by Jim Goodman
Upon his arrival
he found a great gourd vine reaching to the sky and soon blotting out the
sunlight. Khun Boulom ordered people to
cut it down, but knowing whoever cut it would subsequently die, no one was
willing. Finally an elderly couple who
had descended with Khun Boulom, Phou Ngeu and Gna Gneu, volunteered, provided
they would afterwards receive offerings from the people and their spirits would
be invoked at the beginning of meals.
Phou Gneu and Gna Gneu then hacked away at the liana roots until the
whole thing came tumbling down, killing them in the process. Subsequently the Lao people revered them as
the Magical Great Ancestors and keep their red masks and hairy costumes in Wat
Aram to bring out during the New Year festivities in April.
The city was
still the royal capital of Laos and the object of siege and capture during the
anti-colonial war. Fortunately, it did
not suffer much damage then and during the Vietnam War it was far enough away
from the Ho Chi Minh Trail not to experience aerial bombardment. No bomb craters to visit here, unlike the
pockmarked hills and plains of Xieng Khouang.
And when the Pathet Lao did take over they did not launch an iconoclastic
campaign against the temples. The new
government discouraged religion but it was impossible to ban it
altogether. When the government relaxed
its attitude the temples became as active as ever. The state now views them as
valuable tourist attractions and worthy of upkeep.
The next year
1995 Luang Prabang achieved recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in
sunny March, 1997 I returned for a longer stay.
Not much had changed yet, nor was it crowded, and backpackers
outnumbered tour groups, who were mostly Thai.
The only difference was the addition of a Hmông handicrafts market next
to the pier where the tour boats landed.
The street on the peninsula along the Nam Khan River side still featured
the colonial era homes, many of them serving as shop houses catering to local
residents with a variety of goods for daily use. Fancier hotels and restaurants had gone up on
the other side of Phousi Hill, but I preferred the open-air ones on the Mekong
side of the peninsula and again indulged in my favorite meal of spiced fish
steamed in banana leaves, served with cold Beer Lao while watching the sunset.
I made a third
journey six years later in May, flying in to get an aerial view of the city and
its environment. After arrival I also
crossed the river to take photos of the city from a new angle. I had a story assignment on paper production,
both the sa paper in Luang Prabang and the type made from elephant dung
in Hongsa, Xayaboury Province. So I
spent little time in the city itself, but did notice the greater number of
tourists and the conversion of many shop houses into lodges, tourist agencies
and restaurants advertising vegetarian meals and internet service.
But they had in China already, in several locations on their portion of the Mekong, and were beginning to go up in Laos. The first was underway near Pakbeng, which would terminate those boat journeys from Huey Sai to Luang Prabang. Another was scheduled just downstream from the World Heritage Site. I had the feeling that this fourth trip would be the last chance to see Luang Prabang and vicinity in its original environment. Afterwards my travels and research resumed focus on Yunnan and Vietnam, but I kept up with news of Luang Prabang developments.
to ecologists’ opposition to the dams, the Lao government contended that as a
resource-poor country its main possible export was the electricity generated by
the dam projects. Recent photographs of
the city show that it now lies next to a large reservoir that floods the
original landing pier and gives it a very different appearance from the view I
had across the river back in 2004. I
can’t envision returning anymore. But I
still have my memories.
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