Helen Anderson finds a beguiling melange of serenity and sophistication in the former royal capital of Luang Prabang.
As long as anyone can remember, every day has begun this way. At dawn the monks materialise from the darkness in lines, like bursts of sunlight in saffron robes, each cradling an alms bowl. The longest procession is along Sakkarine Road, which runs along the spine of this former royal capital in the northern jungles of Laos, but there are orderly rows of monks following well-trodden routes all over town, to 32 temples, one for each village within the mediaeval urban network of Luang Prabang.
Entire households wake early, drape white scarves across their shoulders and gather on street corners with cane baskets filled with little banana-leaf parcels of sticky rice prepared this morning. The monks stop to chant at intervals, then walk on, silently and slowly, as their bowls are filled by the faithful, for whom this is a gesture to accrue heavenly merit and an act of practical compassion, for this is the young men's main source of food.
Some people complain that the alms-giving has turned into a spectacle for tourists and, certainly, it's appalling to see noisy busloads pull up on Sakkarine Road, jump in front of the priestly procession for hasty digital snaps, then roar off. But I see plenty of considerate, observant travellers. And on the backstreets, in the warm morning rain, I'm the only visitor among residents gathered, kneeling, with their alms, as they do every day.
The impact of tourism is discussed everywhere in Luang Prabang, partly because the town is so sleepy and special and though it sometimes swarms with travellers it still feels like a private, miraculous discovery, and partly because tourism is so important in a country as poor as Laos.
Most people agree that the single most powerful factor responsible for preserving the town centre's unique melange of Buddhist temples, traditional wooden houses and 1920s French colonial mansions was its UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1995.
The former UNESCO chief architect, Laurent Rampon, says the process of creating an architectural master plan was fascinating in a town whose heritage had been hitherto preserved only by poverty. "In creating a standard for heritage conservation in Luang Prabang, we had to understand this is a living site, not like Angkor Wat [in neighbouring Cambodia], which is long dead," he says. "The idea was not to stop development but to create a framework for the future."
The master plan he created can be seen in small details, such as the bricks used to repave some of the town's 80 alleys and the street lights placed in terracotta pots, and in bold statements, including sympathetic transformations of colonial-era buildings, such as Amantaka, an elegant Aman hotel in an old hospital, and Alila Luang Prabang, a stylish new villa resort within the high walls of an old prison.
Rampon has since moved into private practice and was responsible for the seamless expansion last year of Satri House, once the residence of Prince Souphanouvong, now a chic boutique hotel. It's difficult to tell which suites date from the 1920s and which are new - "I tried to respect the spirit of the place," he says.
The house's owner, the Laos-born, Paris-educated Lamphoune Voravongsa, has styled each room with rare antiques she has collected since returning to live in Laos in the late '90s. "It was like Luang Prabang was waking up after 25 years," she recalls of her return. "It was very quiet, like travelling into the past." The communist Lao People's Democratic Republic has ruled since the 1975 revolution that ousted the 650-year-old Lao monarchy.
Even now, though there's more traffic, tourists and temptations, the rhythm of life can only be described as languid - "Lao time" has its own sweet pace that seems to regulate most things, from the polite flow of motorcycles and bicycles to the fluid notion of the arrival of a bottle of Beerlao or a Mekong River ride. Lao time might be faster than it once was, but there is still time for family and village duties and for old-fashioned manners.
"Bor pen nyang [no problem] is the most common phrase you'll hear in Luang Prabang," says Richard Smith, a New Zealander who visited frequently as a backpacker and eventually built the Lotus Villa Boutique Hotel with his Australian-born partner, Jacinta, and her brother, Andrew. "It's true, the town is very special. But the reason why travellers visit and return and end up staying is the people. There's a gentleness and sincerity you don't find anywhere else."
