Taking it slow in Luang Prabang

Taking it slow in Luang Prabang

Just a few hours away from Singapore, Laos' cultural heart is the perfect getaway with its breathtaking scenery and unhurried pace.

The sun setting over the mountains surrounding Luang Prabang. (Photo: Melissa Zhu)

It's easy to see why Luang Prabang is sometimes called the “jewel of the Mekong”.

Once the proud royal stronghold of the Land of a Million Elephants, the UNESCO World Heritage site and former French protectorate gleams like a polished pearl.

The ancient capital sits at the confluence of two great rivers, encircled by misty mountain ranges and craggy forests. Shimmering golden spires rise from its intricately-carved wats (Buddhist temples) and flowers burst in a riot of colour from the balconies of elegantly-preserved colonial French villas.

Wat Haw Pha Bang was built on the former royal palace grounds to enshrine the highly revered Phra Bang Buddha, which the city was named after.

The azure tiers of Kuang Si waterfalls, a 30-minute tuk-tuk ride from Luang Prabang town, are famed for their fairytale charm.

The top of Phou Si mountain offers one of the best views in the city, a 300-step climb up.

No longer a lost paradise, Luang Prabang is more like heaven found for the frazzled city-dweller.

The only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, notoriously inaccessible Laos has seen an increasing number of flights into the country. Just last October, Singapore carrier Silk Air effectively doubled the number of direct flights between Singapore and Laos when it started thrice-weekly flights to Luang Prabang from Singapore through Vientiane, and directly back to Singapore from Luang Prabang. Previously, Lao Airlines was the only airline that served direct routes between the two countries.

From Changi Airport, my travel partner and I took just four and a half hours to reach the former Golden City for six days of relaxation therapy.

Luang Prabang is not a place you would probably describe as "exciting". The streets are slow to wake and empty out by about 10pm. You could walk through the town in half an hour end-to-end.

But its sun-drenched beauty might cause your heart to quicken a beat. The morning hours are especially gorgeous – the town is draped in a languid light and the air is deliciously cool. (Temperatures often hover around 20°C in the early part of the day before the sun comes out in full force.)

Rows of colonial French buildings are protected from modernisation by UNESCO heritage rules.

Flowers creeping over the wall of a guesthouse.

The entire atmosphere invites you to slow down and take it easy. We found ourselves spending long hours sitting in comfortable silence, doing nothing but observe the world go by.

An open, laid-back attitude seems to pervade the culture and it manifests in the language. Sabaidee, the customary greeting, is composed of words meaning relaxed and good. Another commonly-used phrase is bor pen nyang , which has several meanings linked to the acceptance of the way things are – "it's okay", "no problem", "don't mention it".

This rickety bamboo bridge across the Nam Khan river is washed away every year when the river floods and is rebuilt for the dry season.

Behind this relaxed atmosphere, the locals work hard to make life comfortable for visitors.

Take our local guide Som Leth, who grew up poor in a family of farmers. Like many boys in Laos, he apprenticed at a monastery as a child as a way to gain an education and accumulate goodwill. He bought his first English-Lao dictionary at the age of 11, with the modest food allowance he received as a novice monk, then scrimped for more books on grammar and sentence structure as he made progress. Now 28, his English is good enough that he works as a guide for Singapore-started social enterprise Backstreet Academy, taking tourists to learn skills from locals.

Another example is Som Leth's father, Phouy, who currently works at another social enterprise called the Living Land Company that offers visitors a taste of the traditional farming experience. His skill in weaving bamboo – mats, baskets and numerous useful household implements – was self-learnt; he started off buying woven items from the market and undoing them, then challenging himself to put them back together.

Phouy can weave anything! He gave us this bird and frog.

Tourism has brought new opportunities to families like theirs. Most of the population is still engaged in subsistence farming, but the average annual income in Laos has risen from US$350 (S$500) to US$1,740 in the 20 years from 1995 to 2015, according to World Bank data, and the tourist industry is the fastest-growing.

Visitors began pouring into Luang Prabang in 1995 after the entire town – not just any one monument – was recognised by UNESCO for its well-preserved architecture.

Now, modern conveniences like ATMs are available at every turn and many of the heritage buildings house tour companies, bars or European cafes serving eggs benedict for breakfast and pizza for lunch.

