“Consider the dragonfly,” said Nithakhong Somsanith, erstwhile prince of an old lineage in Laos. On a warm day in the ancient royal capital of Luang Prabang, the two of us were seated on the wood veranda of a French-colonial villa. Nearby, in one of the many collect ponds that demarcate neighborhoods in this city of 103,000, a squadron of iridescent insects dive-bombed a cloud of pesky gnats.
The dragonfly, Somsanith said, is his emblem, the animal he chose as a motif in his art. Among the last practitioners of the royal craft of gold embroidery, Somsanith is, like most Lao, a Theravada Buddhist. His work, the panels he makes and sells at galleries here and in Paris, is intricately patterned with glittering insects. And his beliefs are patterned with the animism that in the lives of most Lao meshes the physical and the spiritual worlds.
“I choose this insect because it is ephemeral and at the same time very solid, a very Buddhist concept, that the world is real but also an illusion,” said the prince, as dragonflies zigzagged past us in a shimmering blur. “The only real thing is death,” he went on with an implacable half smile. “But we won’t think about that now.”
That was fine by me. After flying halfway around the world, I had arrived in Laos direct from the horn-blaring tumult of Bangkok and was only just emerging from the coma of serious jet lag. Fortunately, as I would learn, Luang Prabang is a rare place in Asia—a calm and somnolent city, a town of narrow lanes and polychrome temples and worn timber houses and scabbed colonial colonnades, all set along a peninsular thumb that juts toward a bend in the Mekong River and is surrounded by mountains that are like palisades shutting out the wider world.
There are other protections as well. Since 1995, when UNESCO inscribed Luang Prabang on its list of World Cultural Heritage sites, designating it “the best-preserved city in Southeast Asia,” teams of architects and planners, mostly French, have labored to hold back the inevitable tide of development, retarding if not altogether halting the changes that often spell doom when some lovely and untouched backwater becomes the next destination. And Luang Prabang is surely that place. The rate and the scale of development throughout Southeast Asia over the past several decades would induce melancholy in anyone whose good fortune it was to have visited Hanoi, say, when that city at nightfall was still mostly lighted by cook fires in charcoal braziers; or Phnom Penh when there were still more bicycles than cars; or Siem Reap before resorts were thrown up willy-nilly alongside the former killing fields.
The stopped-time quality of places like Laos is not in all ways a good thing, resulting as it often does from war or political and cultural isolation. In Burma, for instance, the ruling generals deliberately keep the population in poverty and backwardness. In Bhutan, in the Himalayas, the national constitution and a de facto theocracy conspire to hold modernity at bay. In Laos, it was Communism that deterred progress and, until an international airport opened in Luang Prabang a decade ago, only the intrepid managed to trek this far into the landlocked north.