Elegance in the Elephant Kingdom
Little languid landlocked Laos. Surrounded on all sides by bigger, bolder neighbors Thailand, China, Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos is all too often left off South East Asian travel itineraries; vanguards of the sun flock to Phuket and Nha Trang; culture vultures spend their days exploring Chiang Mai and contemplating history at Angkor; hipsters head for Yangshuo and wax poetic in the cafes of Kunming. In passing you may hear of travelers of a certain breed flocking to Vang Vieng, where the Mekong runs quick and dirty, transforming the sleepy backwater into the spring break capital of Asia, unwittingly turning their back on the rest of Laos – the other Laos – a destination that offers sophisticated, adventurous visitors an enchanting escape into South East Asia’s most elegant country.
Laos is no longer the exclusive domain of the renegade backpacker; today the country is well suited to serving the needs of upmarket visitors and enthralling the intrepid discoverer: cruising the mighty Mekong, canvassing ancient temples like a colonial surveyor, shopping for locally handmade textiles in haggard markets or exploring the deepest recesses of the ancient jungle makes it easy to act like a tourist without feeling like one. And in case you didn’t know, Laos is a fine place for pachyderms.
At the river's edge
When traveling in Northern Thailand I overheard a wayfaringstranger refer to a journey down the Mekong River by slow boat as his Great Asian Pilgrimage: at that moment I knew it was a trip I must make. Now, staring out my window at the verdant endlessness from the deck of the slow boat somewhere between Huay Xai (a heavily-trafficked border crossing between Laos and Thailand) and the backwater charmer Pak Beng, I wonder why I had counted Laos out until now. Sure, my seat is little more than a giant sack of rice and my big bottle of Beer Lao is and always has been warm, but here, in the belly of this nautical behemoth I’m swiftly introduced to the Asia I only ever created in my imagination. Craggy karst mountains on either side of the river threaten to crumble and crash back to earth; the murky waters of the river beg the traveler to ascribe some meaning to their mysterious depths; bamboo domiciles and thatched huts act as silent sentinels, each with a rugged canoe ready to ferry the protectors of the river to battle. The boom of a great horn shakes me from my daydream as a cargo ship slowly overtakes us, so overloaded with bananas that I wonder if the fruit is what keeps the boat afloat. I am distracted from these scenes only by my desire to witness an elephant come crashing through the underbrush, wade into the water and tow our ship downriver.
Departing from Huay Xai I decided against other water transit options, including the luxury cruiser, opting for the plebian slow boat so that I might get a look at life along the river. I quickly lose count at how many times we stop along the way: we make room for families moving wholesale from one village to the next, old men in tribal garb en route to more copious hunting grounds and fishermen hauling their catch, still wriggling, aboard. My foreign travel companions marvel at these sights and smells while they work their digital triggers over and over, celebrating their luck at length with claims of print-worthy images. Beer flows freely when there’s not much to do and nowhere to go but the direction the river wants to take you; fast friends are made between Australians, Americans, Dutch, Canadians and other Western visitors, though more exhilarating are the non-verbal connections created between us visitors and the local folks, thin strands of ethereal twine linking us in this time and space. A young Lao boy comes aboard and takes a seat among a group of strange faces; unaffected, he smiles and offers us fermented fish cakes of an origin unknown. The Austrian doctor next to me, ignoring everything he ever learned in medical school and every Surgeon General’s warning he ever memorized, takes a bite and swallows hard, tears welling in his eyes. Walls of cultural disassociation crumble in the wake of laughter and mirth. Two days in this boat, on this river, flow by all too swiftly.
What we forget in the fog
Luang Prabang is unlike anywhere else you’ve ever been in Asia, and not because they do something different with the banana pancakes. Charm radiates from the core of the city; this is the spiritual heart of a spiritual country and existence revolves around the meditative life. Tangerine-clad monks, many of them young men, gather for alms giving in the early hours of the morning, walking the warrens of the Old Town while Morning Prayer reverberates through the air. Wat Sen is the most well known of all the places of worship and makes every visitor’s travel photography checklist, but along every crumbling path and down each uncharted alley the curious inspector may uncover a lesser-known wat, a peaceful place that encourages introspection.
