A Town For All Seasons

The shorter edited version of this article was published in Singapore’s English language newspaper, The Straits Times, in September 2006. I now share with my viewers the longer original version of it under the above caption. It is dedicated to our good friends, Thomas and Margaret Yeo, for inspiring my wife and I to discover this delightful and tranquil town and through us to many others.

When I told my good friend Thomas Yeo, a leading Singapore artist who and his wife Margaret are avid travellers in Asia and beyond, that my wife and I were looking for a new and less touristy destination in this region for our next travel. he spontaneously suggested Luang Prabang, knowing our preference for places that are rich in history, culture and scenic charm. I must confess that I had no idea where it was and is it in Northern Thailand or a border town in Cambodia? If this same question was posed to most other Singaporeans you are likely to draw a blank from them too. Thomas then told me that he and Margaret had been so smitten by this old royal capital of Laos that they had been going there almost annually for many years now and were still not jaded with it. As they are more adventurous travellers than my wife and I are, they would spend about one week to ten days there and discovering its manifold splendour and its unchanging countryside and villages on bicycles and truly got to know their natural beauty, tranquility, traditions and un-demanding way of life. Inspired and fascinated by the Yeos’ love affair with this historic and alluring town, we decided to go to Luang Prabang and its surrounding villages to experience their charms for ourselves. Our artist friend was absolutely right and we were completely captivated by this gem of a place which is still largely unknown to most mainstream Asian tourists.

When I mentioned to my regular traveling companions that we were planning to go to Luang Prabang, they too had no idea where it was but decided to join us as they shared our preferences and judgment. So the party of eight of us, all senior in age, arrived there via Bangkok looking forward to the adventure ahead of us for the next four days. For creature comforts and its convenient location, we chose to stay at the Maison Souvannaphorma Hotel, a boutique inn operated by Singapore’s Angsana Hotel Group, the junior arm of the internationally renowned Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts Group. Its main building is of pre-World War Two vintage. It was the former residence of Prince Suvanna Phorma, who was the Prime Minister of Laos before his government was overthrown by the communist regime of Pathet Laos in 1975 and the prince and his family were put under house arrest together with the king who was forced to renounce his throne. The Prince’s original suite of rooms were offered to our group and we all gladly agreed that Dr Chee and his wife, the oldest among us, should be lodged there to savour the royal ambiance that it offers. The rest of us were accommodated in the new wing at the rear of the original residence. The hotel has an elegant dinning room, with a small swimming pool fronting it and the guests could choose to take their meals in the air-conditioned dinning room or at the open air tables by the side of the swimming pool area, which afford guests a good view of the scenic beauty of this town. The hotel serves very tasty meals, including a couple of Singaporean dishes reflecting its Singapore connection.

Laos has had  a turbulent recent history. It was, unfortunately, being dragged into the bloody Vietnam War as parts of its territory bordering North Vietnam was under the control of  Vietnamese armed forces who used it as a foreign base for  its war needs and as a shelter from the pursuing American and South Vietnamese forces. Consequently, it suffered massive American aerial bombing of its landmass from 1964 to 1973. On a per capital count, it was the most heavily bombarded nation in the world since World War II as more than 260 million bombs landed there. Millions of the unexploded bombs are still scattered over a vast area there. It is a  grisly reminder of the horrors of warfare and man’s inhumanity inflicted on his fellow men.

Immediately after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, another national calamity befell the hapless Laotian people. This country was taken over by the communist Pathert Laos regime who overthrew the ruling royal Laotian government  headed by Prince  Suvanna Phorma, and the Laotian king was forced to abdicate his throne. The King and  Prince were placed under house arrest and the former subsequently died in captivity.

