Luang Prabang, Laos, view of Nam Khan River

Laos through the looking-glass: Luang Prabang.

What did I expect, when I visited the former Kingdom of a Million Elephants, the hidden jewel of old Indochina? An alternate Vietnam, where elephant did indeed roam the streets? A “lesser” version of Thailand, without the trademark smiles and tourist services to match?

Well, if sibling rivalry between these countries is a contention, then perhaps it’s Thailand, the stronghold of western tourism in SE Asia, and Vietnam, the fledgling phoenix, reborn from the flames of war, who should be worried…

river guardian statue, Luang Prabang

I honestly felt like I was venturing into the unknown a bit with Laos, because unlike India, China, Vietnam or Thailand, I couldn’t recall any books or films which I encountered which were set in Laos (though perhaps this is more reflective of my own internal bias/ taste).

The fact that I spent all of my time in Laos in the city of Luang Prabang (Laos’ second city) and surrounding areas meant that I got to do the whole “slow travel” thing properly, and I really felt that this was in-keeping with the zeitgeist of the place as a whole.

View from summit of Mount Phousi
View from summit of Mount Phousi

Ultimately, it’s a sacred place for Buddhism, due to the sheer number of temples and monks, as well as sites like Mount Phousi. I even felt like I got to have my own share of delayed gratification (in tune with the lives of devotees) as I had to wait until my friend, who works for a local NGO, was free on the weekend to come with me to see the undoubted highlight of Luang prabang – the Kuang Si waterfall!

Kuang Si waterfall, Luang Prabang, Laos
Kuang Si waterfall, Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang airport is perhaps one of the most extraordinary places I’ve visited in the past six months, and that’s no small claim. With its propeller-powered aircraft, priority boarding for monks, and overall lack of electronic signage, it honestly reminded me of a less-glamorous version of Golden Age travel (late 19th and early 20th century).

With the entire city declared a UNESCO world heritage site, the few square miles that make up the city of Luang Prabang feel, at moments, more like a lost kingdom than modern-day Angkor Wat, with its camera clutching swarms, could currently hope to. High-class colonial style restaurants, all dark wood and shuttered French-windows, still open their doors to the sultry evenings, on the banks of the same ever-shifting river. Classic cars are still parked outside some of the most historic guest houses, despite the fact that the local “ice cream van” is in fact, an older lady with a cart and a hand bell.

lanterns hang from historic houses, Luang Prabang

The pace of life here was so much slower than in Hanoi that at first I felt slightly unnerved, as if experiencing a culture shock as jarring as that of moving from my UK hometown to Vietnam. The lack of motorised traffic, and accompanying noise, and the absence of high-rise buildings, were probably the most noticeable things.

Getting back in touch with nature, and feeling a childlike sense of wonder at the presence of bird-sized butterflies and opulent tropical fauna was definitely one of the most engaging parts of the whole trip. The rawness of the geographical landscape as a whole really took me back to my holiday in the Aran Islands.

Laos may seem like some sort of outlier then, an oddity hidden in plain sight. Yet its links to the wider region run are evident. The artwork in the Royal Palace museum harks back to the Ramayana, the Sanskrit epic. Lao language has ties to the Brahmic scripts (see this Omniglot entry), and the aforementioned Mount Phousi even has its own place in Hindu mythology, in a tale concerning the exploits of the monkey-deity, Hanuman.

Tree of Life mosaic, Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
Tree of Life mosaic, Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

At the back of a lavishly decorated temple, in a distinctive mosaic style, the omnipresent and universal archetype (as Carl Jung would have it) The Tree of Life, was visible. The message of the Tree seemed simultaneously esoteric and explicit. Though the branches, like those of the defining Mekong river, may be spread wide, and the peoples – its fruit – diverse and various, the roots, which form the foundation of this continent, run deep. It is a microcosm then, capturing the essence of Luang Prabang, in its own all-encompassing entirety.

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