discovering luang prabang / by patrick carpenter

note: a version of this article appeared in Vietnamese in the 2012 Nam Ong magazine

Discovering Luang Prabang

Free advice: It may not be wise to wish for adventure while flying to a town filled with temples and spirits. With so many deities in such a small radius, chances are they’ll hear you, and grant you the adventure you only thought you wanted. And so it was, that as we watched our plane's shadow slide over Lao's endless rolling mountains, our lazy conversations were abruptly cut off by a loud rattle and a cabin full of oxygen masks dancing on our hair. All eyes trained on the stewardess, whose expression clearly indicated that this was no drill. No message came from the cockpit, though as time ticked by we would happily have paid to be told anything - and paid more to be told that there was no danger. It was left to the stewardess to take a stab at lowering the collective anxiety in the cabin. Her best efforts left most passengers wanting better, and may have further increased the blood pressures of the most nervous travelers, as her explanation, 'We had to fly over a mountain!' led all of us to look for this mountain and to wonder what kind of flight path we were on that forced us to climb to clear it.

Thus, our unexpected discoveries:

1. The tallest mountain in Lao is Phou Bia, at 2,819 meters. You should not need a plane, or more than a day's hike, to scale the top.

2. The oxygen mask is roughly the size of a small paper cup. If you have a nose, it will not fit.

3. These particular masks were made in 1996, one year after Luang Prabang became a World Heritage Site. Luang Prabang is aging better than the masks.

4. Loss of cabin pressure and increased anxiety leads to nausea in some passengers, and requires them to coordinate the dual maneuver of covering their mouth with the airsickness bag, and covering their nose with the oxygen mask. And yes, like a train wreck, you will watch even though you tell yourself not to.

5. Under such anxiety, there is no guarantee that you will remember the last conversations you had with your family.

6. Any unusual sounds from the engine or onset of turbulence that follow will disproportionately increase the fear factor.

7. It is hard to tell if the loss of cabin pressure causes the stewardess' eyes to water, or if she is just crying quietly while going about her business. Same goes for the passengers.

8. It will always be strange to hear the stewardess say: 'Please wake him up. We need to make sure he is not unconscious.' You will spend time wondering whether the stewardess, in her broken English, is correct to say ‘not unconscious’ or just ‘conscious’.

9. You never want an airplane meal to be the last thing you taste.

10. Once you land, it is easy to forget all of this happened.

Luang Prabang sits on a peninsula surrounded by a sea of undulating deep green mountains in the northern central part of Lao PDR. The mountains may have been a barrier, but the peninsula is formed by the Mekong river and its tributaries, the Nam Khane and the Huai Hop. Three rivers make for swift travel, discovery, settlement, and trade - but there are many towns on rivers, and there is only one Luang Prabang. What sets this place apart is the quality of the craftsmanship, the artistry of its buildings, and the devotion of its space to worship - of nature, man, and spirit. It is not a conventional urban mashing of commercial and residential areas; it was basically a royal fortress with adjacent temples and monasteries. The nearby villages acted as commercial centers. With the arrival of the French, Luang Prabang remained a Kingdom but became a protectorate in 1893. It also became slightly more conventional, as its location (it had been a crossroad on the Silk Route) and riches appealed to French business tastes. Importantly, the French chose to build all their public buildings in Vientiane, and thus Luang Prabang was spared the demolition and alteration of its foundations.

A guidebook in 1926 described Luang Prabang as “A spacious town of a few wide French streets, softly paved, if at all, with narrow Lao streets like lovers' lanes between them. Well wooded, with roomy yards usually whispering with palm-trees. In other words, it is not a city at all, in the crowded, noisy, Western sense, but a leisurely congregation of separate dwellings…In short Luang Prabang town is in many ways what idealists picture the cities of Utopia to be…with gentle people of a land so kindly treated by nature.'

So far gone, yet so recognizable. You could use that same guidebook to walk the streets today. Because Luang Prabang, despite the intervening histories, looks essentially unchanged. Granted, it may look more like itself than ever, thanks to UNESCO's requirements that building materials and methods remain appropriate to its character and identity. But this is the prudent path to take. Unlike other World Heritage Sites, Luang Prabang does not feel sterilized. And unlike Angkor Wat and other magnificent cultural destinations, Luang Prabang has not been allowed to degrade into a carnival of busloads and soulless, bulked up, boring hotels. Luang Prabang has been well served by staying out of such garish spotlights that turn history into amusement parks. Its night market is a great way to manage souvenir shopping without turning the town into an endless maze of trinket and tailor shops, and there are enough destinations outside the town, either along the river (caves, waterfalls) or on motorbike, to keep one on the road to discovery. In the town proper, you cannot waste your time. You could turn your trip into a gourmet treasure hunt and be glad you did, with French, Thai, Lao, and other regional flavors competing to satisfy your taste buds as you gaze upon the swift Mekong current or golden paneled pagoda. The monasteries are so mind-blowing in their attention to detail and choice of color and illustrated stories, that you actually come close to admitting they are too much of a good thing. But in beauty, too much of a good thing is wonderful. The royal grounds, now a museum, are worth exploring, not just for the wealth, but for the surprising modesty of the private quarters which serve to humanize the royal family. You'll have to soak it up by the eyeful, as photography is not allowed, but this actually helps you remember what it was like to really look at something, and not just grab it with a snapshot on a cell phone.

This then, is Luang Prabang's lesson: Slow down and savor it all. Discover the details that have stood for centuries: the carved dancers and gilded deities on a monastery door. Be inspired by color: the saffrons and yellows of the monks robes, the red, white and gold on the monastery walls, the patterns in the women's sarong's, the texture of silk, the grains of local woods. Discover a civilized pace of life: the forgotten sounds of wind coming down the river, coming through the palms, the plants, the bamboo, or the friendly neighborhood symphonies of families, pets calling out, bicycle bells. Rise early in the morning to see the monks make their way down the main street, moving so swiftly in silence it seems they're floating. Float down the river, balanced by clouds and forests and the rhythm of the motorboat. Visit the wet market for new ways to present produce, and while there, soak up the pace: it is vibrant without being vulgar. There are motorbikes in the market, but no horns. The drivers sit and wait for the crowd to move along, moving at the same tidal pace, or they wait for the crowds to part like the Red Sea. Either way, it is a relief to not be subjected to a blaring horn and to noise for the sake of noise alone. In Luang Prabang, where there is so much beauty, it is unsurprising that there are still manners between strangers - something held over from the past and as difficult to discover as a new world, a new mountain, a new moon.