Luang Prabang was the former royal capital of Laos. A World Heritage Site since 1995, this tiny ancient town of about 50,000 residents has many well-preserved  old Buddhist temples and stupas, a royal palace now a museum, numerous French colonial buildings and hundreds of atmospheric old shop houses and residences of eclectic architectural styles. Well endowed with scenic mountain ranges, and strategically located at the junction of the mighty Mekong River, the life blood of this country, and Nam Khan River, Luang Prebang is undoubtedly the most fascinating boutique town in Southeast Asia awaiting a discerning tourist’s discovery and exploration. I can well understand why the well-travelled and adventurous Thomas and Margaret Yeo never get tired of going there year after year and still finds much pleasure in doing so. As an added bonus, I guess this tiny town and its surrounding unspoiled countryside must have given him the much needed inspiration for some of his creative landscape paintings which are well liked by art collectors.

Before 1995 very few tourists ventured to Luang Prabang. It now attracts a steady stream of them, mainly from the West, and the number will increase exponentially as the fame of its allure is spreading. Most of its famous sights and monuments are conveniently concentrated within the old town, and these are best savoured leisurely on foot or by bicycle. It takes only 30 minutes to stroll from one end to the other.

Right smack in the centre of town is Phou Si Hill (the Holy Hill), which has 330 winding steps leading to its 105 m summit. It is topped by an old Buddhist stupa that is visible from most parts of town. After huffing and puffing, we reached the peak, and our efforts were amply rewarded by a breathtaking view of this pristine town, the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers and the surrounding countryside. It is the favourite place to watch the beautiful Luang Prabang sunset. One has to jostle for a good spot in competition with other visitors. Adjacent to  Mount Phou Si is the Royal Palace Museum. Completed in 1909 in French and Laotian architectural styles, we enjoyed viewing the splendid royal art collection, the ornate throne and state rooms and the  tastefully furnished royal living quarters. I was most impressed by the brilliantly carved mosaic murals adorning the walls and ceilings of the palace. They depict the traditional life of Laos and these were the works of the best Laotian craftsmen of  the early 20th century.

The view from Phou Si Hill (Photo credit: Thomas Drissner, Wikimedia Commons)

The view from Phou Si Hill (Photo credit: Thomas Drissner, Wikimedia Commons)

We also visited several of the town’s leading temples. Three of them, each with differing architectural styles and characteristics, are outstanding and worthy of highlighting. Wat Xieng Thong (built 1560) is the most majestic of them all. It is richly decorated with exquisitely carved glass mosaics and gold-stencilled wood columns. It has survived the vicissitudes of time to glorify Buddhism. Wat Mai (18th century), a rare jewel among the temples there, has a unique five-tiered roof and is renowned for its bas-relief works with religious themes. Formerly an exclusive royal temple, it is now open to all devotees and is the most popular temple in Luang Prabang. Wat Wisunalat has had a chequered history. Its original 16th century main chapel was destroyed in warfare, but was rebuilt in 1898. This temple now houses a large collection of 16th and 17th centuries images of Lord Buddha. Miraculously, an ancient melon-shaped stupa still stands on its grounds as a reminder of its turbulent and glorious past.

The gorgeous That Chomsi (Photo credit: Ondřej Žváček, Wikimedia Commons)

The gorgeous That Chomsi (Photo credit: Ondřej Žváček, Wikimedia Commons)

One highlight was our two-hour boat trip down the Mekong River to view the Pak Ou Buddha caves, about 25 km from town. This famous and fabled river, with its muddy-coloured water, is the twelfth longest in the world and is shared by several other countries including China’s Yunnan Province, Fortunately, we visited these caves in perfect weather, otherwise the path leading to them would have been slippery and therefore dangerous. Inside the cavernous caves were numerous antique wood Buddha images of different periods, deposited there for safekeeping by the Laotian kings and devotees in times of strife.

On our last day, we got up at 5am in order to witness the daily alms-giving by devotees to monks from various temples at different parts of town. We followed one group of orange-robed monks in semi-darkness to watch devotees putting a handful of rice from a container into each monk’s begging bowl as they passed them. Tradition dictates that female devotees must perform this ritual kneeling as a gesture of respect as they must not tower over the monks, even though many of whom are teenage novices. The alms-giving is usually completed by 6 am and the monks would then return to their respective temples to eat their only meal of the day. Food is forbidden after noon until the next day.

