The ancient city of Luang Prabhang is set on a misty, mystical, promontory surrounded on three sides by deep river valleys, then in turn by range after range of pale mountains rising to ever greater heights. The whole landscape is suffused with wood smoke and a feeling of peace, calm and dare I say spirituality. This is helped by the monks who are all over town, on mysterious missions. Old monks and young monks, some maybe only 7 years old, in their orange robes or yellow robes – each wat has its own subtly different design – walk calmly on the roads with their forage bags over their shoulders.
The town, a world heritage site, has been for the most part carefully managed, and has many small French colonial buildings, and new buildings are very much in the style of – verandahed and tile roofed and white painted, never more than two storeys – so that the wats still dominate the view. It does still have the feel of a real town, with chickens running everywhere, cocks crowing, rice and chillis drying in big wicker bowls in the sun, though inevitable tourism is taking over. In only two years since my last visit there seem to be more and larger hotels in the centre. Once it was almost entirely very small family run businesses – a few rooms above a shop house.
We stay in a small Australian owned hotel, which is mostly new built (although our huge and stylish room is part of an older house incorporated into the rest). It’s built round a small courtyard, shaded with big-leaved shrubs and bushes. Great for breakfasts and afternoon cooling drinks. The staff are very pleasant and eager to chat, working on their conversational English. Almost all of them are studying part time, English or hotel management.
In the evenings, the sun sets over the Mekong, sometimes spectacularly, as the tourists sip their cocktails at the improvised little open air bars. The dark descends and there is an almost reverential hush around the town, even in the tourist streets. The lights are dim, the stars shine out clear in the black sky.
4am and there is a distant rhythmic drumming. The monks at the nearby wat are being roused: still pitch dark outside.
4.30am: a cock crows.
5.00am: sounds of pots and pans being briefly banged together. It’s time for the daily food giving. I peep out of the shutters. The old ladies from the houses opposite are kneeling beside the road, in their traditional Lao long skirts, with bowls of sticky rice, and the procession begins. Groups of monks from each wat pass them in single file, and into the metal bowl carried by each, the ladies place a handful of sticky rice.
Each group, in their bright orange robes is led by a senior monk, but most of the rest are juvenile with seemingly the youngest at the rear. The robes are slightly different to mark out each wat: about 10 or 12 from each wat. All done in complete silence in the grey predawn light. There are lots of wats and the process lasts some minutes: then suddenly it is over and the ladies are packing up for another day. Back to bed for me and perhaps a little peace until breakfast time.
Is there a danger of a place like this becoming a victim of its own success? The peaceful little dawn ceremony is nowadays punctuated by camera clicks and flashes. More of the real inhabitants are pushed out by newer, bigger hotels. The guidebooks tell you to do this at this time, that at another time. As a result these particular experiences become overcrowded and the wonder is lost.
The eternal travellers’ dilemma: am I destroying the thing I came to see?
At sunset, the guides advise a trip to the temple at the top of Phou Si, the steep hill in the centre of the peninsula. So everyone troops up there. At the top is an important religious site, That Chomsi, but the tourists are oblivious; they turn up in their singlets and bikini tops, they talk loudly and take endless pictures of each other for facebook, they chat about where the cheapest place to get drunk is; and all the while in the background the sun sets sedately behind line after line of smoky mountains fading into distance. The sun sets and instantly the tour guides raise their flags and the larger parties are off. We stay behind to see what is in fact the best bit, as the sun’s final rays highlight each layer of cloud, higher and higher through orange, red and then finally to grey. The sky continues to glow long after, as the few lights in the landscape flick on, the barbecue fires send up their offerings, the stars start to emerge in the rapidly dimming sky, the air becomes still and distinctively cooler. This could have been a spiritual experience, but almost everyone misses it.