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Luang Prabang

Laos

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Lost in Luang Prabang

Unusually, I didn’t manage to get lost in Luang Prabang. Geographically speaking.

 

I did, however, get well and truly lost in time. Something to do with the all pervading tranquility of the place. Having jetted there from bustling Bangkok, the change of tempo was pronounced. And delicious. I lapped up every drop, greedily.

 

LP’s recipe is a curious blend of equal parts lost backwater, mountain kingdom, colonial empire, royal residence, gap-year hangout and Buddhist heart.

 

Lord Buddha himself is said to have visited this narrow spit of land at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, and with typical wisdom, pronounced it would one day become important and prosperous. It subsequently became capital of ‘The kingdom of one million elephants’, Lan Xang, and much later, the first capital of Laos.

Along the way it went by the delightfully poetic name Xieng Dong Xieng Thong, roughly translated as ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’.

*

Nowadays, you wouldn’t call LP prosperous, thankfully. At least in the sense it has no shopping malls, traffic jams, Starbucks, high rise condominiums, tube strikes or earnest conversations about work/life balance. But it is immensely rich in spirit.

 

With Lord B’s prescient intervention, it became a key Buddhist centre. Even if you’re not remotely religious, it’s hard not to feel a deep aura soaking into you. Every shutter, stupa and hand scripted sign seems strategically placed to embody the soul and serenity of the place.

 

I found myself taking endless photos of saffron robes draped significantly across verandas, paper lanterns glowing poignantly at dusk, shadows cast by expressively wonky roadside shrines and silhouettes of majestic chedi intermingled with palm trees. These and many other unassuming scenes spoke powerfully to me. I’m not fluent in Lao (other than a breezy ‘Sabaidee’), so I can’t relay exactly what they were saying, but it certainly felt profound.   

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Significantly draped saffron

Along with this serenity, there’s real contentment. Laotians show no trace of weary lethargy or mercenary cynicism that often creeps into similar places. As I painted, perched on a kerb or huddled in the shade of a pagoda, some of the warmest, most empathetic people I’ve met watched over me, with curiosity and commendation. At times, I became a (very) minor celebrity, pulling small crowds of well-wishers. At one point, a single loose dab of orange depicting a young monk drew a ripple of praise. It may have made that novice’s day. I’ve never received such encouragement anywhere else I’ve sketched. You be the judge whether it was warranted!

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Chedi silhouetti

It had been eight years since I’d last visited the City of the Royal Buddha, and I’m pleased to report much remains unchanged. Although there are a few tell-tale signs of touristification. True to its Main Street nickname, Sisavangvong Road now hosts a short ‘strip’ of cafés, restaurants, chain stores and massage joints. All charming, but how long before there are neon lights, sports bars and fast-food brands? I spotted rental motorbikes with sidecars fashioned as Snoopy and Woodstock. Let’s hope when I next return, there isn’t one of those cutesy tourist train things.  

 

Talking trains, the Chinese recently completed a high-speed rail link that transforms the two day drive from the capital, Vientiane, into a two hour hop.  It also opens up the town to visitors from Thailand and China. You have to see this as good, as well as bad. The town certainly has capacity. With the exception of Phousi Hill at sunset and the Night Market, I never experienced anything resembling a crowd. At times, I painted in blissful and serene solitude, (except for

the incongruous sound of Sean Paul rapping through my earbuds – fuel for the creative process.)

 

The question is whether the Luang Prabang can retain its unique character. Thanks to its UNESCO listing, the town should hang on to its physical integrity. It’s the ambiance I worry about. Catering to the lowest common denominator is a slippery slope for any tourist magnet. (I refer you to Pub Street in the otherwise perfect Siem Reap and especially to Hoi An). But with Lord B’s spiritual omnipresence, the force is strong. So, fingers crossed. Or more appropriately, rice tossed.

Phousi Hill, by the way, bulges conspicuously from the otherwise flat promontory of the old town. Wherever you look, you can’t not see it and its lofty temple. From the air (if you’re lucky enough to bag a window seat on the right) it looks like an especially unlikely intrusion.

 

You’ll no doubt head up the hill with the early evening crowds, most there to worship the view. Sunsets are of course travel cliché #1, but with the Mekong snaking into receding tiers of red silhouetted hills, this ranks as perhaps the best in the world I’ve witnessed. (Beating Lake Atitlan, Guatemala into second slot).

