The royal city

Photos and text by Stephen Mansfield

Boats moored near the Royal Palace
Boats moored near the Royal Palace

"Where Vientiane has two streets," Graham Greene noted in his diary in 1954, "Luang Prabang has one." Anyone taking this to mean that Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos, is half the city Vientiane is, would be quite mistaken.

Preeminently positioned at the confluence of the Mekong and Kham Rivers at an altitude of some 800 meters, Luang Prabang can be observed in one glorious sweep by climbing the steep, plumeria-lined steps opposite the Royal Palace, to the top of Mount Phousi at the center of town where a golden stupa stands. From the wall embrasures of That Chomsi on the summit, each of the cardinal points offer well defined vignettes of traditional, small-town life in Indochina. Distant blue-green hills stand sentinel against green, ripening paddies and palm groves; wisps of smoke issue from kitchen fires and, nearer to Phousi itself, rows of colorful, half-timbered houses and shop fronts and the sand banks of the Mekong appear. A few languid figures - saffron-robed monks, small children climbing frangipani trees and young Lao women in tight-fitting pha sin skirts - come into view along Luang Prabang's handful of temple-thronged streets. Pausing on the flight of steps that descend Phousi, the roofs of the Royal Palace can be seen. On the red and gold pediment above the entrance to the building, now renamed the National Museum, one can glimpse the symbol of a three-headed elephant under a parasol, the motif of the former Kingdom of Laos.

Columns and corbels
Columns and corbels at Wat Mai, an 18th century temple

After centuries of foreign incursions, Luang Prabang can scarcely be called unspoiled. A long line of visitors - Buddhist missionaries, warlords, sculptors, opium traders, colonizers - have passed along its streets. Tourists are the last, and potentially most influential, of these. Recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and with an international airport nearing completion, Luang Prabang is unlikely to remain Indochina's best-kept secret for much longer. For the moment, however, the city remains a kind of sleepy Ruritania, hardly changed by the passage of time. Luang Prabang has gone through so many costume changes - fiefdom, state, kingdom, province - sacked by both the Burmese and the Siamese, captured by the Vietnamese, ransacked by Chinese bandits, annexed by the French - that it is a wonder so much indigenous to the city and its residents has survived.

Perhaps it is the abundance of gold paint gracing the door leaves of Luang Prabang's temples, the finesse still in evidence even in the Buddha of putrescible wood, or the ornamental motifs seen on everything from temple pylons and corbels to manuscripts and the decorative prows of racing canoes, but there is something of undeniable royal or noble lineage and execution in almost every formal building in Luang Prabang. There are foreign influences of course: Hindu, Khmer and Javanese sculptured motifs, even the odd Sassanian bas-relief, but the sum has been transmuted into a style uniquely associated with Luang Prabang and its royal traditions. Luang Prabang is a city that has gained a lot from its religious and royal associations. At one time the city could boast as many as sixty temples. Even now there are over thirty, all lovingly restored and maintained. "Like the pubs in Ireland," as one writer put it, "there is one on every corner." The city's most visited sight is unquestionably Wat Xieng Thong. Built in 1560, this extraordinary temple long enjoyed royal patronage and has continued to be well cared for, a fact apparent in the well maintained stenciled pillars, frescoes, and anecdotal mosaics affixed to the rear wall of the main chapel.

Maintaining time-honored values and accommodating a communist revolution has not always been easy, but the presence of so much art and antiquity and the veneration in which it is generally held by the Lao, has helped to counteract the more radical elements of change within the country and to prevent the destruction of a heritage which has enabled Luang Prabang to remain the veritable storehouse of temples, sacred images, effigies and golden altars that it is today. Tranquillity and royal traditions are Luang Prabang's main selling points.

silver chalice
A woman holds a silver chalice in readiness for a ritual connected to the Pi Mai Festival

Quietly devoted to its past, Luang Prabang prides itself not only on its architecture and sights but also on its living traditions like Khao Pakah Din, a Buddhist ancestor festival, which continues to be celebrated every year. Luang Prabang also has its Pi Mai, or New Year festival, which falls in mid-April. Many of the original elements of the event, long since discarded in other regions, remain unchanged here. The hushed compounds of temples along the main street, Thanon Photisarath, burst into life over the heady few days of Pi Mai, and this garden city of hermits, visiting hill tribes and gentlemen monks pulses with an energy one rarely associates with the pleasantly laid-back Lao.

A dancer about to play a part in the Lao version of the indian epic the Ramayana

With a population of barely 50,000, Luang Prabang may strike the casual observer as little more than an interesting Mekong River port, hardly a former capital at all. Perhaps so, but the source of Luang Prabang's very tangible charm issues from that very marginality which has kept it a provincial time capsule. A less abrasively urban center could hardly be imagined, and Luang Prabang remains a city that accords its visitors a gentle courtesy that seems to belong to a different age, offering the senses smidgens of a faded European grace that blends easily with Oriental exotic. Tourists are now visiting Luang Prabang in unprecedented numbers. With the rapid development that is taking place throughout the region, however, Luang Prabang - for better or worse Indochina's last sleeping beauty - is set to become a major tourist attraction.

For the time being, however, an ineffable quietude issues from the inner sanctums of this garden city, bathed in the amber light of its statuary and blessed with the flowering shrubs, flame trees, plumeria and inflorescence that make its handful of streets, paths and byways such a delight to amble through. When Peter White interviewed a former mayor of Luang Prabang for National Geographic in 1968 about making the town more competitive and up-to-date, he was politely told, "As a Lao, I say that it is not good. We cannot stop others from coming here, but we would prefer a more quiet life." For many Lao, the answer would be much the same today.

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