Village in the Mist

Luang Prabang, the cultural capital of Laos, is famed for its immaculate temples, French colonial architecture, and distinctive cuisine. Now, as the country emerges from decades of isolation, the town is transforming into a base camp for adventuring wanderers.

Aug 16, 2006
Outside Magazine
Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

ASIAN GRACE: Left, traditional service with modern style; a tranquil suite at Maison Souvannaphoum

Luang Prabang, Laos

AFTER DARK: Sifting through stacks of local silk at the night market

EVEN IN THAI, I can make out the pilot's request to turn off computers for the remainder of the flight. I shut mine down and look out the window: The smog and skyscrapers of Thailand's capital have given way to the sawtooth mountains of northern Laos, stacked to the horizon. The Bangkok Airways turboprop drops steeply into a narrow valley, skirting a temple-topped hill and buzzing low over stupas poking through a fringe of palm trees. As we angle toward a short runway, I pack away my laptop—most likely for the duration of my trip: @#95;box photo=image_2 alt=image_2_alt@#95;boxLuang Prabang isn't exactly a Wi-Fi hot spot. In fact, the tranquil town rides the trailing edge of urbanized, digital Asia. Which is precisely the reason I've fled Bangkok's chaotic hustle and 24/7 gridlock. I've flown less than two hours, yet it feels like I could set my watch back 30 years.

In this slumbering Mekong River valley, life flows at its own languid pace. Once, it was a matter of terrain—the jungle, rivers, and especially the ranks of mountains dissuaded European explorers until the 1860s. A century later, after Laos was swept up in the Vietnam War, the prevailing communist leadership banned tourism until the late 1980s. That cultural quarantine made Luang Prabang what it is today: an enchanting townscape of lush foliage and ornamental ponds, centuries-old temples and moldering French colonial buildings, all in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

It was a no-brainer for UNESCO, which considers Luang Prabang one of the best-preserved traditional cities in Southeast Asia, to give it World Heritage status in 1995. The buzz has taken a while to build, but this placid backwater is drawing an increasing number of travelers seeking that ineffable quality: atmosphere. In 2003, the province counted 78,129 foreign visitors, up more than 200 percent since 1997.

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Backpackers still come overland, but equally independent, far more upscale "flashpackers" now arrive on nonstop flights from Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand. Boutique hotels like Les 3 Nagas and the Pansea's La Résidence Phou Vao, which recently hosted Mick Jagger, bloom like fresh bromeliads. Earlier this year, Banyan Tree's Colours of Angsana brand opened the town's first spa, the sparkling Maison Souvannaphoum, in a former royal residence. Quite a capitalist makeover for a communist state with the official handle of the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

While Old Asia ambience is Luang Prabang's signature allure, outfitters have begun venturing beyond the city limits to survey the rugged mountains and rock-strewn rivers. It's now possible to balance a yin for soulful solitude with the yang of ripping adventure in places where falang (the Lao word for "foreigners") are still a novelty. Over the next week, I intend to offset indolence with activity in a spree of cycling, hiking, and kayaking that will make those Thai-Swedish massages hurt so good.

But first I need to decompress, and my huge room at La Résidence Phou Vao—a harmonic convergence of rosewood and hand-loomed textiles set on a hillside with a panoramic view of the sacred, dome-shaped Phu Si mount—looks like it will do the trick. I settle on the balcony with a cold Beer Lao, already quite fond of Luang Prabang.

VIENTIANE, A DAY'S DRIVE SOUTH, may be the political capital of Laos, but the country's essence resides in Luang Prabang. The town looks much as it did in the 1930s-era murals on the old Royal Palace's walls. Battered trucks have replaced the elephants, but otherwise the vignettes of village life remain unaltered.

One such tradition plays out at dawn at Wat Xieng Thong, a 16th-century confection of tiered, swooping roofs and walls decorated with loose mirrored-glass mosaics. Every morning, while the sticky-sweet scent of frangipani infuses the misty air, hundreds of young novitiates muster with their alms bowls at temples around Luang Prabang, then fan out onto the streets in silent, single-file processions. Devout villagers kneel and chant along these routes, hoping their offerings of steamed rice will earn them karmic brownie points.

