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March 30, 2010

The Secrets of Laos

In the backstreets of Luang Prabang, the country's historic royal capital, Mike Meyer discovers a city in the midst of a reawakening.

While searching for a route into China from the West in 1861, the explorer Henri Mouhot discovered Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos, known then in the East as the Kingdom of a Million Elephants. But to the intrepid Frenchman, who first relayed to the Western world the splendor of Angkor Wat, the city was simply "a delightful little town covering a square mile of ground.... If the midday heat were tempered by a gentle breeze, the place would be a little paradise." Mouhot's modest description notwithstanding, the Luang Prabang of today has, in fact, become a nirvana for modern explorers (the malarial heat that felled Mouhot has for the most part been replaced with AC).

Hugged on three sides by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang surrounds Mount Phousi. This is a symbolic incarnation of Mount Meru, which Hindu and Buddhist mythology place at the center of the universe. In more prosaic terms, Laos is like the Poland of Southeast Asia, squeezed between its ambitious neighbors—China to the north, Thailand to the west, and Vietnam to the east. Indeed, most visitors regard Luang Prabang as just one stop on the Indochinese Grand Tour: next up, Cambodia's Angkor Wat, Hue in Vietnam, then Shanghai or a beach in China. But a weekend isn't enough to absorb the city. Luang Prabang's sublime blend of architecture, ecology, and religion earned it the designation of World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995. And while those neighbors have struggled amid political upheaval and war, Luang Prabang, a safe haven for travelers, has become the region's best hope for preserving its heritage.

After the Lao People's Democratic Republic established its capital in 1975 in Vientiane—a ramshackle city that set new standards for Communist-era bleakness—Luang Prabang, a city of 60,000, was scrubbed clean of symbols that didn't fit a people's dictatorship. It was, in essence, lost in time. But now years of neglect have reaped quaint charm: Among the faded colonial buildings left after French rule in the late 1800s, relics of a richer past have been revived, spurred by the efforts of future-minded conservationists. Shops devoted to Laos's tradition of exquisite silk weaving have opened on main streets, again called by their traditional names. The Royal Palace Museum theater stages shows by the Royal Lao Ballet. And saffron-robed monks, the Luang Prabang human equivalent of Havana's Eisenhower-era cars, have begun repairing the temples from which they were once evicted.

Given the poor condition of Lao highways, it's best to fly to Luang Prabang from Vientiane or Bangkok, then depart the city via a two-day cruise on the Mekong (see "Cruising on the Mekong River"). My 40-minute flight from Vientiane (from Bangkok, it's less than two hours) took me past the golden stupa crowning Mount Phousi at the heart of town, over whitewashed buildings obscured by palm trees. Our descent was reminiscent of the opening scene in Casablanca; from this perspective Luang Prabang looked like a movie set, its streets and ponds as intricately laced as Laos's famous handwoven silk.

The extraordinary textiles of Luang Prabang are what I sought out first. I found them at Satri Lao Silk, a shop in the city center. Caroll Samson, a Quebec native, has worked here for seven years with some of the best examples of Lao weaving. The fabrics she sells—like a yard-long swath patterned in red, green, orange, and blue thread—can run as high as $2,000.

"Feel how heavy this piece is," she said, handing me a shawl-size cloth that was not much thicker than a dinner napkin but weighed as much as a wool blanket. "That's because there's a lot of thread in it." Samson had me examine the back. "It's flawless on both sides," she explained. "It took months to make."

The shawl was a perfect example of why Luang Prabang weaving is so remarkable—and so expensive: The more silk thread, the higher the price. And of course not just any thread is used. Luang Prabang weavers work with handmade fibers from Laos and Vietnam. Thread made from these fibers can only be processed seasonally, since they are colored with natural dyes. "A weaver can buy a one-dollar packet of orange dye from China, or she can soak a coconut for two weeks, boil it for two days, and make the dye by hand. And with natural dyes, she can make them just once a year, depending on what flower, wood, or wax is in season."

As impressive as it is, the craftsmanship behind Lao silk is responsible for only part of its value. The patterns depict mythical figures or Buddhist ideals, according to Satri Lao owner Lamphoune Voravongsa, who joined us to explain the designs she commissions from local weavers. "You are buying a one-of-a-kind piece of art," she said.