Certainly, an air of Buddhist calm settles like a smile. Every Lao man will spend some time as a novice monk and there's a wat, or temple, in Luang Prabang within every couple of streets, with mildewy whitewashed walls, ornate wood carving and dramatic high-pitched roofs swooping low, almost to the ground.
One of the most remarkable spiritual sites lies 25 kilometres up river on the Mekong, a leisurely 90-minute ride in a long boat from town. In the Pak Ou caves, high in limestone cliffs above the river, are thousands of sculptures of Buddha. Some are life-sized and draped with necklaces of flowers, some are tiny and new - but many are centuries old, carved from wood and damaged. They're powerful en masse - reclining, meditating, calling the earth and the rain - and their survival, here in a humid cave, seems a miracle, something permanent within the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence.
Even the famous night market in Luang Prabang's main street seems to operate on karmic power, a nightly event where bargaining is shy, good-natured and honest. This is one of the few places in the world where I can truly say shopping is a pleasure. Every night a stretch of the main street is closed to traffic and fills magically with scores of stalls run mainly by villagers from out of town selling their handmade goods: Hmong appliqued quilts and padded shoes, fine silversmithing, beautiful saa (mulberry leaf) paper and lengths of hand-woven silk in a rainbow of colours and patterns. The country once known as the Land of a Thousand Elephants has become the Land of a Thousand Scarves.
A similar air of serenity pervades the morning food market, which is hard to believe when most produce is alive and kicking: tubs of thrashing fish, garlands of river crabs, baskets of frogs, cages of chooks, a little dormitory of sleepy rodents. There's a grisly open-air butchery here and dozens of stalls selling curiosities such as dried buffalo skin, to make the popular snack jaew bawng (a paste of buffalo skin and dried chillies - an acquired taste) and sheets of nori-style Mekong river weed, sprinkled with sesame seeds and chilli to make khai paen, another popular snack. Lao cuisine is heavily freighted with greenery and all around us are armfuls of herbs, weeds and watercress.
I'm trailing Amousith, a young chef at Amantaka, who names and describes fish and fowl, piles of roots and bunches of edible flowers. Around the corner at a riverside shack, open from 3 o'clock every morning, we join locals drinking coffee Lao-style, brewed strong and served in glasses on top of a layer of condensed milk.
A few hours later we meet on the outskirts of town in a kitchen pavilion set in a community farm. On one side is a waist-high rice paddy almost ready to harvest and all around are rows of vegetables growing organically. This is a cooking class, Aman style, which means the location and the food are superb, even if I'm the one banging the (clay) pots. Amousith and two sous chefs teach me some important Lao basics: how to stuff and correctly fold a banana-leaf parcel - with one hand - before steaming over charcoals; how to properly prepare the ubiquitous sticky rice; how to grate a green papaya with a knife. I eat my four courses slowly, in a pavilion beside a lily pond, perfectly happy in the moment.
On my last night I decide to go nightclubbing - but not as I've known it. At 10.30pm, an hour before everything in town closes for the night, I join a big crowd of families and young people at Muong Sua. The Thai pop soundtrack has ended and now there's a band on stage crooning Lao love songs. This causes the dance floor to fill and the crowd forms serried rows and begins line-dancing. Now, these are quite complicated and graceful moves and everyone spins and turns in harmony, hands fluttering. I'm as graceful as a water buffalo and when I turn, I bump into two young women. They smile beatifically. "Bor pen nyang," they reply to my apology and continue spinning, their hands floating like butterflies.
Helen Anderson travelled courtesy of Mr & Mrs Smith and British Airways.
Rich fabric of life
I ADD a simple rusty nail to a cauldron of simmering water infused with some sappanwood I've inexpertly chipped with a machete — and on cue my cream raw-silk scarf turns from bubble-gum pink to a startling claret purple. Around me in an open-air pavilion are steaming brews of pure vegetable dye being stirred and mashed: Indian trumpet bark will yield a shade of sage green, pounded turmeric root for yellow, lemongrass for a paler shade of lemon and annatto seeds for a deep saffron.
