PRIDE OF THE MEKONG
Gary Walsh explores Luang Prabang, the most beautiful town in Laos
LUANG Prabang’s happy fate was sealed in 1995 when UNESCO anointed it a World Heritage town. A backwater on the Mekong River in central Laos, but with a long history as a cultural focus and the seat of Lao royalty, Luang Prabang has become an irresistible stopover on any trip through Indochina, with its blend of physical beauty, architectural harmony and serenity. It is, simply, one of the loveliest places on earth.
Best museum: The Royal Palace Museum, opposite Phousi Hill, just about defines the word eclectic. On display I find the revered Pha Bang Buddha, which gives the town its name, books on Soviet art, old copies of Paris Match , examples of old Lao currency, royal costumes, 800-year-old stone tablets, a tea service presented to the former king by Charles de Gaulle and, from the Americans, a sliver of moon rock and a plastic replica of a lunar lander that looks as if it came from a cereal box. Australia’s offerings include a boomerang and, in keeping with the breakfast food theme, something that looks like a goldcovered Weet-Bix with a couple of opals embedded in it.
Best Buddha: Supposedly cast in Sri Lanka in the first century AD and twice stolen by the Thais, the Pha Bang has been back in Lao hands since the mid-19th century. It sits unprepossessingly in a dusty, cordoned-off room surrounded by small statues of Buddha, carved elephant tusks and mother-of-pearl screens, while Lao craftsmen tinker at a flashy temple being built to house the Pha Bang in the grounds of the palace. They’ve been at it since 1993, so don’t expect the statue to be shifted any time soon.
Best start to the day: Just after dawn every morning, hundreds of monks and novices walk barefoot and silent down Sisavangvong Street in a ritual known as takbat. Locals, and increasing numbers of tourists, kneel to offer alms to the monks as they pass, usually handfuls of sticky rice, pieces of fruit or, sometimes, packaged sweets. It is a beautiful, other-worldly experience, with orange-clad monks from each temple padding along behind the most senior figure from their temple, often arrayed from tallest to shortest.
Best tip: Try not to disrupt the ritual by getting too close to the monks or the almsgivers or taking photos too obtrusively.
Best good deed: Have a traditional Lao massage at the Red Cross Massage and Sauna on Visounalat Road. For just 32,000 kip (about $4.50) you can have a bracing onehour massage, with the money going to programs such as basic first-aid training for Lao volunteers, education in sexual health issues and rural development programs. If you are feeling really virtuous, you can give blood, which is in short supply in Laos.
Best place to avoid: I can’t speak for the quality of the product but any place calling itself Pizza Massage (you won’t need the address) doesn’t bear thinking about. You want anchovies with that?
Best temple: Wat Xieng Thong is the finest of Luang Prabang’s many temples. The ordination hall, with its gold and black stencilling, murals and sweeping roof, dates from 1560. Also in the grounds are smaller chapels. One is covered in purple stucco with turquoise, blue and gold glass mosaic scenes of rural life such as fishing or tending buffalo; another is decorated with delightful mosaics of peacocks, tiger, deer, cattle, owls in a Tree of Life leading to heaven, and Buddha. One building houses the temple treasures, including Buddha images, votive plaques and an enormous, dusty Naga boat that is so tall it barely fits inside.
Best view: Hike up the hundreds of steps to the top of Phousi Hill, which is smack in the middle of town, for the sunset ritual. The mountains that surround Luang Prabang look like a Chinese watercolour that fades from green through to purple as you look down on the activity in town and on the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. You won’t be alone at the top, mind.
There will also be a surprise waiting for you when you return to ground level. Sisavangvong Road will have been transformed into a mass of colour and sound as hundreds of stallholders come in from their villages to sell their wares at the night market. Barter for handicrafts, slippers, T-shirts, scarfs, jewellery, bags, lampshades, umbrellas, wood carvings and just about anything else you can think of.
