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 (www.bigbrothermouse.com ) 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.
“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.