After dusk, two magical things happen. Impossibly low-pitched gongs reverberate all across town, calling the novice monks for chanting lessons. Bright clusters of saffron orange, glimpsed through doorways and windows, pierce the charcoal night. Mesmerising mantras are intoned en masse (somewhat less than perfectly!). The sight is as captivating as the sound is hypnotic.

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Ock Pop Tok

At the same time, as you mosey around at dusk, the smell of lit charcoal and grilled skewers wafts seductively through the still night air.  No real need to eat, just cycle round and round and breathe it all in! (A nett loss in calories?).

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Magic after dusk

Actually, it’s almost impossible not to eat well in LP, providing you avoid the mushrooming pizza and home comforts scene, and get your fingers dirty. Lao cuisine has background spice that’s rounded and rolling, rather than Thai-style spikey and shrill. There’s an abundance of zing from fresh coriander, mint and local herbs. And you often eat with your fingers, soaking balls of sticky rice or rolling parcels up in betel leaves. It’s finger licking good.

 

Out of many, the single best dish I ate was Leun Som Paa Kheung; Mekong fish with pink fermented fish roe, cooked down into the deepest, richest red stew, served on the French-style pavilion terrace at Le Calao.  Unusual, atmospheric and unctuous. For those flavours alone, I will return.

 

As I meandered back to my hotel, I observed an animated group of locals playing pétanque. And playing rather professionally, judging by the ‘claque’ sound I kept hearing.

That’s far from the only concession to Frenchness you’ll find in this once French concession. 

Cautiously approaching one of the few roundabouts in town on my trusty two wheels, I noticed some drivers still using the old ‘priorité a droite’ approach, politely giving way to me about to enter le rond pont. Whereas most of the younger moped riders exhibited a more cavalier approach to rights of way. The result is a semi-organised melee, with a hilarious clash between ‘After you… No after you’ and ‘Stand by, I’m coming through’ approaches. Miraculously, it all works - not exactly like clockwork, but like many a typical Asian intersection. I escaped unscathed and soon gave up bothering with hand signals. So unnecessary. So un-French.

The Royal Palace still closes a little before midi for its two-hour lunch. In fact, in true Gallic tradition, it was never actually open when I visited.

 

I held conversations with one or two of the older monks in perfect and polite French. (Theirs, not mine).

 

I could also have eaten oysters, or frogs legs, croque monsieur, snails or côtes du boeuf.  Instead I enjoyed a delicious côtes du buffalo (with pommes Anglaises, funnily enough) at Gaspard, a fancy French style - and French priced - restaurant.

 

Talking of money, I withdrew a hundred quid from the cashpoint and immediately became a Kip multi-millionaire! In Luang Prabang, you can pay virtually nothing or top dollar, depending on your tastes. A snack in the night market food alley will cost you a few centimes, whereas a night in some of the many upperty hotels can run you over a grand. Or, savour the best of both.

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Downtown sundown

I enjoyed two terrific homes away from home during my stay. The sublime Satri House has the sort of art directed interiors and grounds you never want to leave. (I struggled).

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Sublime Satri House

A bit more oblique is the Apsara Rive Droite sitting on the banks the Nam Khan river. There’s nothing Parisian about this particular Right Bank. It’s gloriously quiet and low key. But a hop across the river in the hotel’s long boat lands you in the centre the action. (I’m not sure you’d rightly call it ‘action’). The experience is either impossibly romantic or a perilous hassle, depending on your perspective.  It felt rather like catching a Traghetto across the Grand Canal in Venice, albeit considerably less grand and baroque. In fact, about as far from Venice as you can get, barring the water.

 

One final anecdote speaks to the spirit of Luang Prabang. Boarding my state of the art Lao Airlines prop plane to fly out, a strict priority boarding system operated.  Monks first, everyone else next.

*Although plausible, I made that translation up !

I think it actually means city of jungle and trees. Shame really.

A Few Links and Practicalities

To reach Luang Prabang from the UK you’ll have to go via somewhere. Bangkok is the obvious gateway, but more appealingly, there are flights to and from Hanoi, Siem Reap and Chiang Mai. (Vientiane, although pleasant, is dubbed ‘most boring capital in Asia’, so probably avoid).

 

I rate November / December as a great time to visit.  It’s dry and manageably cooler (upper 20s). The mornings begin with an overnight mist, which burns off atmospherically while you breakfast. Plus, it was snowing back in London. 

 

There are countless cheap guest houses in the centre of town, that all look rather appealing, although I can’t testify for them. My preference is for somewhere ‘boutique’ and well above basic. I like to return, hot and sticky from a day’s exploration, to somewhere chic and chill.

