Thursday, November 25, 2021

Memories of Luang Prabang

                                                                     by Jim Goodman


      Luang Prabang, the old royal capital of Laos, first entered my consciousness during the Vietnam War, reading articles about the Pathet Lao advance on the city and a little background on its history.  Afterwards, while living in Korea, I heard tales from a few travelers of what it was like before 1975.  When I eventually moved to northern Thailand in 1988 my interest returned.  Laos opened to tourists in 1989, but unrestricted, unsupervised travel was only possible in Vientiane Prefecture.  To visit Luang Prabang one had to suffer the constant companionship of a government minder and go by plane round-trip, all expenses for the minder paid by the tourist. 

       In 1994 the Friendship Bridge, connecting Nong Khai with a point in Laos a little south of Vientiane, officially opened.  At the same time Laos changed its tourism rules and now people could go anywhere on their own.  One could also take any means of transportation, by air, road or river.  For my first trip that summer I chose the river route from Huey Sai in northern Laos, across from Chiang Khong, Thailand.   Two types of boats were possible:  the slow, bigger one, with some room to move around, stand on deck and sleep overnight, and the small, cramped speedboat, which took only six hours either way.  I took the latter.

       With the exception of the riverside town of Pakbeng, about halfway, the scenery is unremittingly similar, full of forests on both sides, with an occasional Hmông village of stilted houses along the route.  About 25 km before Luang Prabang, however, the boat passes very tall cliffs at the confluence of the Nam Ou River to the left and the Pak Ou Caves with their Buddhist images on the right.  The latter is a popular excursion out of the city, while a ride on the Nam Ou leads to the lovely rustic retreat of Muang Ngoi Neua.

       Compared to Vientiane, Luang Prabang is a small and quiet city, nestled in a mountainous landscape, a first view dominated by Phousi Hill and its chedi overlooking the city.  It has two distinct parts.  The original town lies on a narrow peninsula formed by the turns of the Nam Khan River coming down from the hills and flowing into the Mekong.  This is the Xieng Thong founded by Fa Ngun in 1367 as the capital of the new kingdom Lanexang.  The name changed when the state acquired the Phrabang Buddha image from a Khmer king and thenceforth became Luang Prabang.  The image, however, stored in the royal palace, was looted by Thai armies in 1778, returned in 1792, captured again in 1828, and given back again in 1867.

          Long before Fa Ngum, the Khamu minority established the first settlement in Luang Prabang, though how long ago has not been determined.  When many centuries later the Lao set up their first state here they recognized the Khamu as the spiritual owners of the land and their kings often employed Khamu shamans to conduct ceremonies honoring the land spirits.  The Lao themselves trace their origin to the myth of Khun Boulom, sent to earth, along with his two wives and a few others, by the King of Heaven to bring order and purpose to the world. 

       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.

       Khun Boulom’s two wives bore him seven sons and Khun Lo, the eldest, became the progenitor of the Lao people, settling in Xieng Thong.  To his other sons Khun Boulom gave the lands of Xieng Khouang, Sipsongpanna in Yunnan, Sipsong Chau Tai in northwest Vietnam,  Lanna in northern Thailand, the central plains of Siam, and Pegu in the delta areas of the Salween and Irrawaddy in Burma.  Tai peoples moved into many of these areas perhaps as early as the 6th century, but lived under Khmer jurisdiction until the 13th century, when Tai states formed in Lanna and Siam and in Luang Prabang the following century. 

       Lanexang ruled over most of the Lao population, though King Sethithirat I moved the capital to Vientiane in 1560.  The state broke up into three kingdoms in 1707—Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang and Champassak.  In the late 18th and early 19th centuries Luang Prabang suffered from Thai invasions and to pre-empt the Thai from taking all of Laos the French moved in during the 1860s to establish a protectorate over the whole country.  The resultant construction of colonial settlers’ homes and new government offices gave Luang Prabang new architectural features, a legacy that would enhance its charm when it became a modern tourist attraction.

       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.   

       Luang Prabang suffered a brief yet destructive occupation by Chinese Black Flag pirates in 1887, who damaged or destroyed all but one temple.  Only Wat Xiengthong, at the northeast end of the peninsula, emerged unscathed and though all the others have been restored, this classic structure is the most attractive and harmonious in the city.  It’s also one of the most tranquil locations, close to the river junction.  The compound’s atmosphere and the array of different exterior wall murals, on the subsidiary buildings as well, inspire an extended visit.

       Some murals depict scenes from the Buddha’s life, others fanciful figures of mythology and vignettes of daily life.  Most are paintings, but some employ low-relief sculptures, like one of half-naked maidens in a lotus pond.  Paintings illustrating scenes of farming, caring for animals, bearing loads on the back, using boats, chatting, weaving and cooking provide insights into the rural life just a short distance outside the city, confirmed by a hike up the Nam Khan.  A vignette might be of the morning alms rounds of the monks, which one could witness live on the road from Phousi Hill on the southwest end of the peninsula to the Ashoka Stupa of Wat Visounarath.   

       I observed this the morning after my arrival, though in drizzling rain with the devotees crouched over their offerings under umbrellas.  The rain ceased afterwards and it was still early, so I was off to the nearby produce market.  It looked much the same as Thailand markets, save for the stall selling French bread.  The weather didn’t improve and after a few days I left, but with an overall positive impression, especially of its polite and friendly people, and a desire to return.

       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 visited the old royal palace this time, which stands at the end of a road flanked by towering palm trees.  I walked through Wat Xiengthong compound again and more closely examined the black and gold pillars and gilded wall murals of Wat Mai.  Inside one of the temples on the road along the Mekong an artist on a scaffold was delicately restoring old classical mural paintings on the upper part of the wall. 

       Exploring beyond the city, I hiked three km southeast along the Nam Khan River to Wat Phan Pao, a two-story, octagonal, light ochre building topped by a golden chedi, unlike any of the temples in the city.  Another day I rode downriver to Kuangsi Falls, a popular attraction.  My visit coincided with a celebration of some kind in the village next to the falls.  Folks invited me for food and drink and to watch the dances.  I enjoyed that as much as the sight of the falls.

       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.

       A final excursion in June, 2004 confirmed this trend.  All the shop houses were now tourist-oriented facilities.  At night the entire street turned into a handicrafts market, with mostly Lao vendors rather than Hmông.  At the morning alms round camera-flashing tourists outnumbered both the monks and the devotees together.  The best temples had ticket booths at the gates.    The highest priced entry was Wat Xiengthong, but I didn’t mind paying as I was keen to view the murals again.     

       I had clear skies for the most part and took advantage of this to photograph many of the temples, chedis and houses.  I spent most of one day at the enchanting Tat Sae waterfalls in a forest above the city.  Unlike the Kwangsi falls that tumble over a cliff, at Tat Sae branches of a stream slide over a series of stone terraces.  Children play in the pools beside the falls and Lao families picnic on the banks.  It seemed to be more popular with locals than with tourists, as none were around.

          My other adventure in the area was the boat ride from Luang Prabang to Muang Ngoi Neua.  The boat goes upriver past the Pak Ou Caves, then turns up the Nam Ou River at the steep high cliff next to its confluence with the Mekong.  Muang Ngoi Neua lies an hour’s ride further upriver, passing steep hills and karst landscapes.  A small village of stilted wooden houses with thatch roofs, and a few artillery shells from the war used as garden ornaments, this was an ideal rural retreat.  The main activity was watching passing boats and the fishing on the river.  Proposed dams threatened this environment, but at the time they hadn’t been constructed yet.

       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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