06 October 2007 (The Star) – The Star posts a travel piece about the ancient capital of Luang Prabang in Laos.
What about Luang Prabang?
by Lim Chee Wah
Luang Prabang, the cultural capital of less-visited Laos, is one of the most mysterious towns in South-East Asia.
Luang Prabang is not easy to reach. Call me selfish but I would like to keep it that way. Getting to the place, 700m above sea level in Laosâ€™ mountainous northern region, needs more than just proper planning. It takes a good deal of effort as well.
You could reach this Unesco World Heritage town from Huay Xai on the Thai border, cruising on a slow boat through the great Mekong; that journey takes two days. A bus ride from Vientiane, the capital of Laos, lasts at least 11 hours.
There are limited flights to Luang Prabang; those that do are usually full and they are not budget airlines either. However, for the adventurous travellers who are patient enough to jump through hoops, Luang Prabang can be the most rewarding destination in South-East Asia.
Thereâ€™s a languid pace to life at Luang Prabang. It is carefree and so easy-going that you feel you can slow down and allow yourself to be absorbed into the moment. In fact, it is the perfect antidote for jaded travellers who find Thailand too touristy, Myanmar too political and Cambodiaâ€™s struggle with poverty a little too disheartening.
Everything in this ancient town is understatedly elegant. The temples in Luang Prabang, despite their elaborate flourishing, can still make many Thai temples look kitsch. The 500-year-old Wat Xieng Tong, easily the townâ€™s most magnificent temple, is built in classic Luang Prabang style.
Thereâ€™s something so graceful about the way the layered roofs drape so close to the ground like flowing silk robes. Every inch of the building is covered in gold stenciled motifs â€“ dharma wheels on the ceiling and stories of a legendary king across the inner wall.
On the rear wall, a glass mosaic â€œtree of lifeâ€ stretches to the roof on a red background while on the side, daily lives and religious stories play out in colourful glass mosaic caricature.
While it is typical to find a mighty Buddha image commanding the inner sanctum of the sim (the main prayer hall) in any Luang Prabang temple, Wat Xieng Tong also houses another Buddha statue â€“ one so special that it was taken to Paris for an exhibition in 1931.
This one-of-a kind reclining Buddha image, which is contained within the Red Chapel beside the sim, is grace personified. Unlike most Buddha images of similar pose whose palms merely support the head, this particular image is so elegant that the fingers curl up in a playful attempt to caress the forehead.
With 32 out of the 66 historical temples built before the French protectorate era still surviving, you will come across a temple every few metres or so, each in varying degrees of architectural excellence.
The temple on top of Phu Si hill, located in the centre of town, may pale in comparison but it offers a stunning vantage point. From here, you get a birdâ€™s-eye view of Luang Prabang in its peninsular position between two rivers â€“ Mekong and Nam Kham. Verdant green stretches to distant mountains on the horizon. And among this carpet of low rising red roofs, coconut palms and luscious jungles, the occasional temple spire peeks through to pique your imagination.
Buddhism is obviously an integral part of Luang Prabang but it not only shows itself through the temples. The mirror mosaic motifs are â€œtranslatedâ€ onto Luang Prabangâ€™s famous Hmong stitchwork where scenes from everyday life are intricately sewn onto a piece of cloth, a bag or even a quilt.
Every day, these Hmong women walk into town from the nearby villages to sell these wearable art at the daily night market just outside Royal Palace. Let me warn you though: if you are a collector of tribal arts and crafts, be ready to burst your budget.
Still, I didnâ€™t fully realise how interwoven the religion is in the lives of the locals until that one morning when I managed to pry myself out of bed at 5.30am.
First light had barely broken the mist that still shrouded the town in a state of dreaminess but people were already lining the streets with silver bowls in their hands filled with food.
Just then, the sounds of gongs from the temples reverberated through the town and saffron-robed monks filed out of the temple onto the streets. The locals offered food and even monetary donations were put into the monksâ€™ offering bowls. This daily alms-giving ritual is a solemn moment; one that proves Luang Prabangâ€™s authenticity, that the original community still prevails despite the growing interest in tourism.
In addition to its distinctive culture and tradition, the French legacy of colonial mansions and pastries have added a fascinating facet to Luang Prabang.
The few pastry cafÃ©s that dot the town are a good place to unwind after a long day being wowed by the intricacies of Luang Prabang. But I prefer the local coffee places, often no more than a few rattan chairs carelessly strewn on someoneâ€™s veranda. Lao coffee remains one of my favourites. It is strong, black but smooth and with a kick so potent that it often comes with a chaser of weak tea.
There is so much finesse in Luang Prabang that itâ€™s hard not to associate its refined elegance with the townâ€™s past as a royal capital. On the pediment of the royal palaceâ€™s main entrance, the gilded three-headed elephant is a reminder of the townâ€™s once glorious heritage. This icon symbolises the three kingdoms united under the Luang Prabang monarchy.
But there has been much controversy surrounding the royalty of Luang Prabang. The king and queen were forced into exile following the countryâ€™s communist takeover in 1975. However, it is recorded in many sources that the king, queen and prince of Luang Prabang were actually imprisoned in a cave until their death. The living crown prince Soulivong is currently living in exile in France.
The royal palace is now turned into a much-celebrated museum providing an informative peek into Lao arts and culture. The museum features many Buddha images rescued from destroyed or abandoned temples.
The throne hall with its dazzling accoutrements and fiery red glass mosaic wall is quite a wow factor. Apparently, the bedrooms and the dining area have been preserved as how the royal family had left it. But itâ€™s strange though, besides basic furniture like bed, table and cupboard, there are hardly any flourishes in the bedroom as I had imagined a royal residence would have.
But despite all these controversies, I believe the world is on the side of Luang Prabang. Even before its inscription as a World Heritage Site in 1995, there were many restoration projects with the cooperation of foreign governments carried out in the cityâ€™s major architectural sites.
With its new status inscribed by Unesco, there come higher expertise and restrictions to further preserve Luang Prabangâ€™s historical charm. That is why even till today, the highest skyline in town is that of coconut palms and the spires of temples.
Many ancient towns today are cloaked in nostalgia, largely because the original way of life has long disappeared and in its place, facades from the past have been adapted into cafÃ©s, galleries and other tourist infrastructures.
But not Luang Prabang. It is not nostalgic and thatâ€™s only because what it was yesterday is still very much prevalent now.
The traditional Lao wooden house on stilts, the alms-giving ritual, the living temples manned by friendly monks who are eager for you to understand their temples despite the communication barrier â€“ itâ€™s all still there.
Itâ€™s heartwarming and I feel proud for them not letting go of their heritage.
A local legend mentioned that Buddha smiled when he rested here one day and prophesied that Luang Prabang would become a rich and powerful city.
For all its refined artistry, Luang Prabang has in a way more than fulfilled this prophecy. It has captured the fascination and earned the respect of the world.