 

Without straying into the crazy priced options, check out these three;

Apsara Rive Droite:  www.theapsara.com/the-apsara-rive-droite.html

As described above, the location will either appeal or irritate you.  Me likey, very much.

Hop over the Nam Kahn to sample the wine list at the other Aspara, and charge a cheeky glass of chardonnay to your room.

 

Satri House:  www.satrihouse.com

This is ‘just so’ exquisite.

3 Nagas: www.all.accor.com

This is prime centre of town and super evocative of a bygone era, with a lovely garden terrace. You’ll pay a price to stay here though, including not having a pool on site. Whenever you're in town, you’ll end up navigating by the maroon vintage Citroen parked prominently outside.

Restaurants

I realise, compiling this list, that I didn’t have a less than delicious meal anywhere in LP.  Just trust to those fresh Lao flavours.

 

Manda de Laos:  www.mandadelaos.com

This is showpiece. Stunningly pretty at night. With flavours (and prices) to match. You simply must see it. Do book.

 

Tamarind:   www.tamarindlaos.com

This was a 2 minute ‘commute’ back across the river from my hotel on the Rive Droit. Delicious Laotian food, which they’ll talk you through.  Also rated for their cooking lessons.

 

Khaiphaen:

You wouldn’t find this place unless you were looking for it. But worth dropping a pin on your map for. Authentic and characterful

 

AmanTaka:  www.aman.com/resorts/amantaka/dining

Savouring Aman hospitality without shelling out for a room has become something of a thing for me. This is just so civilised, and as a non-resident they make you feel like a welcome guest. I did dine for the rest of the week on what I spent there. But it was worth it. Do let them know you’d like to come.

 

Gaspard:  www.gaspardrestaurant.com/home

If you want to do fine French dining in the depths of Asia, this is the place. 

Le Calao: www.elephant-restau.com/lecalao

Site of my trip-defining dish. Not quite as fancy as it appears, but super authentic food. If the waiter offers you a choice between 'very spicy', or 'very very spicy', take neither!!

 

Dyen Sabai  www.dyensabairestaurant.wordpress.com

Worth crossing the Nam Khan for. They run their own ferry boat. Super stylish, chilled terraces overlook the river. Come for happy hour, stay forever. If this doesn’t get you attuned to the LP pace, nothing will.

They also run a cute restaurant on the main drag in town, Yuni Yupoun, with a real travel-of-the-world menu.

As ever, I recommend a bike.  Like everything else in LP, you only need one gear; low and slow.

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Don’t miss;

Wat Xiengthong

I think I ‘did’ all 33 Wat, but if you were going to limit yourself, this is the one. The Buddha’s image hall is majestic and the inlay mosaic on the other buildings is particularly unusual and colourful. Look out for the backpacker figures inset amongst the more traditional imagery (it was all redone after the war). 

 

The waterfalls at Kuang Si.

Waterfalls rank as tourist cliché #2, but these warrant an exception. If you’ve ever marvelled at Plitvice in Croatia, these trump that. About a 30 mins ride out of town and there’s no shortage of rides.

 

Sunset

That brings me to cliché #1. LP’s free light show. On a clear evening, the sky will turn the colour of monks’ robes. If you’re heading up Phousi Hill, get to the top an hour before the main event to bagsy your spot (and recover from those steps). On the sunset side of town, there’s a whole evening cruise thing going on. Not my particular scene, and it gets a bit hassly around golden hour. It’s kind of tricky to get a decent view there, unless you install yourself in one of the myriad riverside bars (what an imposition!). A better bet is to pedal out west following the Mekong. The further out of town you head, the more things thin out and you can find a quiet bankside spot. Wat Pha Bat Tai and the local ferry ramp both worked for me.  

Monks

They’re pretty hard to miss! There’s a lot of talk about the dawn alms giving. Personally, I rate the call to chant at the other end of the day. Far more evocative and less set peice. Besides, it was misty first thing in the morning in November.

 

Craft classes

Silk weaving, printing, batik, bamboo weaving, basketry, dying, Hmong embroidery. There’s no shortage of in-the-moment, meditative activities where you get to take the fruits of your labours home.  The wonderfully named Ock Pop Tok leads the field and does a mean line in natural dyes. Great café too. Their colouful tuk tuk will take you the 5 mins from their shop in town to their riverside HQ. But there’s also no shortage of smaller, cheaper classes in town. Just pick a place you fancy. Moon Love is good for batik. (You can just make it out lurking in my painting 'Street Corners' above).

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