After spending a few nights at Satri House, Voravongsa's divine seven-room hotel set in a 1900 French colonial mansion, I had every reason to believe her. The rooms are a showcase for Voravongsa's collection of silk, mosaic-style inlaid glass, and antiques.

"See this gold shape here?" Voravongsa continued, fingering a shawl. "It's a naga, the mythical water serpent that has protective powers. Over here, in blue, is a lotus. And there, in green, is a bird-of-paradise. Each weaver has her own unique design, which she sews into a story."

Traditionally Lao wear such intricately woven scarves on special occasions, the way the Japanese do kimonos. Less ornate designs are used as everyday apparel. "Silk is a noble material for foreigners," Voravongsa said. "People who buy these will probably hang them on the wall. But for Lao"—and here she touched her blouse and skirt—"everything is silk. It's our cotton."

The number of textile shops around Luang Prabang has now mushroomed, with most concentrated along the central avenue, Sisavangvong Road. Shops like OckPopTok ("East meets West") sell designs by young Lao, among them the sunburst-red wrap blouse I bought my wife for $45. By day, weavers display scarves and clothing in their doorway. And every day at dusk, local women set up a market on Sisavangvong selling knit scarves, mulberry-paper lamps, and handbags. Sitting on mats beneath single sodium bulbs, vendors greet you with a quiet sabbaidee. You do not hear "hello" or "looky, looky," and bargaining is modest. I live in Beijing, and when an elderly Lao woman requested $10 for a tapestry, I heard myself offering her $5. The woman's face fell. She clutched her work, which she'd spent a month sewing, to her chest. Within the hour she had sold it for $15, still a fraction of what it would fetch overseas. An innkeeper laughed at the comeuppance I'd received. "If you see something you like," he said, "just buy it."

Francis Engelmann, special advisor to Heritage House (the agency that oversees the preservation of Luang Prabang under the aegis of UNESCO), stood me before an aerial sketch of Luang Prabang in his office that overlooks the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan. Where I saw squares and lines, Engelmann envisioned a community. He traced a route with his finger through the town, leading me from one of the city's 200 or so ponds, through its neighborhoods—or ban, as they're called—past wood homes on stilts, along a narrow lane past a French villa to a temple, then ending at the Mekong.

"Most visitors come to Luang Prabang and leave with an image of a nice colonial city. They miss half of it," Engelmann said with a shrug. The image he was referring to is centered around Sisavangvong Road, which has been dubbed Thang Falang (Foreigner Road) by some locals. It's easy to see why. The street is an open-air museum of 19th-century French masonry—two-story buildings with tall windows, wood shutters, and creamy façades. Spin the racks of postcards and you can almost smell the frangipani. Travel agents advertise flights to Ko Samui and Siem Reap. Uniformed schoolkids shout "Bonjour!" from the grounds of the old Ecole Primaire. English is the lingua franca, the dollar the de facto currency. Sisavangvong Road is not tacky or overrun, but it is usually the only slice of town that many visitors see. And as quaint as its villas and row houses are, the town's colonial section is no Hanoi Old Quarter or even Shanghai Bund. The foreign-built buildings recall only a minor port from the colonial-era Caribbean. "What is most precious here," Engelmann said, "are the remains of the city before cement."

Beneath the cracks of the French colonial masonry is a traditional wooden town—some 600 historic buildings in total. "Here we have, in one city, two cities," said Engelmann, who works with a staff of 15 local architects. "It's like Alice in Wonderland: You have to cross through the mirror and enter another universe." And in Luang Prabang the mirror is a series of redbrick pathways, each of which costs Heritage House a few thousand dollars to restore—a small price to pay to get off the main street.

The lane off Sisavangvong Road leads to one of the town's oldest ban, dominated by a wooden mansion built around 1900, before colonial architecture was adopted by local aristocracy. Along the brick path leading to it are herb and flower gardens. The structure, Villa Xieng Mouane, was renovated by Heritage House in 1998. The building perches atop eight rows of stilts, sunken into a brick foundation on marshy ground. Coconut trees shade the roof. Single planks form the walls and floor, which creak with every step. Despite myself, I thought it little more than a crumbling hut. The setting, too, felt malarial. It seemed to me an emblem of the impossibilities of preservation.