My first morning in town and I’m up before the sun, walking through a thick fog along the Nam Khan promenade. A young monk with an umbrella over his shoulder walks a few steps ahead of me; his is a classic silhouette, one framed by the hanging vines and blooming flowers of the overgrown tees. Hearing the footfall behind him, he turns and smiles, asking me where I’m from. We exchange pleasantries as you do when you’re on the road, only I’m not sat in the dining room of a crowded guesthouse and I’m certainly not eating banana pancakes. He tells me about his favorite movies and how he’d like to visit the West someday. He asks me what I think about his country and where I’ll go to next. Typical, these questions that we’ve all been asked when traveling and met by curious locals, yet the exchange is no less enjoyable. We discuss the antiquity of Luang Prabang and some of her better-known temples, though he admits his history isn’t what it should be. I ask him to make up a story for me since I couldn’t possibly know the difference. We walk together for ten or fifteen minutes; not long enough to learn much about one another, but perhaps long enough to become friends. Where our roads diverge the young monk shakes my hand and looks into my eyes. “Never trust an elephant you cannot hear,” he says, laughing as he escapes into the enveloping fog.
Like many of the other curious travelers that arrive at Luang Prabang, I can’t help but marvel at my good fortune. I’ve checked into a suite at the brilliantly appointed Hotel Villa Deux Rivieres and take a midday beer on the spacious loggia, the best place in town to listen to the water roll by. It doesn’t take long for days to haze together in this town, as if the wizard of good fortune is sat on a golden throne melting magical candles at both ends. I watch mod-Lao cuisine come to life at Tamarind, where a chili-infused watermelon cocktail compliments the eclectic sampling platter of bamboo dips, chili pastes, stuffed lemongrass and eggplant curry. I browse for handmade local textiles at Ock Pop Tok, hunt for bargains at the nightly cavalcade of vendors at the Handicraft Night Market and pick out prints depicting river life from the shops that line the alleys running perpendicular to the Mekong River. Many of the shops in Luang Prabang donate financial and educational support to local sustainability programs and buying locally at the Night Market helps put money directly into the hands of the working class; even when I don’t feel like shopping I don’t mind dropping a few dimes to help benefit a good cause.
If you had an itinerary designed for Luang Prabang there’s a good chance you’ll eschew it in favor of long walks along one of the two great rivers, warm nights with good wine and short, strenuous hikes to Wat Chom Si for brilliant sunset views of the river-framed terrain. On one of my early walks through town I pass Vat Xieng Toung monastery, a place that at times feels like the most venerated of all Buddhist monuments in the country. Yet early in the morning the scene is eerily quiet, the absence of activity curious. As I’m about to leave I swear I see an elephant sneak around a corner, though by the time I get close the great beast is already gone, an apparition swept up in the mist.
Why we love waterfalls
The touts hanging around town want to sell you two things; boat rides and trips to the waterfalls. In the right frame of mind and in the right mood after a night at the villa bar, I say yes to the latter offer, the former still too much to process after two days on the Mekong. Off we roll through the bustling heart of Luang Prabang proper, past small villages, black market petrol vendors and the tangled green of the hills. I keep an eye out for elephants and have our driver stop to search the landscape on more than one occasion. We finally arrive at a muddy plain where boatmen pack us into slender canoes like so many ripening bananas for a thrilling cruise downstream. We hear the thunderous roar of the Tad Sea Waterfalls long before we see it and before long there’s a cool mist in the air. Water rips down over the many tiers of the falls and into a massive emerald pool, deep enough for swimming and one of the best reasons to escape from Luang Prabang for the day. Lying on my back, watching the clouds race overhead, I can’t imagine a more perfect moment on the road when suddenly the peace is shattered by a cacophony of trumpets, as if an ancient Burmese army has burst through the jungle ready to conquer the falls. By the time I catch my breath and wipe the mist from my eyes I’m face-to-face with the real source of sound; crashing into the pool is an old grey elephant, his mahout mounted regally upon his broad shoulders. I reach out to the beast, hesitant at first, and lay my hand on his trunk. Unskilled as I am as an elephant handler, I feel as though there is an understanding between us, until the beast decides to deliver a sizable blast of water to my face, his rider and the crowd of onlookers laughing.
Get lost all over again
We travel to create new experiences. Though it is not known as a land of superlatives – there is no highest mountain here, no longest river there, no countless park of pagodas anywhere - Laos offers us opportunities to experience something different every day, whether we’re looking for excitement on the river, adventures in the jungle or relief from the urgency of humanity in the most elegant of Asian cities. The slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang is indeed a pilgrimage of a certain kind, while Luang Prabang itself is the sort of place where you can unwind until your visa runs dry. A trip to the sleepy village of Nong Khiaw, tucked away in the shadows of great karst giants, is the perfect place to let time slip away. The Plain of Jars, in the north eastern corner of the country, will keep you wondering about the meaning of history while the bewitching capital of Vientiane affords visitors the chance to get in touch with their inner self at meditation centers or to cut loose at the Laos Beer factory, the purveyor of the ubiquitous national brew. Find Laos, lose yourself in fine dining, gracious hospitality and awe-inspiring scenery then ask yourself if you ever want to be found again.