The most magical time to explore Luang Prabang is at dawn, when the resonant thump of temple drums provides the city with its early morning call. Groups of monks sleepwalk through the mist, silently accepting alms. Locals in this Laotian town gain merit by offering food, so the rice bowls soon fill up.
In 1995, Unesco described the former royal capital as “the best-preserved city in Southeast Asia” and declared the spiritual and religious centre a World Heritage Site. Municipal bigwigs and residents are proud of the accolade and ensure conservation regulations are adhered to. There is a ban on advertising billboards and craftsmen remain faithful to ancient construction techniques and materials during restoration work.
Stroll the cobblestone lanes and Luang Prabang’s cultural wealth soon becomes apparent. More than 100 architectural and historic sites, from richly decorated Buddhist temples to distinctive one- and two-storey French colonial buildings, are crammed into a compact area bordered by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.
The easiest way to reach Luang Prabang is by flying from Bangkok or Hanoi, while for the adventurous, there is the two-day boat trip along the Mekong from Thailand. Enthusiasts for the Lao public bus system, otherwise known as masochists, have the option of a bone-shuddering 11-hour journey from the capital, Vientiane, via the ominously named Route 13.
To get your bearings on arrival, head up Phousi Hill, from where the city and its surroundings unfurl below like a 3D map. The 100-metre-high mound is also worth visiting at sunset, as the last traces of tangerine and crimson drain from the sky and “the land lost in time” succumbs to darkness.
The cafes and restaurants on Sisavangvong Road play host to a diverse international crowd who swap sightseeing tips over cups of Lao coffee and croissants. Offering something more substantial, Khaiphaen Restaurant is a vocational training initiative named after a much-loved Luang Prabang snack made from crispy river weed harvested from the Mekong (fear not, there are other options on the menu). Afterwards, head to the Sunset Restaurant and order a fresh coconut to drink from, just like then United States president Barack Obama did on his 2016 visit.
Attractions further afield include photogenic Kuang Si Falls, where turquoise waters cascade into tiered limestone pools. A popular way of reaching the beauty spot, 29km from Luang Prabang, involves a three-hour hike. The trail passes mountain lookout points, ethnic Hmong and Khmu villages and a bear rescue centre.
The Pak Ou Caves, reached by boat along the mocha-hued Mekong, are another must-see. Instead of throwing away religious paraphernalia when it becomes old and tarnished, locals find space on the crowded rock shelves inside the two caverns. There are about 4,000 Buddhist statues on display, some deposited centuries ago.
The earlier paragraph describing monks sleepwalking through the mist collecting alms appeared in a travel article I wrote for this publication back in 2010. Times have changed, however, and the centuries-old ceremony has been reduced from a magical spectacle to a rowdy sightseeing circus.
Rather than observing the ritual from a respectful distance, many visitors feel the need to take part. This has created opportunities for vendors who sell plastic bags of sticky rice, some of which is stale or leftover, and has caused stomach upsets. In fact, much of the sub-standard stuff is discreetly thrown away as the monks know where they can find tastier, freshly cooked offerings.
Rules on how to behave during the pseudo ceremony are posted in a number of languages but are routinely ignored. As the procession approaches, camera flashes pop and a most un-Buddhist-like commotion ensues as disrespectful tourists jostle and chase after their prey in search of a selfie.
Disparaging online reviews range from the regretful “We wish we hadn’t seen the alms giving ceremony,” to the defiant, “We are in Luang Prabang right now and we are skipping the alms ceremony altogether.” There has even been talk of the monks abandoning the feeding frenzy but, according to some sources, authorities would simply replace them with actors dressed in saffron robes so that visitors still get their show. Perhaps they already have.
Luang Prabang’s tourism boom is predicted to continue for the foreseeable future although the promise of an economic bonanza for all is disputed. Some Lao business owners point out (usually anonymously) that much of the money goes to Chinese-run enterprises, including hotels, restaurants and tour companies. In response, government officials say many are joint ventures paying local taxes.
Not enough, it would seem. After sunset, the city really does succumb to darkness, but that’s because there isn’t any street lighting.
Known as the Land of a Million Elephants, Laos is also the land of 270 million American bombs, dropped on the country during the Vietnam war. The devices, not to mention huge numbers of landmines, continue to kill and maim people – there are about 300 casualties each year, many of them children. Obama’s 2016 visit to Luang Prabang included a commitment to fulfil America’s “profound moral and humanitarian obligation” to clean up the unexploded ordnance. The UXO Information Centre, on the outskirts of Luang Prabang, highlights the scale of the problem.
To enjoy your boat ride to the Pak Ou Caves you’ll need to turn a blind eye to all the rubbish floating in the Mekong and scattered along the riverbank. It’ll probably get worse before it gets better – as part of the “Belt and Road Initiative”, China plans to widen and deepen sections of the river with the aim of increasing commercial activity. Dredging and dynamiting rocks will increase the river flow and ever-larger cargo vessels will cause huge waves – both of which are likely to have an adverse effect on the riverine ecosystem and play havoc with farming along the fertile shoreline.
Luang Prabang might be a Unesco-designated jewel but residents seem less interested in the prestige that comes with living in such a location than the money they can make by selling up and moving. Sensing a financial windfall, many have relocated to the suburbs, their former homes converted into yet more guest houses, art galleries and cafes. According to one expat, the buildings have been saved but the city has lost its soul.
Perhaps it’s unfair to blame the newly affluent locals – few Hongkongers would begrudge anyone flipping a property for a healthy profit, Unesco heritage listed or not.
Bangkok Airways, Cathay Pacific and Vietnam Airlines offer connecting flights from Hong Kong to Luang Prabang.