Luang Prabang, Laos: City of Smoke and Mirrors

Buddhist monks out and about in Luang Prabang

He’s about four feet tall and looks like any one of a hundred classic poses of the Lord Buddha. He rests behind bars in an exterior open gallery with a twenty-something female guard sitting at a desk (no guns).  Photos are forbidden. Because Laos’ a Communist nation? No… the statue’s a cultural icon, it’s worth a zillion dollars and the Luang Prabang National Museum would like visitors to buy a postcard. The statue is THE Golden Buddha – the Phra Bang of Luang Prabang, and it’s 90% solid gold. For centuries it sat in an inconspicuous corner of Wat Ho Prabang on the Palace grounds in this city of over 40 Buddhist temples and monasteries until someone noticed it after the 1975 revolution.

the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Kahn Rivers
Royal Palace (Luang Prabang National Museum)

For nearly a thousand years Luang Prabang, in the northern highlands at the confluence of two great rivers, the Nam Kahn and the Mekong, served as capital for the kingdoms of Lang Xang, Luang Prabang and, finally, Laos. The French, under their “protectorate,” built the 1904 Royal Palace (now the National Museum) for the revered national hero Sisavang Vong, King of Luang Phrabāng and Laos for 55 years (1904- 1959). Ironically, in 1975, it was at the same palace that Prince Souphanouvong (the “Red Prince”) arrested his half brother, King Sisavang Vatthana sending him, the Queen and Crown Prince to die in a “reeducation camp.” Prince Souphanouvong became the first President of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. It’s a much more peaceful city today.

In 1995 Luang Prabang was rightfully declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and today is the most popular tourist attraction in Laos. The city is gorgeous, at least the old historic core and the stunning surrounding countryside. Luang Prabang is a classic Southeast Asian provincial city and one of the few remaining – villas next to woven bamboo houses, residents cooking in the alleyways on charcoal and wood, aging French colonial buildings and 600 year old Buddhist stupas with monks everywhere, backpackers from Australia and Europe, people in business suits in Toyotas and motor bikes and fisherman throwing nets in the river. For me the preservation of this wonderful collage is what I hope the UNESCO designation will maintain, although there are an increasing number of upscale hotels and amenities geared to the well-heeled Western and Asian tour bus crowd which could alter this reality.

Luang Prabang: people at work
novitiates at work on temple grounds

What to see? Wander into any number of the Buddhist temples and monasteries. At first sight “they all look the same,” but fix your eyes on each one’s decorations – gold leaf stencil on teak wood carvings and walls, enamel and mirrored murals depicting holy texts and everyday life, young novitiate students in saffron robes talking on cell phones while taking a break from temple chores, the beautiful sounds of temple drums and the monk’s devotional chanting several times a day.

(top left) Wat Xieng Thing, 1590, (bottom left) Wat Mai, 1788 (bottom right) Wat Ho Prabang

 Discover the hundreds of Spirit houses with individualistic statements – the elephant manifestation of the god Ghanish next to Japan’s “Miss Kitty,” sticky rice, glasses of water, incense and candles in trees, on walls – all of nature is sacred. Unfortunately, the much vaunted morning ritual of offering food to the monks at dawn has devolved into a mere tourist attraction/photo op. Local people now simply bring food or make cash donations directly at the Temples. (In other areas of Southeast Asia, especially in the rural countryside, this tradition is still strong.)

Temple details (note Miss Kitty in bottom right picture)
view from Mt. Phousi: fires to clean/clear forest combines with humidity

Climb the 350+ steps up Mount Phousie in the center of the Old City passing dozens of Buddha images – the seven daily Buddhas, a magnificent Sleeping Buddha – and a rusting anti-aircraft gun emplacement left over from the Vietnam War era – to the small 1804  That Choms – one of the city’s most revered sites. If lucky, the temple fortune teller will be present. It’s the highest point in Luang Prabang with a  panoramic view of the city and countryside, even if there is a humid haze in the air caused by late winter burning in the surrounding mountains (both controlled burning of underbrush in the teak forests and clearing land for Spring planting). You can purchase, for a pittance, flowers in cone shaped banana leaves, sticky rice and incense as devotional items to leave after your prayers. Women sell pairs of small live birds in bamboo baskets that you carry to the top of the hill and, after saying your prayer,  release from their cage. They will take your prayer to heaven.

