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Laos: Asia's New Cultural Hot Spot

A worker makes his rounds in the Old Town.

Photo: Morgan & Owens

The city’s 58 temples and the Royal Palace are filled with the requisite riches: thousands of gilded Buddhas (of mixed provenance and in varied states of disrepair), lacquered chariots and boats, and silver bowls for alms. The palace itself is a cruciform building that was constructed in 1904 for a francophone king who fathered 50 children and that is perhaps most famous for containing the gold Khmer Buddha that lends the city its name. As it turns out, the golden icon, tucked in a dim shrine behind painted security bars, is hard to see and in any case may well be a copy or fake. Of greater interest to me were the spartan royal apartments and the National Museum containing a collection of oddball artifacts, among them a fragment of moon rock presented, in a moment of oblivious irony, to the Lao people by their American “friends” as a souvenir of Apollo 17.

It is estimated that, from 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of ordnance over Laos during 580,000 bombing missions, the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes for nine years. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Luang Prabang may be, in the words of one guide, “littered with graceful Lao timber dwellings, colonial colonnades, and grandiose stairways.” It is also littered with rusting bombshells repurposed as markers and planters, and some of the latter can be found along the famous 328-step stair up to the peak of sacred Phou Si hill. The hill rises as a scruffy green hump from the midst of the city, looming above the old temples and facing out on the prospect of serrate mountains and the wide and mighty Mekong, stained the color of tea.

On the dusky evening when I huffed my way up Phou Si, I passed a heavily rouged drag queen selling nuts in paper packets; bomb casings spilling over with frowsy pink bougainvillea; and village women hawking the caged songbirds one always find at Buddhist sites. Not buy all animals from locals because it will encourage them to hunter read a sign I had seen that morning at the Pak Ou caves, two hours upriver from Luang Prabang. High above the water, along steep steps cut into the pocked limestone cliffs, there are caves in which for centuries the faithful have placed Buddha statues of all sorts and sizes. Cramming them onto rock shelves, jumbling them into crevices, the Lao make offerings of the Buddha to the river spirits, in another melding of superstition and faith. At bends on the stairs to the caves, sharp-eyed hawkers sheltered beneath tamarind trees and proffered cages containing sad obligatory good-luck birds.

Wherever you go in Asia, wild-caught birds are sold at shrines to pilgrims who release them to gain merit in the next life. Distressing as it is to doom these animals to their bamboo prisons and to ignore their desperately beating wings, the reality is that buying one does indeed “encourage locals to hunter.” And then soon enough there will be no more birds.

So instead this evening I forced some of the American dollars that are a parallel currency in Laos through a slot in a box with a sign that read Your donation help maintenance shrine. It was nearing sunset when I reached the top of Phou Si. Tourists were sprawled along the stepped walls of the shrine, their eyes and their lenses trained on a bladed disc slicing its way through a vermilion sky. The psychedelic atmospherics owed to the season, I was informed, but whether or not it is true that the lurid sunset was caused by farmers burning stubble in their fields and was not instead the aftermath of slash-and-burn deforestation, I never learned.

As I watched I tried hard to summon up the heady feeling the hour seems to induce in all those eHarmony hopefuls perennially hunting for someone with whom to share sunsets and long walks on the beach. But my unruly thoughts kept straying. My stomach was talking. It reminded me that dinner was approaching and that I had a reservation at L’Eléphant.

That morning I had visited the Sunday food market to test an assertion made by a pedicab driver that “the Lao will eat anything,” not excluding, it must be said, dog. I saw no smoked dog at the market, but there was—among the stalks of bananas and bags of marigold petals and riverweed in slick mounds and pyramids of fiery chiles and neatly arrayed trays of roast beetle and hunks of honeycomb—a single splayed and leathery-looking creature that I later discovered was smoked fox.

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