But a second look—and a listen—gave way to utter tranquillity. Outside, the only noise was the chirping of crickets, not the drone of the mopeds that fill the roads. Instead of engine oil, I smelled wet grass. A narrow gutter in the ground led to a pond, part of the intricate drainage system in place before the French arrived. A pair of ducks paddled around a blooming lotus. A fish jumped. The laughter of kids coming home for lunch pulled me to another lane, where a pair of boys played checkers with soda-bottle tops (Pepsi pummeled 7-Up). Dogs snoozed in the shade. A homemade kite fluttered behind a running girl. A pedicurist walked door-to-door, her basket filled with polishes in cherry hues. The path ended at Wat Xieng Mouane, where monks sat sketching murals as part of their temple's renovation. I had left a tourist town and entered a community.

France never put its heart into ruling Laos. Luang Prabang was to serve as the gateway to China's resource-rich Yunnan Province, but the thick, jungly mountains separating the two countries thought otherwise. At the height of France's presence, only a couple hundred French colonists lived in what was considered a dead-end post, a landlocked backwater of the empire.

Its agents populate Louis-Charles Royer's 1935 novel, Kham la laotienne. Royer describes the effect Laos had upon its French rulers: "It was they who had been 'colonized.' They had been contaminated by the local indolence; they just let their life go; all they asked for was a clear sky, tasty fruit, fresh drinks, and easy women."

The new settlers are far more productive and engaged. Canadians Isabel Dréan and Simon Côté run L'Etranger Books and Tea, a café and library. Selections range from pulp romance to Lao history; upstairs, the gallery space is often given over to the works of young local painters.

Foreign investment and increased tourism is a catch-22, however. If every traditional home gets converted to a hotel or café, Luang Prabang will end up a cultural theme park dominated by outsiders. But the city's renaissance is fueled by tourism. UNESCO projects, for example, train monks in the lost art of temple restoration. And tourism provides jobs in a country whose currency hasn't yet recovered from the Asian financial crisis of the mid-nineties—a fact that makes travel to Luang Prabang guiltily cheap.

Business in Luang Prabang is still in the chrysalis stage. Competition is not cutthroat. The night I ate at L'Eléphant, the city's best French restaurant, the chef recommended I try Café Régine for its savory buckwheat galette, a type of crêpe. Régine's owners, in turn, raved about the Apsara hotel's lemongrass-stuffed panin fish.

There I asked owner Ivan Scholte, an Englishman, about foreign investment in Luang Prabang. He said, "I'm committed to the UNESCO guidelines for architecture. Will that alone preserve Lao culture? I can't pretend to do that. But I can employ people and give them a better life."

Scholte's recommendation led me to Action Max, a trekking company owned by Ghislaine Ferrero and Didier Rexach. Formerly based in Ho Chi Minh City, Ferrero and Rexach followed the tourist buzz to Luang Prabang, fell in love at first sight, and stayed. Required by law to have a Lao business partner, Action Max teamed with Heritage House, which now receives 10 percent of its profits.

One of Action Max's day hikes takes a small group, led by a local Hmong guide fluent in English, into the highlands around Luang Prabang. Hikers visit villages soon to be emptied by a government resettlement program aimed at eradicating slash-and-burn farming. The practice has taken its toll on the environment; aid groups like the International Rice Research Institute are now helping farmers use sustainable techniques.

Our long day ended with a swim in the river that runs past Henri Mouhot's tomb. The white marble sarcophagus was a death bier teeming with life. A profusion of flowers and creeper vines had sprouted around it, populated with butterflies, spiders, and ants. The shouts of fishermen standing waist-deep in the river echoed off the bank. Under a banyan tree, a plaque given by Mouhot's hometown declared proud of our son. The leaves rustled, a gentle breeze tempering the midday heat. It was the explorer's paradise, found at last.


Cruising on the Mekong River

Luang Prabang has always been linked to the outside world by its waterways, and given the state of Lao highways, the Mekong is often the preferable route. LUANGSAY CRUISES, operated by East West Siam, runs a boat three times a week between Luang Prabang and Houayxay on the Thai border. The best time to book in high season is when leaving the city; the boat will be nearly empty.