That Chomsi (1804) at Mt. Phousi, (bottom left) temple fortune teller
ethnic set menu at TATC Museum

At the base of the Mount Phousie is the small but exquisite museum Traditional Arts and Technology Center. The artful displays detail the ethnic groups and spiritual influences that comprise Laos. The gift shop sells excellent and authentic handmade crafts and will advise as to the best shops in town. The café offers a stunning seven course set menu consisting of classic dishes from all of Lao’s ethnic groups. There were dishes I had not seen on any menu. The cost was $12.50 for 2 people – the menu doesn’t say “for 2,” the Lao’s assume no one person would stuff themselves (don’t even try to eat everything yourself).

Traditional Arts and Technology Center (TATC)

There are numerous eco-tourism companies that offer excursions into the beautiful surrounding hill countryside. The best is Tiger Trails – it seems every company slaps on the moniker “eco-tour” these days so make use of the internet and do some research. There are a host of “made for tourist” attractions in the area that are really not worth your time unless you’re in town for a few weeks – the “Whiskey Village,” the “Silk Village,” the Pac Ou Caves – and simply want a diversion. Whereas the Elephant Village – a non-profit that rescues abused elephants from the lumber industry – is a must see excursion.

scenes of the countryside surrounding Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a Mecca for well made high end silks, art, jewelry and furniture representing both traditional northern Lao and contemporary designs (prices are still a fraction of what they’d be in Europe or North America). The best shops are in the compact Old City, which is easy to navigate on foot. Do not purchase antiques since many “antique” stores sell fakes knowing full well it’s next to impossible to remove genuine antiques, and even contemporary fine art, without a difficult to obtain export license for each item.

Morning Market, Luang Prabang

There is the Morning Market (4:00am – Noon) that’s a serious food emporium. Discover hundreds of foods Westerners never would think could be used in the kitchen – I will detail this market in a future blog.  The lively Night Market (5:00 PM – Midnight), unfortunately like so many in Thailand and Cambodia, has devolved into a tourist attraction offering the same old cheaply made clothes, crafts and souvenirs you’ll find in any tourist shop – obviously factory made and, despite labels, probably not even in the country you’re visiting. Yet for prepared street food, the Luang Prabang Night Market is fantastic! One can feast on freshly grilled meats and fish, create a salad using dozens of greens, fresh herbs and produce or add them to savory soups and stews. Along with a refreshing Beer Lao you’ll have a banquet that will cost anywhere from a couple of dollars to maybe $5.00.

Luang Prabang Night Market's prepared foods
View Pavillion Hotel

Accommodations range from $20/night guest houses (many have A/C even at that price) to boutique hotels (fortunately – cross fingers – there are no large chain hotels) surrounded by lush gardens tucked away all over the Old City that range from $55 to $155/night. Many in the $55/65 night range are just as beautiful and comfortable as those at the higher end. It’s not always easy to find these gems on the Net. I did use a good booking site – Agoda – but since hotels subscribe to booking sites it’s hardly a complete list. TripAdvisor is another good source but since it lists only ones reviewed by members, it does not have a complete list as well. My advice for anyone traveling to Southeast Asia is to book a hotel for the start of your stay in each city through a booking site and then check out what’s available. If you are pleased with the booked hotel, inquire if they’ll extend your stay at the same rate – booking sites are always discounted. If not, you can just move down the street. We stayed at The View Pavilion at over $90/night but, although it had a terrific staff, the hotel needed maintenance from its absentee owners. (Following my own advice for a change, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at The Rimping Village Hotel they willingly extended our stay at Agoda’s discounted rate after they proved to be a mini-paradise – more on that in another blog.) Lao courtesy and concern with customer comfort is so effusive they would be insulted if you did not ask them for help making dinner reservations, advice on excursions and making the arrangements as well as securing a taxi or tuk-tuk and negotiating the fare. Take advantage – it makes them happy.

