Laos: Luang Prabang – You Have My Heart



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It is dawn in Luang Prabang, and my Laotian silk shawl warms me. I am waiting on Setthathirat Road, a few blocks from where commerce will occur later at the Night Market and Laotian food will be served from carts. However, food for our spirit is what we seek right now. I am here to give alms to the monks.

As the monks pass before me, aligned by seniority from elder to novice, their saffron robes are draped loosely to cover one shoulder. The monks’ free arms extend their bowls, their only worldly possession, to receive sticky rice, fruit and other foods we, the alms-givers, place within.

This takbaat ceremony occurs daily across south-east Asia where Theravada Buddhism is practiced. Alms-giving and alms-receiving accrues to the karmic good of both parties. This is the secular and spiritual interplay that sets the pace each morning in Luang Prabang. It initiates the mellow vibe I encounter here. But tourism’s downside rears its head when the handful of aggressive tourists cum camera flashes and loud voices cleave this reverential process.

Not only do the more than thirty temples (wats) in and around Luang Prabang sustain its tranquil side. But its spiritual energy derives also from the plethora of monks who reside within the wats. ‘Luang Prabang’ means ‘City of the Golden Buddha,’ which refers to the pure gold statue that has been the town’s guardian since the 14th century. This Buddha was so highly-valued (though so relatively small: almost 3 feet and 100 pounds) that Thai invaders whisked it away twice, though it was returned as many times. Its small size underscores its broad stature. The Laos National Museum, once the former royal residence, now houses this Golden Buddha.

Languid, sun-dappled days contribute to the town’s tranquility, situated 2,300 feet above sea level. Think latitude: equal to Hawaii and Cuba. Think Tropic of Cancer: go a few degrees north. So, warm days reign.

Luang Prabang is built on a mini-peninsula where lush verdant hillsides cascade to meet either the caramel-colored Mekong River on one side, or the smaller Nam Khan River on the other. I am enamored with the abundant and graceful palm trees that vie with the expansive banyan tree trunks. They are interspersed across the town’s architectural gems. This small landmass supports big aspirations.

In the 18th century more than 65 temples dotted Luang Prabang. Mount Phou Si, (the “Fantastic Mountain”) housed five alone.

Yet history belies this calm. Vigilant! Defensive! Belligerent! These define Luang Prabang as the royal capital of the ‘Kingdom of a Million Elephants and The White Parasol’ (Lane Zang Hom Khao). This empire encompassed China’s southern Yunnan province, included Thailand’s northern Chiang Mai region and incorporated northeastern Thailand itself. Elephant herds equated to military might, which included as well the thousands of mahouts or elephant trainers. Luang Prabang maintained a ready militia. Heightened defenses required fending off Vietnamese to the east, repulsing Siamese to the west and repelling consistent Burmese incursions.

When the capital was moved to Vientiane in 1563 for strategic reasons, Luang Prabang shed its armature and took up its alms. Confrontation became contemplation. Luang Prabang itself personifies the Lao saying, “A beautiful soul is better than a beautiful form.” I find, though, that Luang Prabang is both. In 1995 UNESCO conferred its ‘World Heritage Site’ designation on Luang Prabang.

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Art and Architectural Treasures
At the northern tip of Luang Prabang, exactly where the two rivers meet, I visit Wat Xieng Thong (Temple of the Golden City). It is the jewel in the Luang Prabang temple crown: this is an excellent example of Laos’ sacred architecture. Built under King Settathirat – yes, the very same king’s name as our monks’ street at dawn – this legacy from 1560 functioned as a ‘gateway’ temple’: its wide ceremonial staircase was the welcoming port of embarkation from the river.

The Luang Prabang-style temple architecture – one of three Laotian styles – features broad curving roofs that sweep down very low and end in flame-pointed tips. Wat Xieng Thong is one such remarkable example of these gracefully dipped roofs. The liberal use of glass mosaic murals set into vibrant monochrome walls, coupled with the black, red and gold profusion of Buddhism’s color triad, reflects the importance decoratively of Luang Prabang historically. Here was Luang Prabang’s social and religious life.

The golden funeral carriage and ceremonial urn of Lao’s last king are stored in a side building. Close to the river staircase, ceremonial rowing boats are housed and maintained, still used for religious occasions on the Mekong.

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Try this for honor among thieves: In 1887 Luang Prabang was sacked by a group of Chinese invaders, led by one Deo Van Tri, their Tai/ Vietnamese leader. Tri spent time as a novice monk at Wat XiengTong, the reason for which he refused to plunder and pillage the temple.

Today, the Royal Palace, the Haw Kham, has become the Lao National Museum. Built under the French colonial administration in 1925, it is the fusion of Lao traditional architecture and French colonial design. Laos’ most revered statue, the Golden Buddha resides in a newly-built chedi or shrine on the grounds. This small icon stands with both hands raised palm-outward in abhaya mudra, a hand-position that dispels fear and brings peace. The Golden Buddha resides in the town of its same name.

