks and serve it at a monastery. Young novices are eager to practice their English and confide their dissatisfaction with the recent ban on their visiting Internet cafes; apparently this undermines the traditional image the authorities want to convey.

Luang Prabang is an ideal spot to tune into one’s inner Lotus-eater and linger, imbibing the spiritual ambiance and somnambulant pace of life.

For those looking for adventure, there are elephant tours, waterfalls and trekking opportunities. It is also possible to get in touch with one’s inner weaver at special classes held at the Oct Pop Tok (East Meets West) weaving center in a splendid riverside location on the edge of town. It, like Kop Noi (Little Frog), is a fair-trade organization selling lovely hand-woven silks and cottons featuring local designs and natural dyes.

The summer months are the low season, meaning it is the best time to visit because there are few tourists and great bargains to be had. Now it is easy to get to Luang Prabang from Japan via Hanoi. Landing in the enveloping blackness of this oasis tells you a lot about what to expect — starry nightscapes among other things.

When it comes to lodging, the range extends from simple guesthouses to Laos’s first five-star resort, the enchanting Amantaka. This boutique hotel is the culmination of a superb restoration of a French colonial-era hospital that was a dilapidated facility still in use when I first visited. It is close to the markets and temples under the shadow of Phou Si (Sacred Hill), where sunrise is exceptional. Craggy peaks dominate the horizon, while Amantaka exudes a soothing sense of space over a vast courtyard and in large, high-ceilinged suites.

The Aman therapy is based on the simple precept of making guests comfortable by offering excellent facilities — a spa, gym and large pool — and a friendly, pampering staff, mostly from the local area. This latest property in the Aman group has an understated charm, and is tastefully decorated with traditional flower arrangements and gorgeous black-and-white photos that convey a sense of the sacred qualities that make Luang Prabang so alluring. It is just opening and offers a nostalgic colonial charm with all the modern comforts one can desire.

And, for anyone worrying about the spirits of deceased patients, it is reassuring to know they have been propitiated with special Buddhist rites.