PRIDE OF THE MEKONG

Gary Walsh ex­plores Luang Pra­bang, the most beau­ti­ful town in Laos

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Check­list

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

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