Pizza restaurants and tour agencies line the main road.

There is a dark side to the tourist boom: The threat to local cultures. The horrifyingly common stories of bus-loads of visitors shoving their cameras in the faces of saffron-robed monks collecting alms at dawn – a sacred ritual for Laotian Buddhists – are a case in point.

Many of the locals that used to live in town have reportedly been pushed out by rising prices and development plans. The dining establishments we went to were more often than not patronised exclusively by foreigners; their menu prices being inaccessible to the average Laotian. Like so many other tourist attractions, Luang Prabang can feel a little like an amusement park at times.

Laos has about 80 different ethnic groups with colourful differences in their customs and traditional dress. In Luang Prabang, Lao, Hmong and Khmu are the main ethnicities. Some worry that their cultural practices are disappearing in the effort to cater to tourist tastes.

There has been, however, some movement to reconcile the local identity with the economic benefits of tourism. Social enterprise Ock Pop Tok (meaning "east meets west"), for example, teams up with village women to create and sell fine, handwoven textiles. The weavers are paid at least three times the minimum wage.

The centrally-located Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) is also dedicated to the preservation of cultural diversity in Laos. At its small museum, you can learn about the practices of the different ethnic groups. Its shop promotes traditional crafts by village artisans on a fair trade basis. On a deeper level, TAEC also serves as a resource centre, engaging local communities through education and conducting field research on their practices.

Weaving looms and materials at Ock Pop Tok.

An exhibit at TAEC showing the use of Job's tears, a type of grain, as beads in ethnic headwear.

Veer a little off the beaten track and you might catch a glimpse of the natural, unspoilt landscape that first gave Luang Prabang its reputation as a Shangri-La.

We spent an educational day with Som Leth, which started at a Hmong village 4km from the town. For about four hours, we learnt how to make crossbows from a master with more than 60 years of experience. It was harder than we thought and our teacher, 80-year-old Chai Song, put our clumsy efforts to shame with his strength and agility.

Chai Song strings a traditional hunting crossbow.

For lunch, our guide welcomed us into his family home where his wife Nang, a finance student, cooked us a delicious meal of Khao Piak Sen, or chewy rice noodles in a light meat broth simmered with fresh herbs such as galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves.

Then his mother, Phengkeo, taught us how to brew lao-hai, a sweet Khmu wine made of sticky rice grains in their husks (the taste is similar to Korean makgeolli) and drunk from earthenware jars with special bamboo straws that filter out the solid material. To add an extra kick, Beer Lao is often added.

Finally, we headed east of town to a secluded nook of the Nam Khan river. Two seasoned fishermen taught us to fish with nets (we weren't very successful) and when we were exhausted they started a fire on the rocks to grill the fish, which they served on a bed of fresh vegetables. We ate the crispy morsels with our hands as we watched the water light up with the last rays of the setting sun.

The next day we packed up and were off to Nong Khiaw, a remote village-town nestled in a valley between mountains.

It stands out as one of my favourite bus journeys, even though it was not very eventful and certainly not comfortable by typical standards.

During the four-hour ride the vehicle lurched noisily every few minutes on the bumpy road, prompting a flurry of panicked chirruping from tiny birds someone had brought onboard.

There was dust everywhere. A friendly-looking mongrel dog trotted down the road with brown scrunched through its matted white fur. Every leaf and flower looked like it had been lightly brushed with cocoa powder. The scene was bathed in a faded, sepia hue, no Instagram filter needed.

Ten minutes after we left the bus station the driver hit play on the CD player and the jaunty opening notes of a Lao folk tune rang out from the speakers at full volume – to the smiling cheers of the mostly middle-aged local passengers and the chagrin of several tired-looking backpackers, who held their hands over their ears.

I thought it was a wonderful soundtrack for the trip. A cool, dusty wind blew in from the open windows, soothing the assault of the fierce afternoon sun. Somehow, the moment had the quality of a memory even as it was playing out.

In time, I might not remember the postcard-pretty buildings or the farm-fresh flavour of the food. But that mood in the air – free, peaceful and ready to shrug off the vicissitudes of life – is unforgettable.

All photos by Melissa Zhu. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaZhuCNA.

Source: CNA/mz