Watching the river flow – Luang Prabang 25 years ago
Like many people, I have had my wings clipped by the covid virus. Normal service will be resumed just as soon as normal services are resumed. Meanwhile, this is a story I wrote for the South China Morning Post back in 1995.
Laos had started issuing tourist visas again in late 1989 but by 1995 the country was still only receiving a trickle of visitors. The fact that the visas cost US$100 and were only issued for a seven day stay may have had something to do with it. As a result I had Luang Prabang largely to myself. These are the words and pictures I came back with twenty-five years ago.
* * *
A small, Russian-designed turboprop began its descent. The clouds started leaking in. “Don’t worry,” reassured the pilot, “It’s only the air-conditioning system, er … it always does that.”
I believed him, I’ve seen the effect before, but it was curious the leak seemed to stop once we got below the cloud cover. Not that I was to dwell on it for long. A mountain range had emerged just below and I swear had the landing gear been down … But then it was gone just as suddenly and the town of Luang Prabang, our destination, came sparkling into view several thousand feet below. We were flying right past it but the view was so pretty it hardly seemed to matter. Before I had time to really start enjoying it the plane banked and went into what felt like a corkscrew spiral downwards.
It was a bit of a white knuckle descent but all that whirling land out of the port side window was an impressive sight. Watching the repeat proceedings a few days later, from the security of terra firma, I discovered that what I had thought to be a spiral down was in fact a very tight and indeed very precise hairpin bend. Any clumsiness on behalf of the pilot and disembarkation would be a very undignified affair on the side of an adjacent mountain.
Of course, you don’t have to arrive by air. From Vientiane it takes about 10 hours to drive to Kasi, 75 percent of the way there, and then two days to go the remainder. The journey up the Mekong, I’m told, is at least as long, possibly longer, if the river is low or if you are carrying a lot of cargo.
And you will be. While it’s true that the marching boots of progress have largely passed by this sleepy, little hollow, a few of them have paddled up the river bringing with them motorbikes, photocopiers and a monster breed of tuk-tuk that proudly boasts its Thai origin on the back. All of it strapped to the top of the narrow Lao boats and ferried up the Mekong.
It comes as no surprise then that most foreign visitors arrive by air and since the airstrip can’t handle anything bigger than a 50-seat turboprop, Luang Prabang is possibly the only major, historical city left in Asia or even the world that is not groaning under the weight of thousands of tourists. Of the ones that do come, most stay only a couple of days and are chaperoned about the town in air-conditioned minibuses by the tour companies that brought them. Few visitors venture out alone and fewer still, to their great loss, risk eating outside the confines of the hotel.
Luang Prabang is surrounded by mountains 700 metres above sea level at the point where the Mekong River meets a tributary, the Nam Khan. It is dominated by a 100-metre rock called Phu Si. The northern tip of the town is little more than a spit of land that separates the two rivers before they meet.
This arrangement could not be better, for it provides excellent locations at which to have breakfast and watch the sun climb towards lunch. And, after a leisurely afternoon stroll, to have dinner whilst watching the sun set again over the Mekong.
At sunrise on the road above the ferry landings, market stalls set up selling all manner of things pertinent to river life. Boat propellers displayed in buckets between sachets of soap powder and bundles of firewood.
The place bustles with villagers from the surrounding area who have come into town to trade produce for durables and is made all the more colourful by the costumes of Hmong women. Food stalls are plentiful and, freshly baked baguettes stuffed with a locally made pate and salad washed down with strong, sweet coffee make a delicious pre-breakfast snack.
Before long the streets are filled with bicycles pedalled by children on their way to school. Also at around this time, the cloud cover starts to break up and the first rays of sun shine through. It almost seems as if the children’s cheery smiles, waves and cries of “sa bai dee” (the Lao greeting) are responsible.
By mid-morning many of the market stalls are already packing up for the day and though, further along Thanon Kitsalat Setthathilat in the shade of the Dara covered market, transactions are still being negotiated, a more sedentary breakfast is called for. The Khem Karn Food Garden is perhaps not the best restaurant in town but what it lacks in culinary expertise, it makes up for in location. Still, the congee with rather bony but otherwise pleasant-tasting freshwater fish is passable and the salad, which is served with everything, would be difficult to hurt.
The salads deserve a special mention. Presented in a little plastic basket are neat piles of string beans (uncooked), cucumber, bean sprouts, a type of watercress the locals call pak hun, some white noodle, coriander, mint and lettuce. The idea is that a little of each ingredient is wrapped in a lettuce leaf, splashed with a spicy/sweet peanut sauce before being folded into a bite-sized piece.
The restaurant itself looks east over the Khan River. On the far bank, growing in the fertile silt between the water and the trees is a patchwork of vegetables. On many a morning, the silence was punctuated by the shouts of young boys who were having a great time swimming in the river, playing with a couple of old car tyres and generally having a good time.