Best shopping: Luang Prabang’s main street is lined with restaurants, internet cafes and classy retail outlets, many of which sell quality local handicrafts. Perhaps the best of them is Satri Lao, situated in a wonderfully creaky and atmospheric old house, which sells clothes, silk cushion covers and scarfs, beautiful glass Buddhas, oil lamps, jewellery, opium pipes and objets d’art. The quality is high and the prices are reasonable: $US12 ($14) for cushion covers, $US29 for silk scarfs.
Best nightlife: Nightlife and Luang Prabang are generally mutually exclusive. There are a few discos playing rinky-dink Lao pop, where a kind of Lao line dancing is the style of choice. They shut up shop at midnight or earlier. We’re not in Thailand any more, Toto.
You’ll find many bar restaurants along the banks of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers that offer pleasant water views and cold beer, but perhaps the most fashionable place in town is the Hive on Kigkitsarat Road, a bar with a pleasantly chilled-out vibe.
Best surreal experience: Head to the gorgeous La Residence Phou Vao hotel for dinner beside the swimming pool. After dark, look to the south and you will see the extraordinary sight of the floodlit temple (wat) atop Phousi apparently hovering in midair. The spotlighting and the contrasting blackness of the hill beneath the temple create an astonishing optical illusion.
It is no surprise to learn that the hotel paid for improved floodlighting of the temple (www.residencephouvao.com).
Best exercise: Climbing Phousi Hill gets the blood pumping, but a great way to get around the rest of town is by bicycle. There are dozens of places renting bikes by the hour or by the day, and cheaply, too. You’ll hit the streets with plenty of locals also pedalling their way around. It’s probably not advisable to emulate the locals and ride one-handed while shading oneself with an umbrella.
Best beer: Beer Lao is one of the world’s great brews. Pop the top on a large, ice-cold bottle, grab a seat overlooking the Mekong or the Nam Khan, and enjoy the sights and sounds of river life.
Best eating: Restaurant 3 Nagas on Sisavangvong Road serves some of the tastiest Lao food in town in the pleasant setting of an old shophouse in the historic quarter. I enjoy the laap kai, a slightly less fiery Lao version of Thai larb, with minced chicken, mint and coriander, chilli and onion; and kai puet, a weed found in the Mekong that is dried and served coated in sesame seeds. It’s thin and crisp, quite bitter in taste and goes very well with a cold Beer Lao. The service is excellent.
Best cooking course: Tum Tum Cheng Restaurant’s cooking school is well regarded: even Jamie Oliver has stopped by for a lesson in the preparation of Lao food. The one-day course begins with a visit to Phousi Market to buy fresh ingredients and ends with students scoffing their work (www.tumtumcheng.com).
Best excursion: There are two main halfday trips out of town. My favourite is the slow boat ride to the Pak Ou caves, about 20km upstream on the Mekong.
The two main caves are notable for the thousands of Buddha statues, small and large, which have been placed there by the faithful who have come on pilgrimage. Most are made of wood or tree resin, lacquered and then covered in gold leaf, but there are a few of animal horn, bronze or ceramic.
The lower cave, which opens to a wonderful view of the river and the mountains beyond its opposite bank, contains more than 2500 dusty statues on several levels, and is wonderfully atmospheric. The upper cave is much darker, so you need to rent a torch if you want to explore its 54m depths.
Most boats also visit two villages on the trip: one produces and sells rice whisky of various, sometimes lethal, strength while the other produces paper. Be aware that Australian quarantine officials will almost certainly impound anything you buy here because of leaves and other objects contained in the paper. Best to admire, for it is pretty, but not to buy. Garry Walsh was a guest of Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways and the Apsara Hotel.
Thai Airways operates a total of 36 flights a week from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to Bangkok, and two daily flights from Bangkok to Vientiane. Lao Airlines flies from Vientiane to Luang Prabang up to four times daily. Bangkok Airways flies from Bangkok to Luang Prabang. www.thaiair.com.au. www.tourismindochina.com www.visit-laos.com Susan Kurosawa’s returns next week
Dawn to dusk: Novice monks on the steps of the temple before the morning parade, above; selling wares at Sisavangvong Road night market, right, top and bottom; the Royal Palace Museum, centre