Monday, February 22, 2010

Luang Prabang’s laid-back beauty

The Spend Another Day in Laos booklet we discovered in our Chiang Mai guest hotel gave us the impression we would thoroughly enjoy this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

IMG_3355We did. First, its architecture is lovely: traditional heritage wooden homes (many set in oases of vegetation) contrast with ornate often yellow and white French Colonial public buildings. Throw in the 30+ usually spectacular Buddhist Wats – especially if the monks are chanting – and you have beautiful “bones” for a city.

P2260083Secondly, dappled sunlight in back lanes and alleys conspire to make Luang Prabang a walker’s paradise. We were well shaded and our senses delighted by draping bougainvillea, fragrant frangipani, and stiffly rustling banana trees while exploring these narrow thoroughfares.

Thirdly, there are many museums to explore. We were fascinated with the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre which explains Laos’ many tribal peoples. After watching videos of sacred Taoist initiation ceremonies and learning about the different typical clothes the Hill Tribe Peoples make, we purchased textiles and crafts at the museum’s shop. Knowledgeable staff informed us about the tribes, use of materials as well as how items had been hand dyed, woven, and embroidered. However, the pièce de résistance of the centre was the free library at its on-site cafe. We spent perhaps 1 1/2 hours reading: I enjoyed Grant Evan’s book, The Last Century of Lao Royalty (ISBN 978-994-9511-66-4).

IMG_3096The National Museum (formerly the Royal Palace) was equally fascinating, where we toured the Royal’s private home and living space, Buddhist temple, as well as gardens, complete with circular fish pond. (In Evan’s book, he quotes one of the princesses saying how she loved playing beside the pond – and how her mother cautioned her and her siblings not to get too close, lest they fall in.)

Laos’ last King and Queen’s disappearance is never explained here at the palace, other than by relating it directly to a Buddhist legend where the king supposedly left his people to follow the ascetic life of a monk. So it was fascinating to read in Evan’s book that King Savang Vatthana’s death occurred in the communist “re-education camp”, Sop Hao, in northern Laos. He, the Queen and one prince perished after being rounded up by the communists in 1977. Apparently the first admission of the Royals’ death was published in Bangkok World, January 1981.

IMG_3122Such is life here in Laos and Luang Prabang, where Buddhism, communism, and people’s daily lives weave a complex, textured pattern.