Enchantment in the Kingdom
Unlike other alluring destinations in Southeast Asia, where legions of fellow travellers can overwhelm the integrity of the place itself, tourism in Laos and Luang Prabang still feels fresh. A town on the make. A city yet to be discovered.
Once the royal capital of Laos, Luang Prabang nestles up against the milk coffee-coloured Mekong River. Its wats, the architecture of its royal palaces and its ubiquitous wooden houses create a timeless ambiance that almost feels forgotten though hardly woebegone.
UNESCO declared this “delightful little town” as the French naturalist-explorer Henri Mouhot knew it, a World Heritage Site in 1995. The town’s Buddhist aura emanates from a plethora of irresistible wats, or pagodas, and from a daily, early morning trudge for alms through town by saffron-robed monks.
In a single glance, the town can be embraced by summiting, via 355 steps, one of the Luang Prabang’s principal attractions – Mt. Phou Si. From here, the buildings seem subsumed by coconut trees. Indeed, regulations prohibit new buildings from rising higher than the trees’ leafy bowers.
The Mekong sweeps beneath the flanks of dramatic ridges, some cut with stairways that lead to yet another temple. Teak trees flutter their pale, skimpy foliage from the banks while the occasional elephant, led by an able mahout, wades into the water for a bath.
The languor of the Mekong, here in the midst of its 4,350-kilometre journey to the sea, is a metaphor for the languid appeal of the town itself. Listening to the rice grow feels like obligation here. As does a visit to one of the city’s many wats. The city’s most renown wats – Mai, Pa Huak – date to the 19th Century, though many claim older pedigrees and most feel like relics.
The city itself claims an ancient pedigree, emerging onto record sometime in the late 7th Century. The French, who assumed protectorate status over the region in the 19th Century, recognized Luang Prabang as the capital of the Kingdom. In 1904, they helped build a royal palace where the Lao kings lived until the Pathet Lao takeover in 1975.
Today, the royal palace is a museum, housing holy icons, paintings and china. Another, more fantastic collection of relics lies upstream along the Mekong in the Pak Ou Caves. At the Mekong’s confluence with the Nam Ou, a cave in a bluff on the river keeps a pantheon of small Buddhist statues.
UNESCO hailed Luang Prabang as the “the best preserved city in Asia” when the organisation inscribed the destination in 1995. Nothing has changed about that since.