Making Merit In Luang Prabang

After decades under Communist rule, Laos now teeters on the edge of a cultural precipice. Walk the line

Published: Feb 8, 2012
Making Merit In Luang Prabang
Image: Michael S. Yamashita_CORBIS
ON BENDED KNEE The Lower Pak Ou Cave is a centuries-old depository for disfi gured Buddha statues. During the Lao new year, Buddhists visit the caves to bathe the statues and “gain merit

Climbing up a steep bank of the Nam Khan river, Muang, our guide, came to a stop before a grey statue near a grave in a small clearing. This, we learnt, was where French explorer Henri Mouhot—most famous for showcasing Angkor Wat to the West through his travel writing—had been laid to rest after dying of malaria in 1861. The spot, though initially venerated, soon came to be overrun by thick jungle and it remained hidden till its accidental discovery in 1991.

In some ways, the story of Laos parallels the tale of this monument. Freed of French colonial rule in 1953, Laos fell off the world map as it became mired in internal conflict and the power politics of the Cold War. In the north-east, the communist Pathet Lao movement aligned itself with Ho Chi Minh in neighbouring Vietnam and was supported by the Soviet Union, while in the south the Royal Lao government forces were supported by the United States. Finally, in 1975, the Pathet Lao gained control over the entire country and dissolved the centuries-old monarchy. It has ruled Laos ever since.

Fourteen years would elapse, however, before Laos formally opened up to travellers, as the collapse of the Soviet Union forced the government to embrace market forces. Since then, tourism has been a major source of income for this poor, land-locked country. While it brings in much-needed foreign exchange, the negative fallout is all too evident. Luang Prabang now has the feel of an international retreat: Everyone is from somewhere else.

Colin Cotterill, author of the Dr. Siri detective series set in Laos and a regular visitor to Luang Prabang since 1991, says, “Once the tourists came, the people changed. Many became mercenary. Suddenly, there was a quest to get a hand in that bottomless tourist pocket.” Muang puts it more simply: “Because of foreigner, everything in Luang Prabang very expensive (sic).”

‘Protect Our Culture’ signs are everywhere in the city. Suitably exhorted, we headed to the office of Big Brother Mouse. It isn’t, as some could presume, a rodent reality show, but a unique publishing house ( ) that seeks to make books widely available. The literacy-centric organisation was born when American publisher Sasha Alyson realised he hadn’t encountered a single book during his travels through the country in 2003. Many Laotians have never read anything other than a textbook. The few that are available rarely make their way to the villages, where most people live.

Besides publishing books and popularising reading, Big Brother Mouse encourages travellers to drop by at its offices to chat with locals to help them improve their English. So, armed with two bilingual English-Lao books, we walked into the reception and looked around expectantly, certain someone would know what to do with two foreigners. But the two young girls at the desk looked puzzled.

“We’re here to talk in English…?” The question mark interjected itself as I realised how stupid that sounded.

“I mean…we’re here for the English session?” I tried again.

This time, a young woman at the back of the room responded. Dressed somewhat incongruously to my eyes in a pink Mickey Mouse jumper and a beautiful, wide-bordered Lao skirt—a form of attire much favoured by Lao women—she introduced herself as Noun (pronounced ‘noon’) Sysouksavanh in confident English. She took our books and diligently began to read aloud.

After half-an-hour of reading aloud and spelling games, however, it was obvious that Noun’s attention span was waning. Besides, it was a glorious day outside, and the cycling tracks by the river were beckoning. Most tourists prefer to bike along the Mekong, which runs parallel to the main town. But Noun took us along a route that ran by the Nam Khan, which meets the Mekong just outside Luang Prabang. Shortly after leaving the city limits, the paved road gave way to a jagged path of stones—the rattling teeth, no doubt, the reason why the road was almost deserted.

A few km out of Luang Prabang, as the buildings ceased and the river sparkled in the sun, Laos finally began to feel like the country we’d come to experience. The only people around were Laotian families. On an island of rocks in the middle of the shallow, babbling river, we spotted a couple beating a pile of river weed with a thick wooden club. Fried and served with a spicy tomato sauce, it makes for a delicious snack called Khai Paen.

Making Merit In Luang Prabang
Image: Michael S. Yamashita/ CORBIS
TWILIGHT THOUGHTS Despite the Pathet Lao government trying to rub off the influence of religion in its early days, Buddhism has thrived in Laos

“Sometimes I come and spend a full day here with my girlfriends,” Noun told us as we walked through the cold, ankle-deep water.

Temples—or wats—abound around Luang Prabang. All the guidebooks tell you to go to the one in the centre of town on Mount Phu Si for the 360-degree views it offers over the town and the two rivers, but Noun took us to Shanti Chedy, much larger and quieter. Of comparatively recent vintage, the inside of the temple is arranged like a Matryoshka doll, with each level leading up to a smaller, identical level till the summit, which could accommodate barely three people. Thao Wye, the ancient caretaker of the temple, obligingly posed for our cameras, genuflecting before a Buddha idol with a vigour that belied her age.

After 30-odd years, Laos’ Communism has come to a truce with Buddhism. In the early years of Pathet Lao rule, there was a period when the government became paranoid about the influence of the sangha over the general public: They packed off monks to re-education camps, taped and scrutinised their sermons and even considered a ban on the practice of alms-giving. But as monks began to flee the country or renounce monkhood—coupled with a major public outcry—the government quickly did an about-turn.

And so, early one morning, we found ourselves in the city’s main street, squatting on the pavement with other tourists, bananas in our hands to offer as alms. I had pictured a single file of orange-robed monks emerging from all the different temples in the half-light, gliding silently past kneeling Buddhist followers who would gently drop sticky rice or snacks into their bowls. Buddhism believes giving alms reduces the destructive consequences of one’s bad deeds.