Tamnak Lao Restaurant: Fish Amok, Purple & White sticky rice, Soup with Vine Leaves, Luang Prabang Salad, Water Buffalo sausage
Restaurant L'Elephant

Laotian cuisine is neither as sweet as Vietnamese nor spicy hot as Thai – although they still love their chilies. This allows the abundant use of basil, cilantro, mint, green onions, garlic, roasted vegetables and dozens of flavorful greens to shine through their masterful dishes complimented by grilled and steamed fish, pork, beef, chicken, frog, prawns and many other forms of protein. Like the rest of Southeast Asia, they use a number of vegetable/herb/meat pastes, freshly made with mortar and pestle, to add additional layers of flavor. Fermented fish sauce, which in my experience the average Westerner finds disgusting, adds subtle flavor to most dishes and was/is a salt substitute. Fish sauce – of which there are many varieties – does smell vile to the Western nose, but when added to food, that smell dissipates and actually results in a slightly sweet under taste. (I will be writing an article on a wonderful all-day cooking class offered by Tamarind restaurant.) Like most Asian dining, a number of dishes should be ordered – depending on the size of the party – with all diners sharing. We found, for our own dining comfort that for two people, three dishes – along with steamed or sticky rice – was enough. One cold salad, one fish/seafood dish and one meat/poultry dish was satisfactory. Soups are usually substantial consisting of noodles, greens and protein and can be part of a main course. It is easy for a vegetarian/vegan to eat well anywhere in Southeast Asia, but don’t expect this to be the norm among locals. Dishes will be served as they are ready not in a Western order (appetizers first followed by the main course, etc.) Two people in even the most expensive restaurants in Luang Prabang would be hard pressed to spend more than $40/couple, and it is easy for most meals to cost less than $10 – $15/couple. (Note: adding a bottle of wine will more than double to triple the cost, so don’t bother unless you can’t live without wine.)

Tamarind Restaurant: Lao appitizers, Pork/ginger/cilantro balls in lemon grass, steamed fish in banana leaf

My top picks for traditional and fusion Lao restaurants in the Old City are Tamarind and Rosella Fusion Café both on the Nam Kahn river front. The Australian/Lao owned Tamarind is probably the best in the city, and it is moderately priced serving imaginative dishes (lunch or dinner for 2 $15 – $30).  Reservations are essential for dinner. The young Lao staff of Rosella Fusion Café serve much better than average traditional Lao dishes at low prices ($10 – $15/couple) while you sit at attractive teak tables surrounded by orchids at the edge of the high banks overlooking the Nam Kahn. Tamnak Lao, on Sisavangvong Road (the main street) in a classic stucco and wood Lao structure offers tasty traditional Lao dishes, also at moderate prices, while Joma coffee shop on the Mekong side river road has great French coffee and imaginative thin-crust pizzas. Ignore most hotel restaurants. Although many are in attractive surroundings, they serve food geared to the tourist palate – mediocre – at high prices (unless you really crave your Angus beef steak).

Rosella Fusion Cafe: minced pork & cilantro, Luang Prabang salad, squid with chilies

There are excellent French restaurants in this Communist nation where road signs are still written in Lao and French, bilingual schools are common and the French government funds many projects. L’ Elephant is in an elegant art-deco building offering classic French and French Indochina cuisine at prices in the very high end. Unfortunately, it’s become popular with tour groups as well. Café Ben Vat Sene (my favorite) has the feel of a French bistro in the “colonial” tropics – which it is – and too small for tour groups. Under the slowly moving ceiling fans, sitting at rustic tables with brightly colored Lao fabric napkins and placemats, eating such classic French country fare as Pommes de Terre Savoyard (au gratin potatoes with smoked ham) and freshly made Tarte au Citron (lemon tart), don’t be surprised if you conjure images of Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Jean d’Estray at the next table enjoying an absinthe. Orchids, the tropical evening and fine food do that to you – give in.

Café Ben Vat Sene

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