Nothing but a single flicker of light from the monastery in the forest opposite. The sudden splash of a fish breaking the surface. The distant splutter of a boat. The rest, the inky blackness that fills the void, is the Mekong. Flowing past us in full spate and in absolute silence.
We are at Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of landlocked and strife-torn Laos. Located in the forests of North Central Laos, on a narrow promontory at the confluence of the mighty Mekong with the Nam Khan, this is a place of magic.
The American war in neighbouring Vietnam had serious repercussions on this tiny country. One of the most heavily land mined nations in the world, Laos was targeted by the US for supporting the Vietcong. Once the war was over in 1975, Laos locked itself away for 15 years, allowing no access to foreigners. In the last ten years things have begun to change, the lure of the US dollar erasing the memory of bombs raining down.
In short, you can now visit Laos. It’s friendly, beautiful, safe and accessible. Though the tourist boom is catching up, the 15-year hiatus from the world still gives a back-in-time feel.
Protected as a Unesco World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang combines French colonial architecture with the older past of Laos: Buddhist temples and monasteries at every corner. The town itself is just four lanes. Two of these run along the banks of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, respectively, dotted with cafés and boutique hotels. Tree-lined and peaceful, with places to sip a coffee or beer and watch the world go lazily by. A boat full of monks rowing to school across the Nam Khan, their orange robes a slash of colour in the brown waters, as a fisherman casts his net in the Mekong
The other two lanes go through the town, almost as sleepy and relaxed as the rivers themselves. A Lao woman sits outside her door, calmly cleaning huge frogs for lunch. Across the street, Australians guzzle Beer Lao and the French sit in tight little clusters. The world of tourism is here to stay in Laos, and no one’s complaining.
Language is a distinct problem, though you will hear a smattering of English in tourist areas. Don’t expect to have deeply philosophical conversations though. What makes up for this, are the gentle, smiling faces all around. A lot of the stories we heard from locals about their lives were very similar to those of Indian village folk: saving up to buy a bike, struggling to put the kids through school or setting up a small stitching business at home to make ends meet.
What do you do here? Not much really. There are some stunning temples. Wat Xiang Thong with its perfectly proportioned roofs is a worthwhile visit even for a non-temple visitor like me. The town centre, Chomsi Hill, is a good walk uphill with good views of the surrounding countryside. Wat Chom Pet across the Mekong is perfect for a romantic sunset.
We made the night market a mandatory daily pre-dinner outing. The main street closes to traffic and transforms into a wonderland of lamps. Row upon row of stalls selling handicrafts, paintings, coffee, slippers and, obviously, Buddhas in every size, shape and mood. This is a good chance to meet locals, Hmong tribeswomen from the surrounding forests, local townspeople sitting together, chatting and snacking, babies asleep in makeshift cots. The surprising facet is the gentleness of the scene. The more we bargained for something, the more the locals smiled, and the gentler they seemed to look. The market is conducted with quiet dignity: no blaring radios, no screeching children, no raucous haggling, no beggars, no filth. Close by is a side street full of food stalls. Perfect for a pre-dinner grilled sausage, a skewered slab of bacon, a slice of crispy glazed duck or a chasiu bun stuffed with pork and quail’s egg. The other market well worth a walk is the morning bazaar, where locals buy snakes and tiny birds as snacks. A bit disconcerting, but then you realize, you can never starve in Laos.
The more conventional palate can also enjoy a gastronomic orgy. One local speciality is Mekong-River seaweed: deep-fried squares, with a light dusting of sesame, eaten with a spicy chutney, with strips of buffalo skin in it. Gross, but yummy. Another favourite is a fish custard steamed in banana leaf bowls, with basil, dill, sesame oil and chilli. A good multi-course meal with booze costs about Rs500 per head. At the upper end, the pretentious French must be thanked for their colonial contribution. Upmarket restaurants with names like L’Elephant, Elephant Blanc and Les 3 (Trois) Nagas offer great food (Rs1,200 per head to stuff yourself silly). It’s Lao-French fusion food, delicately spiced, perfectly balanced, served on airy candle-lit balconies, a slow punkha overhead and the press of the tropical night all around. Wat Chomsi: Just 328 steps to go In many ways the real treat of Luang Prabang is outdoors, and this is probably the only part the kids will really enjoy. Trips on the Mekong are excellent fun and transport you to another world. We went upriver to the Pak Ou caves, and then past the sheer white cliffs of the Nam Ou River, to swim. Avoid tacky stops at villages like Whisky Village.
Forest walks and jungle treks are a must. The region north of Luang Prabang is famed for its trekking and kayaking. But closer, just crossing the Mekong to Wat Long Khoun and catching a nearby path takes you into deep jungle. A good feel of the forests is at the Kuang Si waterfalls. Well outside the town, but easily accessible, these plummet for 1,000 feet, through deep forest, with clear, bubbling pools to lounge in. The water is a startling turquoise, the surrounding forest squeezes around you, vaguely a Garden of Eden.
So go. And go fast. Flights and hotels are easy. We stayed at Sala Prabang, a tastefully done small hotel on the Mekong. Our first-floor room, though tiny, had its own balcony with a view, was air-conditioned and had a state-of-the-art bathroom. Throw in breakfast, served on a private patio on the river-front, and superb coffee, available all day long, and you have a veritable steal.
Luang Prabang may sound like an offbeat destination. But when you’re walking through forests to the distant pound of a monastery drum and the soothing sound of Buddhist chants, your doubts vanish. This is probably the most perfect way to spend a few days of your life.