The 110-foot vessel is outfitted with comfortable seats, a bar, and an English-speaking staff. When you're cruising the Mekong north of Luang Prabang, unlike cruising the Yangtze, there's not much to see by way of landmarks or design. Laos is a sparsely populated nation of six million and the few settlements we came across consisted of a few huts. Our only companions were the fishermen who sidled up to the boat to offer that day's catch of catfish or an unlucky lizard.

We made a few stops—a visit to Ban Baw, a local village that produces whiskey, and a half hour at Pak Ou cave, a sacred repository of Buddhas no longer venerated at temple—but the day passed mostly to the sound of river spray and whirring engines.

After ten hours on the water, we stayed the night at the LuangSay Lodge in Pakbeng, sleeping in rosewood-and-teak bungalows with thatched roofs. A pastis on ice greeted me at check-in, followed by dinner overlooking the Mekong, which shone purple from the setting sun. We lingered into the night, under the stars doming the tiny village of 200 houses, whose lights shut off at ten. The morning brought another serene day on the river, the water lulling us as the boat carried us home. $ $300 per trip, each way. 856-71/252-553; www.mekongcruises.com or www.asian-oasis.com.

Luang Prabang Details

The time to visit is late September through April.

GETTING THERE
LAO AIRLINES ($ 856-21/212-051; www.laos-airlines.com) flies to Luang Prabang twice daily from Vientiane. The 40-minute flight costs $58.

BANGKOK AIRWAYS ($ 866-226-4565; www.bangkokair.com) provides daily service to and from Bangkok. The two-hour flight is $150 each way.

WHERE TO STAY
SATRI HOUSE Lamphoune Voravongsa's seven-room hotel occupies a French mansion built in 1900. Set off the main street in a central neighborhood, it has air-conditioned rooms with four-poster beds and a pool in the garden. $ Rates, $90-$110. At 57 Phothisarath Rd.; 856-71/253-491.

LA RESIDENCE PHOU VAO Stay here for the pool and the garden overlooking Luang Prabang. The 34 suitelike rooms are lovely, but the four above the dining room have the nicest patios. The facilities are the most luxe in town; the location—a five-minute ride from downtown—isn't. Rates, $200-$290. At Phou Vao Rd.; 856-71/212-530; www.pansea.com.

THE APSARA The seven rooms in this former rice storehouse are the largest in Luang Prabang. It's in a quiet part of town, facing the Nam Khan River. $ Rates, $65-$165. At Thanon Kingkitsarath; 856-71/212-420; www.theapsara.com.

WHERE TO EAT
L'ELEPHANT The best foreign restaurant in town also has a wonderful Lao menu, including buffalo-lemongrass sausages. $ Dinner, $30. In Ban Wat Nong; 856-71/252-482; www.elephant-restau.com.

CAFE REGINE Sylvie and Xavier Cornec specialize in galettes bretonnes—buckwheat crêpes slathered with egg, cheese, bacon, and onions. Lunch, $20. At 72/6 Sisavangvatthana Rd.; 856-71/253-397.

THE APSARA Ivan Scholte's hotel dining room is popular for such Lao-Euro dishes as tomato poached in cinnamon-infused syrup served with cardamom ice cream. Dinner, $30.

SAMSARA This French kitchen, the latest venture by the owner of Satri House, has one of the prettiest balconies in town. Dinner, $30. At Sisavangvong Rd.; 856-71/254-678.

L'ETRANGER Part bookstore, part café, and the place to linger over a pot of tea or a fruit shake. In Ban Aphay.

SHOPPING
SATRI LAO SILK Luang Prabang's finest selection of high-end weaving and antiques. $ Two locations on Sisavangvong Rd. and one on Tat Mor Rd.; 856-71/252-708.

OCKPOPTOK Veomanee Duangdala showcases her handmade scarves and clothing for men and women. At 73-75 Ban Wat Nong; 856-71/253-219; www.ockpoptok.com.

HMONG MARKET & NIGHT MARKET Both are excellent—and fun—places to shop for handwoven textiles, clothing, bedding, and carved crafts. Along Sisavangvong Rd.

EXCURSIONS
ACTION MAX The best of the many trek outfitters offers tuk-tuk (three-wheeler) rides to local waterfalls and visits to hill tribes. In Ban Choum Khong; 856-71/252-417; www.actionmaxasia.com.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.