Total Black-Out at the Night Market
I am engaged in bartering for silk scarves with a colleague at the Night Market. Suddenly, the lights flicker, go off fully, power back on, and then totally shut down. Everything is blacked out: no bug-zappers zapping, no motors whizzing. Simply nothing. The Night Market is totally dark. Only the moon shines.

Caution takes over. We clutch our handbags. We clutch each other. Some very long twenty minutes of uncertainty prevail. Seemingly there is no attempt to address the situation. We are in a marketplace without lights, in a country without a language that we speak.

But, the seeds of capitalism flourish even in the dark: these fast-thinking merchants light candles and flip on flashlights. Commerce begins again under tenuous lighting. Later, we discover that a black skirt purchased in darkness is indeed a very deep purple.

This experience bothers my capitalist sensibilities: here are vendors and buyers at the point of sale but without light! Yet, I am in Laos: here reforms are moving from Moscow/Hanoi Communism to more Euro/Thai/American Capitalism. The vendors take this black-out in the best of Eastern ‘saving-face’ sensibility – while my desire is to throw a West-centric fit.

I do profess my fondness for that dark purple skirt, and the strange conditions surrounding its purchase. Was this an interim casualty of merging political systems or simply an electrical short? Ah, the multi-layers of truth.

Nature Has Graced Laos
Laos is blessed with natural beauty and verdant landscapes. For a landlocked country, it possesses mountainous forests, limestone caves and teal-blue travertine waterfalls. The life-sustaining Mekong rules Laotian life.

At a site where the Ou River meets the Mekong, two caves reside tucked into a karst limestone cliff. These are the Pak Ou caves (or ‘river’s mouth caves’) where the phii or river spirits were worshiped. Centuries after Buddhism’s vast expansion across Asia, the Pak Ou Caves became sacred Buddhist shrines. They remain abodes of quiet reverence, home to an estimated 4,000 statues, hand-placed for hope and held-in-place for history.

I am awed seeing these statues. They fill the upper and lower caves’ crevices. Tinged by fading light, the statues are carved, guilded, lacquered or painted, and mostly mimic Luang Prabang’s ‘standing’ Buddha. I feel lingering fragments of prayer and hope. This is the view inward.

The view outward is equally peaceful. Toward the river, Laotian long boats cluster in haphazard arrays of color and design as they await their travelers.

But we now head south, some 30 kms to Tad Kuang Xi/ the Kuang Xi Waterfalls (or “Watering Hole for Deer.”) On the upward trek to the multi-tiered pools and waterfalls, I encounter the Laos sanctuary for the “Free the Bears Rescue Center.” Established in 1995 across Asia, this Australian non-profit counters the endangered Asiatic black bear trade which captures, chains and tortures this species to obtain their bile. It is deemed valuable in Chinese medicine. The Center provides free-roaming facilities and care for the bears. Take heart: 31 Asiatic bears have been rescued in Laos! Here I encounter the true definition of ‘precious.’

Reluctantly, I leave the bears. I am rewarded when I arrive at several waterfalls that drop some 15 feet into incredibly opaque baby blue pools. These waterfalls cascade through travertine formations and combine with the water’s natural calcium to attain this opacity. It is a stunning sight. Intrepid bathers swing tarzan-like and drop into the cold pools. Yet most awe-filled experience is to continue upwards towards the ‘pièce de résistance’ – the 200 foot waterfall set against torch gingers and tropical florae. Here I encounter the true definition of ‘inspired.’

For a Good Night’s Sleep
Walk alongside the infinity-edge pool deck at the Luang Prabang View Hotel and the 360 degree panorama encompasses ever-changing skies over verdant lands. With its mountain-filled landscapes, the Luang Prabang View Hotel presents the most dramatic views of any upscale property, and indeed is so considered, corroborated by the list of diplomatic and distinguished international visitors on its roster. The hotel is located some ten minutes from the town center.

Its three-tiered suites cascade down the hillside and offer views and privacy. Teak appointments abound inside; lush landscapes aggregate outside. For transport on property, the on-call buggy service whisks guests around. It is on time mostly, yet I suggest that one recall that Lao time functions differently than Western time.

An intimate and inviting alternative in Luang Prabang is the Kiridara Boutique Hotel. This excellent option has 29 rooms that provide inspiring Mount Phou Si views. Native teak forests surround the property that reminds me of a contemporary Wat Xieng Thong. Small wonder that its architect was a pivotal voice in Luang Prabang’s UNESCO designation.

Both the Luang Prabang View Hotel and the Kiridara offer travel agent commissions at 10%, with a negotiable increase based on bookings.

The new regional carrier Lao Central Airlines is the first private-owned Laotian airline. It is based in Vientiane. It facilitates travel to Luang Prabang (one-hour north by air from Vientiane), and services most of Laos and destinations in Thailand.

The French summed up the national characteristics of their Indochinese empire: “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow.”

I am so peaceful here in Luang Prabang I believe I hear that rice growing right now.

Free the Bears Fund www.freethebears.org.au
Kiridara Hotel, www.kiridara.com
Lao Central Airlines, www.flylaocentral.com
Luang Prabang Hotel, www.luangprabangview.com