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.
In response 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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