With minds and bodies attuned to the calm of the Lao lifestyle in Vientiane, we do nothing on our first evening in Luang Prabang save for a brief foray into the night market.
We have to drag ourselves away from breakfast overlooking the Mekong the next morning. We don’t have the time to sit around staring at that soporific view, however tempting its hypnotic spell.
Outside, the long narrow streets lined with perfectly preserved colonial buildings and peppered with the sweeping gables of temple roofs at every corner are exactly as we had pictured them. UNESCO’s strict guidelines helping preserve much of the authentic character.
The serenity, the ornate gilded woodwork and the profusion of exquisite golden Buddhas in the temples aside, it is the distinctly rural ambience that we are most captivated by. As well as the smiling faces of the people, the gentle nod and coming together of the hands in a nop, the lilting Sabaidee.
We start at Wat Xieng Thong, that perfect example of vernacular Luang Prabang architecture. Later. we cut across to the Nam Khan river and follow its banks all the way to Wat Visoun, the oldest temple in town. Then we continue circling Mount Phou Si to Sisavangvong street. This is the main drag of the old town where all tourists congregate, where the extent of commercialisation is most explicit in its souvenir shops, restaurants, pubs and travel companies.
It takes about an hour, in true Lao fashion, to be served tall glasses of iced coffee, sandwiches and cheesecake at the Scandinavian bakery. But who’s in a hurry?
The rest of the day is spent soaking up the quiet then ending with a lip-smacking dinner at Tamnak Lao. Who would have thought fresh river fish stewed with aubergine could taste so wonderful?
On the way to dinner earlier that evening we are lured into the exquisite Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham by the faint sounds of rhythmic chanting. One of the monks opens the gate and beckon us in, reminding us not to use flash.
We sit on a bench near the door listening to the comforting cadence of “Buddham Sharanam Gacchami…” while little children kick a soccer ball in the fading light outside. For some reason the presence of those boisterous children heightens our profound sense of well being.
We catch up with the mighty Mekong on a long-tail boat to the Pak ou caves the next day. We decide to share the ride with an American couple. The long cruise lulls us further into Luang Prabang time and the journey rather than the destination seems the more interesting.
Later that afternoon following lunch at 3 Nagas – whose famous pumpkin and coconut crème brûlée is not yet on the menu since it is early tourist season yet – we walk up to the palace museum to check out the diminutive Phra Bang, the sacred statue that gives the city its ‘golden’ name.
R who is nursing a sore back decides to return to the hotel while I climb the 355 steps to mount Phou si to join a very amiable crowd awaiting the spectacle of sunset over karst peaks. Dinner is at Tamarind where great food Is overshadowed by iffy service.
In the early grey light of our last morning we witness Tak Bat – the morning alms giving ceremony – right at our doorstep. Just Ravi and I at our gate and one other young occupant of our hotel who finds an inconspicuous spot on the steps of a house opposite.
The monks file past in absolute silence. An endless saffron stream pausing briefly before reverent almsgivers seated along the road in humble acceptance of the gift of food. The silence, the quiet devotion of the giver and the receiver is deeply moving.
Should tourists take part? I think not. This isn’t a festival. It’s a sacred ritual signifying humility and detachment from material things that locals have followed for generations. Using it as a photo op while ignorant of the rules and wearing inappropriate clothes would be an insensitive intrusion.
Luang Prabang’s tranquility, its identity as a practicing Buddhist city steeped in ancient traditions prompted Marthe Bassene, a French author, to write in 1909:
“Oh! What a delightful paradise of idleness this little country protects, by the fierce barrier of the stream, against progress and ambitions for which it has no need! Will Luang Prabang be, in our century of exact sciences, of quick profits, of victory by money, the refuge of the last dreamers, the last loved ones, the last troubadours?”
A century on, its allure seems intact. But the threat to its slumber and its religious heritage is real.