Instead, we found ourselves in a street buzzing with commercial activity. An enterprising vendor was selling hot coffee to sleepy tourists, Lao women were urging people to buy their food to give as alms, tourist guides were herding together a large bunch of excited visitors. Even the appearance of the monks failed to puncture the mood of businesslike bustle. As everyone hurried forward to take their place in the queue and get on to their knees, camera flashes began to go off with a vigour dazzling enough to light up a remote highland village.

More than a little put-out by the blatant touristisation of the ritual, later that day we walked into a roadside wat and found Khan Souk, a young monk, standing alone by the window. I couldn’t resist asking him if he was upset by the debasing of the morning ceremony. His response was typically Buddhist: “The tourists come from different religions and different countries so they don’t know. It’s okay.”

The phlegmatism resurfaced in the boatmen who operate ferries on the chocolate brown Mekong river. They wooed customers with a gentleness that made one want to say yes to all of them, but finally we chose Vanshy, who offered us the best price. We headed 25km upstream to the Pak Ou caves, a centuries-old depository for disfigured Buddha statues. Once a year, during the Lao new year, townspeople make the pilgrimage to the caves to bathe the statues and “gain merit”.

For us, the best part of the excursion was the ride on the Mekong. The boat traffic was light and, for the most part, we raced up the waters. Bamboo trees stood up along the banks like giant feathered plumes and, in the low tide, we could see bright green shoots of the vegetables that villagers were growing on the fertile banks.

We were struck again by how untouched the countryside was just outside the main inhabited town although that can sound like a cruel observation for the most cluster-bombed country on the planet. The Ho Chi Minh trail, the supply route used by the North Vietnamese to get to South Vietnam, passed through Laos and the Americans peppered it with bombs that are still exploding and killing people today.

As we headed back to Luang Prabang, we caught the sun sinking, bleeding orange across the sky. When Vanshy brought the boat to a halt, we stood in silence for a few seconds, gazing at the distant mountains that had now become a silhouette. It was the appropriate, quiet ending to Luang Prabang that we couldn’t have scripted if we’d tried.

Making Merit In Luang Prabang
Image: Christophe Boisvieux/ Corbis
SUNSET BANK There are many open-air cafes along the Mekong River where one can relax

Trip Planner

When to go: November to February is the best time to be in Luang Prabang.

Getting there:
There are no direct flights connecting India with Laos. Catch a flight to Bangkok and connect to Luang Prabang. You can get a visa on arrival, which costs $40 for Indian passport holders.

Where to stay: There is a wide range of hotels to choose from. At the top end, there’s the Ramayana boutique hotel ( ), starting from Rs. 4,500 per couple per night and Villa Santi ( ), starting from Rs. 3,500. In the mid-range, try Le Calao Inn, located in a UNESCO-registered World Heritage Building (tel: 856-71-212100), where we paid Rs. 2,500 per night. It has lovely, large balconies overlooking the Mekong River although much of the view is obscured by trees. There’s also Villa Phathana ( ), which has rooms for less than Rs. 2,300. At the lower end, there’s Eco-backpackers ( ), with rooms for less than Rs. 1,000 a night. Spicy Laos Backpackers only have dorms, with beds costing less than Rs. 200 per night.

Where to eat:
At the high-end, L’Elephant restaurant makes al-fresco dining available next to a beautiful wat.  Couleur café offers excellent Lao-French fusion cuisine; main courses cost around Rs. 200. Lao Lao Garden restaurant has Thai, Lao and Western food, with main courses costing around Rs. 200-300. Tamarind restaurant is recommended for reasonably priced local Lao cuisine.  

How to get around: The best way to get around is on foot since it is such a small town. Other options include renting a bicycle, which can cost anything from Rs. 50-100 for a few hours a day. If you decide to rent a motorbike it can cost anywhere between Rs. 1,200-1,500.
A tuk-tuk ride from the airport to the centre of town costs between Rs. 300 and 500.

What to do: Drop in at Big Brother Mouse ( ), an organisation set up to promote books and reading in Laos. Go kayaking on the smaller Nam Khan river that meets the Mekong in Luang Prabang. We had a good experience with Green Discovery tours ( ). Set aside at least Rs. 3,000 per head if you’d like to fit in at least two outdoor activities. Find a spot on a quiet side-street alongside a few native Laotians to watch the alms-giving. Instead of buying food of uncertain quality from hawkers, donate a few bananas instead. After the morning ceremony follow the monks back to any one of the beautiful wats all over Luang Prabang. Make sure to visit one of the oldest and most beautiful one—Wat Xieng Thong. Sit down at one of the many little cafes along the Mekong River waterfront to enjoy a beautiful sunset. Take a ride on the Mekong to go to the Pak Ou caves for anywhere between Rs. 300-500.

What to shop for:  Visit the night market in Luang Prabang: Every night, the high street is closed off to traffic and street stalls are set up to sell handicrafts. You can pick up a few lovely prints, jewellery or some gorgeous Lao silk. But keep in mind that the market has been around for a while and prices are marked up heavily because it caters almost entirely to tourists. For Lao silks make the trip to a village just outside Laos called Ban Phanom. This is a weaving village with its own gallery where the prices of Lao silks are lower than those available in the night market. Stop by at a new store called Ma TeSai (which means ‘Where Is It From?’ in Lao). The store claims to source its products from remote corners of Laos so you could find something interesting in there. Head to Monument book stores on the Mekong waterfront where you can find some interesting books on local history and art which are hard to find in more mainstream book stores.

(This story appears in the 17 February, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from To visit our Archives, click here.)

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