Friday, March 30, 2007

A Visit to Luang Prabang

“On 25, July, 1861 I came to Luang Prabang,” wrote French explorer Henri Mouhot. It is “a delightful little town, set in its amphitheatre of mountains… a paradise.” It is a good thing he liked it, because Mouhot died there soon after.

Fourteen decades later an American explorer, Edward Gargan, found that the town had retained its charm. “Dawn trickled into Luang Prabang in cobalt blues and mauves flecked with gold and coddled in a cocoon of mist. Before six o’clock, thuds of drums echoed in the distance, and from my balcony I watched silent processions of saffron-swaddled monks, wooden bowls cradled in their palms, pad toward the town center on their morning alms rounds….”

Luang Prabang, the ancient royal capitol of Laos, is situated on a peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It is astonishingly beautiful, and rather otherworldly.

Phu si, a ‘sacred mountain’ three hundred meters high, dominates the town. Shrouded in palm trees, bougainvillea and a riot of other tropical flowers, it is adorned with Buddhist shrines and surmounted by a wat (temple) with commanding views of the surrounding hills and rivers. Down below, next to the broad and muddy Mekong, is the former Royal Palace, set amid venerable, teak-built wats of jewel-like perfection, intricately painted in red and gold. The famous "floating roofs" of these buildings give the illusion of hovering - almost as though they do not touch the temple walls.

The City.... Luang Prabang has been designated a world heritage site by UNESCO. It is reputed to be the best-preserved city in South East Asia. There is an overwhelming sense here of anachronism; of a place out of time, in which seventeenth century wats easily and gracefully commingle with French colonial architecture.

The present impinges, of course, in certain things. I began writing this from an Internet cafe, a twenty-first century phenomenon. However, the two adjoining computer stations were occupied by orange robed Buddhist monks with shaven heads, identical in every respect to their sangha predecessors of the far distant past.

UNESCO has been responsible for a simple and quite clever improvement to this city. Since my last visit, many of the sidewalks and gutters have been replaced with brick pavements. In the rest of South East Asia, the pedestrian is condemned to walk along the roads, which is dangerous because of traffic. In Luang Prabang one can stroll along the riverbanks on wide brick walkways, enjoying diverse and beautiful prospects, and let the mind wander. On a crisp, cool January morning, this place is a walker’s paradise.

Unlike other cities in Southeast Asia, traffic has not taken over. Laos is one of the poorest countries on the planet, and while Luang Prabang is a prosperous enclave, affluence here runs to motorcycles, not SUVs. The humble bicycle is still commonplace in Luang Prabang.

....And its Story: Laos was a bit player in the ‘American War’, as it is called here – the Vietnam War, as it is known in the west. The country received its (massive) quota of B52 bombing runs, but mostly in the east of the country in the Plain of Jars and along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Few people know how relentlessly American bombers pounded Laos during the American War. In sheer tonnage, the explosive power of bombs dropped on Laos (2.092,900 tons) was greater than that of all the bombs the Americans hurled at Europe and Japan during world war two.

Luang Prabang was spared. Now and then, however, you may see a piece of old US ordinance – a bomb or an artillery shell – used as a planter or set out as decoration. This is almost like smiling at the horrors of the war. What other people could be so forgiving?

Following the American defeat, and inspired by the mindless fanaticism of China's Cultural Revolution (which was then just ending) the new Pathet Lao (communist) government made an effort to ban Buddhism. Their efforts failed utterly.

In the morning you can watch the monks, eyes lowered, on their alms rounds. Now and again one will see an alms giving beneath a red flag with the yellow hammer and sickle, the banner of the Lao communist party. It is as though the Laos have managed a harmonious fusion of Gotama’s ‘middle way’ with the classless society of the communist international. The net result is a sufficiency of things (just), and a remarkable degree of contentment. Despite the incompetence of one of the world's most secretive governments, everyone seems to have enough, and people appear to be happy.

The former Royal Palace has been converted into the National Museum. It contains the regalia of the Lao monarchy, and also, Buddha statues -- by the hundreds. Case after case displays Buddhas in gold, in silver, in rock crystal and bronze, some ancient, and many exquisite as works of art.

In a curious way the Laos calculate their national net worth in Buddhas. It is okay to export antiques from Laos, with the single exception of antique Buddhas. And one of the standard day trips out of Luang Prabang is the two-hour boat trip along the Mekong to the Pak Ou caves, in which for 500 years or more old or worn household Buddhas have been deposited. Now they stand in serried ranks by the thousands, gazing silently out at those who come to look and to wonder.

In the west we store our wealth in vaults (as at Fort Knox) to back our currencies; in Laos they store their wealth of Buddhas in natural caves to conserve the nation’s ‘good karma’.

An interesting exhibit at the National Museum is displayed in a case full of gifts from the United States to the Lao monarchy. It is a Lyndon Bains Johnson Presidential silver medal, presented to King Savang Vatthana in 1965 or so. It was Richard Nixon, four or five years later, who began the US bombing campaign against the ‘Viet Cong’ in Laos and Cambodia. With the triumph of the Pathet Lao in 1975, the king abdicated his throne, and that was the end of the monarchy. The new government later secretly (and savagely) executed the royal family.

Many French nationals visit Luang Prabang -- more, perhaps than from any other western country. This small city on the Mekong has enjoyed a special place in the French psyche ever since the glory days of French Indochina. Luang Prabang was a place for French colonial officials short on drive and ambition to secure a government posting and then disappear, often marrying Laos and ‘going native’. I think Luang Prabang conjures visions for the French that are comparable to their images of Gauguin’s Tahiti.

Lingua Franca:
Sadly for the French visiting now, they have to place their restaurant orders in English. Even in this storied outpost of French Indochina, few Laotians speak French. A Lao taxi driver I met, fluent in both English and French, was snickering over an exchange he had with some French passengers. While speaking with them he pretended to understand only English. And he understood perfectly when they expressed their outrage in French over his unbecoming and historically bizarre ignorance of la belle langue.

Unlike in neighbouring countries, there is no sex tourism in Laos. I understand that this kind of ‘fraternisation’ is illegal here, and certainly no one has offered me a woman (or child). A waiter practicing his English yesterday expressed his pride that Lao women are becomingly modest, wearing, for example, decently long skirts. But then, officially communist countries do tend to exhibit a puritan streak.

To see in practice the active steps taken by the Lao Government to combat sex tourism, one need look no further than the back of the door of any guesthouse room, where a midnight curfew is prominently posted on a highly official, stamped and sealed document. This directive is posted on government authority. It includes other regulations promoting austerity. Some are directed at discouraging sex tourism; others at prohibiting other forms of immoral behaviour. Examples:

• “Disallow to apply another dopes and betting in the guest house.”

• “Awesome received or lead the guests in to your room before you get allowed from the staff.”

• “If ay one to perform this regulation will get pendalty to put on trial by the law.”

Imagine being a French visitor to this outpost of France’s glorious past, and, by way of having insult added to injury, having to decipher such English as this!