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Laos: Asia's New Cultural Hot Spot

A worker makes his rounds in the Old Town.

Photo: Morgan & Owens

Now a town that for decades was mainly a haunt of backpackers and hippies has accelerated its transition to a high-end destination. The stoners are still around, of course, with their tie-dyes, their bedrolls, and their matted dreadlocks. But, alongside guesthouses where adequate lodging can be had for $10 (including free filtered water and a complimentary banana), new luxury hotels have sprung up with suites featuring private plunge pools and staff-to-guest ratios that help account for tariffs of $800 a night.

The latest of these is Amanresorts’ Amantaka. Built on the grounds of a former French hospital at the edge of town, Amantaka was under construction when I took a hard-hat tour of the place last spring with Trina Dingler-Ebert, the company’s marketing director. “The key to understanding Luang Prabang is the atmosphere and the culture,” Dingler-Ebert said as we picked our way through the mud of a walled compound just up the road from a tacky new market. At that precise moment I did not see what it was about Luang Prabang that might lure well-heeled travelers to this city and away from the established comforts of locales and monuments like Angkor Wat. Despite Luang Prabang’s fabled reputation, it had seemed underwhelming at first glance. “You have to spend time here to get it,” Dingler-Ebert remarked. And, as it happened, she was correct.

“We think most people should stay a week here and know that they won’t,” Dingler-Ebert said and, at the time, I felt that two days would be more than enough. But then two days became three. Three dissolved into four. My resolve to leave Luang Prabang at all began to wane as I idled through town, drank sweetened Lao coffee with my French baguette at breakfast, mooched around the city’s many temples, and drifted past the stalls of the Night Market. Hmong tribespeople trek down from the mountains to sell their handloomed indigos and sophisticated patchwork here and, increasingly, the cheap Chinese copies of those special crafts that they purchase from middlemen jobbers along the way.

It is certainly true that the mass tourism some locals like Prince Somsanith tend to decry is coming. But it won’t have arrived by the time you are reading this article. The city I found was dozy and small enough to cover on foot in a day or two but best experienced over the course of a week. Like the mandalas some Buddhists use as aids to meditation, Luang Prabang turns out to be a city of recurrent patterns, of images and motifs explored and repeated, refined across centuries and with the clear-cut goal of hastening enlightenment. It was for centuries a royal city, but just as important was its role as a monastic center. Even now the temple complexes are active centers of worship and learning. The saffron-robed monks you see everywhere are more than local color. They are the animating force of the city, the engine whose sound is the always-audible hum of their prayers.

Getting around Luang Prabang is easy enough. A single main road longitudinally bisects the peninsula. Fanning out from it is a congeries of what amount to small villages. Each has its own distinct atmosphere and most are organized around one of the ponds where the dragonflies feed. Each is tied to the next by a network of brick lanes where you can happily lose yourself walking—if by getting lost you mean wandering through a grove of banana trees and past clumps of green bamboo or blood-red cannas, emerging into the courtyard of a 15th-century temple where young monks are playing a pickup soccer game.

The spatial and the architectural rhythms of Luang Prabang were established during the six centuries before the Communists dissolved the monarchy in 1975, imprisoning the royals in a remote reeducation camp and setting up their own government in what had long been the royal capital. The buildings by and large are limited to temples, villas, warehouses, and riverside shacks. The simple outlines—the swooping volutes of the temple eaves; the blocky toy shapes of the colonial structures; the toothpick verticality of the bamboo-walled eating houses—are repeated again and again until the repetition insinuates itself into one’s consciousness.


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