The weaving centre of Ock Pop Tok, meaning "East meets West" in Lao, sits on the bank of the Mekong River, a short ride by bicycle or tuk-tuk from Luang Prabang, past markets and rice paddies.
A decade ago, a British traveller in her mid-20s, Jo Smith, met a local woman in her mid-20s, Veomanee Duangdala, from a long line of master weavers. They had a plan to resuscitate the region's Lao-Tai silk- and cotton-spinning, dyeing and weaving practices, full of subtle distinctions between villages and ethnic groups, which were slowly being discontinued and forgotten.
Their business venture has grown to become a weaving centre that employs 40 female artisans. Their textiles are exhibited and sold in two Ock Pop Tok galleries; this is likely to be the first exposure that many Westerners have to the unique and complex traditions of Lao loom design and weaving.
The textiles are exquisite, some bearing motifs of naga (shape-changing mythological water serpents), siho (half-lion, half-elephant creatures) and stylised real creatures using techniques such as matmee (also known as ikat), chok, kit and nam lai.
To DIY, the centre tailors classes to any skill level, from a half-day dyeing class to a week-long ikat course.
Ock Pop Tok's influence is widespread. In joint projects, the master weavers share their skills with village weavers in seven provinces.
In the centre's breezy Tree House Cafe, over a cup of silkworm-poo tea ("full of antioxidants" and delicious, truly), Smith describes a joint project with weavers in a remote village in the south. "We helped the women there change a particular technique that reduced weaving time from two months to two weeks. Small changes like that can make a huge difference."
For true immersion, accommodation in the Villa by Ock Pop Tok has opened in the gardens of the weaving centre. Each of the four guest rooms has river views, a regional textile theme and, of course, confections of silk, hemp and cotton.
Ock Pop Tok has a weaving centre and gallery at Ban Saylom, two kilometres from Luang Prabang, and a gallery on Sakkarine Road. Double rooms at Villa by Ock Pop Tok cost from $US50 ($50) a night, including breakfast. See ockpoptok.com.
British Airways has a fare to Bangkok from Sydney (9hr) for about $1070 low-season return including tax; Melbourne passengers connect in Sydney. Lao Airlines flies from Bangkok to Luang Prabang (1hr 40min) for about $500 return.
Thai Airways has flights and fares that connect via Bangkok.
Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days, which can be obtained on arrival in Laos for $US30 with two passport photos.
- Alila Luang Prabang is a 23-suite resort within the high walls of a former colonial prison; suites cost from $US275; see mrandmrssmith.com.
- Amantaka has 24 elegant suites within a former colonial hospital, from $US840.
A chef's market tour and cooking class is available to guests and non-guests for $US200 a couple; advance bookings required; see amanresorts.com.
- Satri House has 25 rooms and suites furnished with antiques and silk, from $US220, including breakfast; see satrihouse.com.
- The boutique hotel experts at Mr & Mrs Smith recommend six properties in Luang Prabang: the three already listed plus Orient-Express's La Residence Phou Vao, the tres chic nine-room Apsara Rive Droite and the charming 3 Nagas by Alila on the main street. See mrandmrssmith.com.
- Lotus Villa Boutique Hotel has 15 rooms and two suites opening to a tropical courtyard; rooms cost from $US68, including breakfast; see lotusvillalaos.com.
- The town's main street is lined with tour agencies offering a range of day trips to waterfalls, jungle camps and river rides; hotels can also arrange trips.
- Stray Asia, a pioneering adventure-tour company running hop-on, hop-off bus travel in Laos and Thailand, has added, this month, a five-day Long Thaang pass into Laos's remote north-east, departing weekly from Luang Prabang. The highlight is Vieng Xai, a city hidden in limestone caves that was occupied by more than 20,000 people during US bombing in the 1960s and '70s. See straytravel.asia.