After this centuries-old rite, the town gradually awakens. Women, many in traditional sin sarongs, glide by on bicycles, toting parasols against the rising sun. From old shophouses wafts the aroma of fresh-baked baguettes. At the Hmong Market, wizened old women in traditional hill-tribe dress display their needlecraft and begin haggling with customers who want the cheapest "morning price." Away from the bustle, artisans set frames of handcrafted saa paper out to dry along sun-splashed brick lanes.

As the long saffron line of monks heads into the homestretch along riverside Khem Khong Road, photographer Martin Westlake and I clamber down the Mekong's steep embankment to meet boat captain Thongdy Siphanthong, who will take us 15 miles to the holy Pak Ou caves. We thread our way upriver, where we find Tham Ting, the shallow, lower grotto, crowded with more than 2,500 antique bronze and wooden Buddha statues. An additional 1,500 icons are arranged in the lengthier upper cave, Tham Phum, where a caretaker lights incense as a religious offering.

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When we cross the Mekong to Ban Pak Ou, a settlement in the shadow of a sheer limestone cliff, we find the village temple's bell has been fashioned from the most profane of objects: the nose of an old American bomb. It's a reminder of Laos's 15 minutes of geopolitical fame. During the Vietnam conflict, the United States used CIA-sponsored planes and Hmong hill-tribe mercenaries to wage a secret war, dropping enough ordnance to earn Laos the dubious distinction of being one of the most heavily bombed nations in history. After the communist victory, thousands of citizens were confined to reeducation camps. By the late 1980s, however, even hermetic Laos admitted market reform and tourism development.

While the number of guesthouses, restaurants, and tour agencies in Luang Prabang has grown exponentially over the past decade, the town has clung to its laid-back aura and architectural vernacular thanks in large part to the preservation work of La Maison du Patrimoine, or Heritage House. "I went to Thailand in 1977. Chiang Mai was Luang Prabang—the same ambience. Do you know Chiang Mai now? It looks like a little Bangkok," said LMP chief technical adviser Emmanuel Pouille from his office in the old French customs house, built in 1922 and recently restored to its ocher-hued glory. "We've avoided the disaster of big hotels because the regulation is very strong."

One former royal residence has been renovated into a hotel with arguably the best kitchen in town, Villa Santi, an elegant, linens-and-china restaurant. Luang Prabang province has a distinctive slow-food cuisine featuring such local delicacies as jaew bawng, a thick paste of dried buffalo skin and fiery chiles, and khai paen, or stir-fried river moss tossed with sesame, that are best knocked back with shots of lao-lao rice whiskey. Before the tinkling sounds of a musician playing the ranyaat, a xylophone-like instrument, lull me to sleep, I head for the night market by the Phu Si. Compared with the touts-and-trinkets scene in Chiang Mai, the bazaar is tame: a few dozen stalls filled with saa paper lanterns, hand-loomed silk sashes, laughably fake coins (the French were not minting Indochine piasters in 1422), and piles of papayas, bananas, and mangosteens.

"You buy?" a merchant asks in a voice barely above a whisper. That's as insistent as the salesmanship gets. By 10 p.m. the commerce ceases and everyone drifts quietly home.

THE FOLLOWING MORNING, we decide to trace another river, the Nam Khan, this time by 21-speed mountain bikes. Just beyond town, the pavement cedes to a dirt road to Ban Phanom, a renowned weaving center where spirited bargaining yields several silk scarves for 60,000 kip apiece. (Relax: That brick of currency is only $6.) From the village, the unpaved road gets hilly and rockier, and Martin's rear tire blows out.

As we change the tube, I check a digital thermometer on Martin's handlebars: 40 degrees Celsius. I don't even want to know the Fahrenheit equivalent. Repair complete, we crank in low gears for three miles through open forest to the overgrown tomb of the naturalist Henri Mouhot, Luang Prabang's first Western visitor, who died here in 1861. Before succumbing to fever, the Frenchman faced unbelievable hardships in Southeast Asia; he certainly wouldn't be able to comprehend my luxe Pansea digs, with their infinity pool and terrace restaurant. A group of scooter-riding Lao teens picnics tomb-side by a stretch of rapids, playing cards while grilling a fish over an open fire. It is a forlorn fate for a famed explorer whose posthumously published journal, containing the first detailed descriptions of Angkor Wat, created a sensation in Europe.

