Still Lovely After All These Years


Nestled between two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khon, lovely Luang Prabang still has the power to charm despite being “discovered” by zillions of tourists. We were here in 2004, again in 2007, and felt trepidation that it would no longer be the entrancing place we remembered. Well, times change, more guesthouses and restaurants have sprung up, but the lovely wats, the atmospheric colonial buildings, the cobbled streets and the gorgeous river views are as wonderful as every. The perfect place to tootle around by bicycle, not really going anywhere or doing anything, just soaking up the ambience.

Luang Prabang had the good fortune to be declared a UNESCO heritage site in the early 1990’s just after Laos began to welcome tourists again after being more or less closed for many years. Such designation means that the heritage buildings cannot be torn down, just restored, and nothing new can be built that is higher than the 2 story traditional houses. Thus the new guesthouses we see are really just renovations of guesthouses and shophouses that were there before. Some are amazingly upmarket, it seems that really well heeled travellers have found the place, as it is on the Bangkok – Siem Reap (for Angkor Wat) – Luang Prabang triangle. For many visitors this is the only part of Laos they see, and it is certainly not Laos, there is nothing remotely like it anywhere else in a country that is still one of the 20 poorest in the world.

When we decided to take a more relaxing trip this time, we couldn’t resist revisiting Laos which is probably our favourite country so far. Since we have already spent weeks and weeks traversing the place into far flung places where we saw no other tourists and met hill tribe people who had never seen foreigners before, we determined that this would be our relaxing place, no long bus rides, just spending time in a couple of favourite places. We have just had a week here in LP and could easily stay longer.

We just followed our whims each day — the monks still chant in the wats at dusk so we rode our bikes past some favourites in the evenings, creeping in to sit on the floor and soak up the atmosphere. The wats here are so beautiful, and the monks, though carrying cell phones now, seem so much more traditional and serene than the rather commercialized ones in Thailand. These are really very old, very unique wats and we were startled to see how much wear and tear they are suffering. Our favourite Wat Xieng Thong which was so very pink and studded with mosaic depictions of village and religious life is looking very worn and tired. However, monks are wielding paint brushes and I guess they have lots of time, so hopefully they are trying to restore it. The rains here take a terrible toll on building exteriors and poor Laos has no money and a very corrupt government.

We took the bikes out into the countryside tracing old routes through country villages, leaving on the “old” bridge which takes only bikes and motorbikes, and managing to return by one of the bamboo bridges after wrestling the bikes down the muddy steps to where a lady was waiting to collect five thousand kip (50 cents) for the return trip and then struggling with the ascent. We found the weaving centre where we had bought a hanging 6 years ago and when we told the young man there that we had visited before he insisted on taking us upstairs in the beautiful teak house they had just built to see his mother’s collection of antique weavings. Unbelievable work on the fine brocades, and some very old hill tribe work too. Fascinating.

We visited Ock Pop Tok, an organization which is helping hill tribe women from the villages to sell their wonderful weavings and thereby encouraging the preservation of the art. They have a beautiful workshop out of town a little beside the river where women sit at looms of various types plying their craft, and they visit the villages to get 70% of the product they sell. They are dedicated to fair trade so nothing is free but they guarantee the weavers are paid well for the incredible amount of work in some of their products. They offer weaving courses of a day to a week for all you weavers out there, imagine having a master weaver sit with you while you weave your own silk or cotton piece. Doug couldn’t resist and so we have a most gorgeous new wall hanging, which he will have to carry for the rest of the journey. We watched the young woman who wove it at her loom, she has “invented” a new style of weaving the traditional prayer flag motif (traditional weaving is a bit like native West Coast art, the motifs are symbols that have deep meaning to those who weave them.) This young woman has won prizes at international competitions all over the world. Watching her at her loom we wondered if she had any idea how special her talent is. Lao weaving was nearly a victim of Laos’s tempestuous period, when 10% of the population escaped and everyone else just struggled to survive. When things opened up again in the early 90’s an American woman came back to Laos and single handedly began the work of encouraging traditional weavers to return to their art and collecting some of the old pieces. Now there are a number of organizations doing that and it seems that the situation is quite positive.

We had taken an excellent cooking class when we were here in 2007, the first time we had ever done a class like that, so we did another one here. Very good too, different recipes (cookbook provided) and done traditionally over clay braziers. We then ate dinner at the restaurant with which it is affiliated to see how ours should have turned out! The chef was good, very laconic but explained well and tried hard to aid us as we ineptly stuffed chicken into slitted lemon grass, wrapped marinated fish in banana leaves, and made our own coconut milk. Promise to practise on any and all volunteers when we get home.

A new museum dedicated to hill tribe culture and crafts has opened since we were here last. An old French house had been renovated for it, the pictures of the renovation were interesting. It had a great display of traditional dress, implements and housing with unusually good English commentary, but most interesting to us was a video showing a traditional baci ceremony for a wedding. It was identical to the ceremony we had attended in Hongsa, except that at that one we tied money into the white strings we tied on the bride and groom and in the filmed one everyone just tied on the strings. The commentary was fun for us to hear as we had wondered what all the rituals meant but of course no one could explain it to us. We were very lucky to witness the ceremony.

We treated ourselves to a wonderful small (12 room) hotel for our stay. The room was lovely, with a little patio through French doors, but the best thing was the massive lotus pond which comprised half the property. Ringed with comfortable chairs, it was the most atmospheric place to sit and read, or contemplate, or drink half price mojitos at happy hour. Being served breakfast in this setting has been such a lovely indulgence. The manager, a most interesting and stunningly beautiful French woman who has never lived in France — born an expat in Africa, working there and in SE Asia, married to a man of the same background, she can’t imagine every living in cold, traditional France — was a font of information and we so enjoyed our chats with her.

So, this truly has been a place where we could be happy every day, and we have to tear ourselves away tomorrow. We added a day to our stay and would have stayed longer, but we are flying down to the south and could not get a flight for a later date. Small planes, and they don’t fly every day. More relaxing in the Four Thousand Islands while we wait to meet Rebecca, Mel and Heath back in Thailand on the 17th. Seems a long time since we saw all of you. Best to all, Your really lazy travellers.
Sent from my iPad


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