About an hour’s walk from the Khem Karn Food Garden, following the road east from the town brings you to the village of Ban Phanom. It is possible to hire bicycles at the hotel to pedal yourself there but that makes it more difficult to shake the little hands of children who pop out of doorways to greet you as you pass. And who needs to rush about anyway?
The village is famous for silk and cotton weaving and there are numerous shops loaded with examples to greet visitors when they arrive. In the centre of town, there is a market where you can see a demonstration of weaving skills and barter for your souvenir direct from the loom. The village does look as if it was spruced up for tourism. All the wooden buildings are neat and the road is in a good state of repair. The quality of the weaving, though, is still very high.
Thanon Phothisalat is a straight road that passes west of Phu Si, changing its name to Sisavangvong Road as it does so, and continues to the northernmost tip of the town. In French colonial days, it was presumably the commercial centre. Now, the delightfully crumbling architecture appears deserted save for a small police station, a couple of bicycle repair shops and a nervous mongrel who barked nothing but abuse at me until a well-aimed rubber flip-flop flew through a doorway and clumped him on the head. Thereafter he skulked off to find a bit of shade where at least he couldn’t see me and continued grumbling under his breath.
Near the end of this road stands Wat Xieng Thong. This is the most important of all the temples in town. Built in 1560 by King Saisetthathilat, its majestic roofs sweep low, almost touching the ground, in definitive Luang Prabang style. The peaceful setting and the sumptuous mosaics and carvings all inspire a late lunch.
Following the shady lane that borders the Mekong back in a southerly direction, the left-hand side is graced with some charming houses; some colonial, others not quite so old. Further along is the river entrance to the museum. Built as a palace for King Sisaveng Vong in 1904, its stone steps that lead down the bank to the water’s edge, where dignitaries from Vientiane were once received, are now a convenient landing spot.
Near here is the restaurant with the best view of all in Luang Prabang, and a most perfect spot for a late lunch. The actual seating area is built on stilts over the bank of the river and affords splendid views in both directions. There is not a great deal on the menu, only noodle soup and the ubiquitous salad. But it’s not what you eat it’s where you eat it that counts and I’d give all the Michelin-stared restaurants in the world for a bowl of noodles at this little place, and the sound of the occasional boats puttering up and down the Mekong in the afternoon sun.
There is one last exertion to make before dinner. There are steps on either side of the Phu Si but the flight on the eastern side is not in a very good state of repair. On the western side the steps start opposite the museum on Thanon Phothisalat just to the left of the old abandoned Wat Paa Huak. The climb to the top is not arduous and the little effort is richly rewarded.
That Chomsi is a 24-metre-high stupa that was built in 1804. Next to this is a rusty, old Russian anti-aircraft gun. But it is the splendid views that are the real attraction. All across town cooking fires are being lit, columns of grey smoke curl up through the trees and are caught by the gentle wind that smudges them into the landscape. The golden spire of Santi Chedi sparkles to the east, the sun begins to set reflecting orange off the shimmering surface of the Mekong before dropping finally behind the mountains (main picture).
After showering and smearing my exposed limbs to make them as revolting as possible to the insect community, it’s off to Malees. Malees is the best restaurant in all of Luang Prabang and I’m the only one that seems to know about it. Each time I ate there I was the only customer. Authentic Lao food is served, the decor is modest but pleasing and the staff are attentive.
Laap, a popular dish, is minced meat mixed with lime juice, garlic, chili, green onions and mint. It should be scooped up with folds of sticky rice. Aw lam is a bitter-tasting soup flavoured with a special, spicey root and while it’s difficult to scoop that up with sticky rice you can dunk balls of rice into it.
The recommended aperitif is called lao-lao. It is distilled from local rice and flavoured with herbs that are allegedly appetite sharpeners. It also blunts the intellect with impressive speed.
The Disco starts (and ends) early. There is only one and it’s next to the Rama Hotel on Thanon Wisunalat. There are no discs though, the music is provided by a local band. Nevertheless, it is the place to be for Luang Prabang’s hip, young things. Unfettered by a history of Saturday Night Fever and rap these ravers have evolved their own dance steps. Its roots are in a folk dance called the lam vong in which couples dance around in circles and around each other.
The electric lam vong sees the entire population of the dance floor moving in perfect unison in circles around the floor while the band plays something that sounds almost but not quite like the lambada. At 12.00 sharp the lights go on and the revellers head home leaving only a couple of adventurous foreigners to linger over their beers.
Luang Prabang has existed in isolation for a long time. This, of course, is the key to its charm, but when the road from Vientiane is complete it is estimated that a fleet of coaches will be able to do the journey in 12 hours. There is also talk of a new international airport* on the other side of the mountains. Such developments will inevitably change the character of the town and its people, and while I wouldn’t want to deny them the income that will go with it, I can’t help feeling like one of the lucky few who got there before the Big Macs.
* The old airport was upgraded and the runway lengthened in 2012