Just a few miles upstream from his tomb, the riverside Lao Spirit Resort offers five luxury wooden bungalows set among a collection of restored 19th-century French-Lao homes beneath trees teeming with flycatchers, bee-eaters, and ioras. Here, the world Mouhot encountered endures. In the morning, mahouts still bathe their elephants in the Nam Khan. Beyond the river, beneath mountains too formidable to clear, Hmong and Khmu hill-tribe villagers eke out a living as subsistence farmers.

A few days later, we travel nearly 40 miles through these mountains to put our kayaks in at Ban Nam Ming, a cluster of split-bamboo and thatch huts along a swift, chai-brown Nam Khan tributary. It is the planting season, and the rains have washed away topsoil from ski-jump-steep slopes torched to cultivate maize, sesame, and upland rice. The current quickly carries our troupe of inflatables away from the village and into the relative cool of a narrow, wooded valley. For several hours we tackle small rapids, dodge fish traps, and duck deadfall before working down the broader Nam Khan.

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In the late afternoon, we take out at Ban Khonvay, an isolated Khmu hamlet approximately 20 miles and centuries of amenities removed from Luang Prabang. We are the first visitors in months, and it seems half the village has shown up to greet us. Young boys leap into the kayaks and organize an impromptu regatta, paddling with far more energy than we ever managed.

The parents are as hospitable as their offspring are curious. They lead us up a sandy bank to the headman's two-story house, a concrete construction with wood walls and a corrugated tin roof. The rest of the village gathers to watch through the open windows as their chief lavishes hospitality upon his honored guests. In a candlelit ceremony rooted in animist tradition, the old man prays loudly over steaming platters of boiled chicken and sticky rice, then ties strings around our wrists. The baci, says the chief, will bring Martin and me good luck, big money, many children. Then, to the onlookers' approval, we all toss back ceremonial shots of searing lao-lao moonshine, which tastes like it was distilled through the radiator of a '54 Citroën.

Now, what can we wish for the headman? Martin knots a string around the chief's wrist as he solemnly offers a sci-fi sacrament: "May you live long and prosper." Everyone nods— yes, the Vulcan ways are good and wise. More lao-lao, more baci, more good wishes. On this humid night, I'll have no problem crashing on a thin mattress beneath a mosquito net, secure in the knowledge that tomorrow I can retreat to Maison Souvannaphoum, crank the A/C, and crawl between clean, three-digit-thread-count sheets.

Access & Resources
Thai Airways International flies nonstop from New York to Bangkok for $1,000 round-trip (800-426-5204, From there, Bangkok Airways flies direct to Luang Prabang ($278 round-trip; 866-226-4565, October through March is the most temperate, though crowded, time. WHERE TO STAY: Perched on a hill a mile south of the old town, Pansea's 34-room La Résidence Phou Vao (doubles from $126; 011-856-71-212530, offers luxuriously appointed rooms. In town, enjoy princely spa treatment at the 22-room Maison Souvannaphoum (doubles from $170; 011-856-71-254609, www.coloursofangsana.comsouvannaphoum). Or go more rustic at the Lao Spirit Resort bungalows (doubles from $59; 011-856-20-557-0221,, ten miles east of town. WHERE TO EAT: Dinner for two runs $25 at Villa Santi's Princess Restaurant and $30 at Pansea's Phou Vao Restaurant. An ice-cold Beer Lao costs 80 cents at the riverside Boungnasouk Guesthouse and Restaurant. EXPLORING: Green Discovery Laos (011-856-71-212093, organizes kayak trips; our two days cost $62. Tiger Trail Outdoor Adventures (011-856-20-557-0221, offers a range of mountain-biking and trekking trips. To visit the Pak Ou caves, hire a boat (about $20–$25) along the Mekong.

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