A typical market scene (Photo credit: Zaphod Beeblebrox, Wikimedia Commons)

A typical market scene (Photo credit: Zaphod Beeblebrox, Wikimedia Commons)

Most of the 160 French colonial buildings and houses have been converted into boutique hotels, guest houses, restaurants, government offices or diplomatic residences. One of these elegant houses is now the official residence of the provincial governor. It is very interesting and revealing to view the original interiors of these old colonial buildings whose ornate and attractive ornamental wooden and concrete decorations contrasted very starkly with the very modest but comfortable and spotlessly clean dwellings of the majority of the residents there.

Buddhism is deeply rooted in Laos and largely influences the Laotian way of life and their relationships with one another. This is reflected in their natural warmth, gentleness, hospitality and  spontaneous smiles shown to visitors. These qualities, coupled with their contented and laid back lifestyle, contrast starkly with the more materialistic and stressful city life elsewhere. So peaceful and safe is Luang Prabang that women folks can walk or cycle alone even late at night in deserted back lanes or unlighted paths without fear of being molested. Can you imagine this happening in many big cities around the rest of the more affluent societies? This is because the crime rate is extremely low there, and hence  the chances of any tourist being mugged or hurt at anytime are quite remote. On top of these, the local people always made us feel warmly at home as honoured guests in their midst.

For the more history and culture-oriented Singaporeans and other tourists who are jaded with the more popular destinations on the mainstream tourism, a trip to this delightful town will be a rewarding and stimulating experience. The best times to go are between the dry and cooler months of November and February. Bangkok Airways has a direct daily flight there from Bangkok to Luang Prabang.

Five things to do:

  • Few tour operators offer package tours to Luang Prabang. It’s easy to tour the place independently. There are expensive and budget hotels to suit all pockets. Have a good guide-book and you can cover the major sights by yourself. Tuk-tuks (like trishaws) are everywhere for those who prefer taking them to walking or bicycling.
  • Take a boat trip to Pak Ou Buddha caves and Whisky Village (do sample this native potent drink) to enhance your holiday. For nature lovers, Kuang Si waterfall, 32 km from town, is a perfect place for a refreshing picnic. Local travel operators can arrange these.
  • With a bicycle, you can conveniently traverse the nearby tranquil villages and observe the natives’ lifestyle closely. Or you can take a short boat trip across the Mekong and visit a number of the less frequented, but significant, old temples like Wat Long Khun and Wat Tham Xieng Maen. They are still in a good state of preservation and give one a spiritual and serene feel.
  • Surprisingly, tiny Luang Prabang boasts of many excellent restaurants, especially for Laotian, Thai and French cuisines, at  very reasonable costs. Some serve a combination of these foods. These restaurants are well-known there and easy to find. Our group had a delightful French dinner with wine at a restaurant owned by a resident French owner, who had sunk his roots there, at less than half the cost in a good French restaurant in Singapore, Hong Kong or Bangkok.
  • Night life is confined mainly to wine bars, pubs, karaoke lounges and jazz clubs, which stay open till late and won’t cost a bomb. Shopping at the nightly open air night market is a must-do for all tourists. With numerous vendors selling their goods by the roadside, it offers a vibrant and convivial shopping experience. Good buys include textiles, handicrafts, souvenirs and handmade tribal products. Do bargain for fairer prices, but with good humour. High quality silk, textile, gold or silver articles are available only in better quality shops in town or at expensive hotels.

… as well as two don’ts:

  • Avoid eating street food at all cost, as it tends to be unhygienic. Eat and drink only at places which practise acceptable standards of cleanliness and food management. Do bring along a medical kit, including mosquito repellent, as a prudent precaution in a country where the public health standard is inadequate.
  • Never lose your temper if the service staff in some restaurants, shops or other establishments do not meet your expectations. If you are curt or aggressive, you will forfeit their respect for you as a guest in their country. Accept that their ways may differ from yours and all will be fine and you will have a good and refreshing holiday in this land of gracious, warm-hearted and welcoming people.

Lam Pin Foo

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