You wouldn’t expect the guests to keep coming after the lights flickered out, white-knuckling it along the rickety bamboo footbridge over the Nam Khan River to the Dyen Sabai restaurant. But they poured in through the pitch dark: parents carrying children on their shoulders, students, shoeless travellers in Thai fisherman pants.
As it turned out, Dyen Sabai was the perfect place to be at that moment in all Luang Prabang. Without the artificial light we could see across the river to the colonial town at dusk and the summit of Phousi Hill, plus the occasional longboat chugging along. The gentle chatter of our fellow diners swelled as they leaned on cushions by the low tables. The Beer Lao, impossibly cold, kept coming. And without the flickering light bulb above our table, the mosquitoes chose to leave us be.
Dyen Sabai is something of a right of passage for visitors to Luang Prabang. It ranks with waking at 5:30 a.m. to watch saffron-clad monks walk the palm-shaded streets to collect alms; or exploring the incense-clouded temples; or climbing Phousi. Sitting here, picking at plates of fresh vegetable rolls and sesame beef, I feel a sense of privilege. Not because this place is particularly grand – it isn’t – but because in five years, or even one, this way of life may be extinct.
The introduction of a private airline called Lao Central, plus the recent news that Lao Airlines is doubling its capacity and China Eastern has increased direct flights into the capital city of Vientiane, means Laos is about to be inundated with tourists from across Asia. The country’s No. 1 destination, the town of Luang Prabang, has been designated a UNESCO heritage site, so any new hotels and restaurants will likely spring up right here across the Nam Khan river.
Of course, Luang Prabang deserves to be noticed by its billion and a half neighbours. (Lest I sound smug, with two small children I’m clearly enjoying the early fruits of development.) Still, the town’s impossible beauty rides on its serenity, the ability of those monks (more than 1,000 in a town of 50,000) to carry out their spiritual routines away from flashbulbs. It depends on streets where bicycles outnumber cars, and a river on which boats rarely pass one another. The largest group to turn up in Luang Prabang these days is a dozen Aussies on the back of a pickup.
When we visited last year, the only way into Luang Prabang was by air from Hanoi, which itself took some getting to. So we were relieved to find, after settling in, that the pace was almost soporifically slow. The historic inns in the centre of town tend not to have pools, contributing to a swelter factor that only compounds the sluggish rhythm. You get up, pad to a shaded terrace, nibble on an egg, French bread and cantaloupe and nip at strong Laotian coffee (the northern hills are dotted with fair-trade growers).
Then you hit the few main streets of the old town. I’m not exaggerating when I say it took us most of our first day to progress eight or 10 blocks from the eastern reach of Khem Khong Boulevard, where the teak cottages of our hotel, the Mekong Riverview, climb up a berm fronting the river. There are that many things to see, to eat and to buy.
Fewer than 10 yards from the breakfast terrace is Luang Prabang’s most impressive Buddhist temple, Xieng Thong, or “Golden City,” which was the name of this town until it surrendered its capital designation to Vientiane in the 1500s. Xieng Thong is a complex of temples, shrines and monasteries with low ski-jump roofs and gilded reliefs. Inside you can tiptoe barefoot past kneeling monks and view centuries worth of religious artifacts, including a series of reclining Buddhas. And unlike in, say, Bangkok, where you’ll elbow past tour groups three deep even to glimpse the gilded relics, nobody else is around: a local father and his small daughter, perhaps. For now.
Already signs point to a changing tourism landscape. Sri Lankan hotelier Jetwing opened its first Laotian property last winter. Xieng Thong Palace is a cluster of five-star cottages facing a rare swimming pool that creeps around the property, so it’s never far from your verandah.
Then there’s the new generation of boutiques, schooled in the art of display and well connected among the weaving, silver-smithing and wood-carving artisans organized by European NGOs. Prices are aimed not at those Aussies in the truck, but rather at the expanding middle classes.
And between these shops are restaurants that serve fresh fish and sticky rice on banana leaves, coconut soups and spare ribs on terraces cooled by ceiling fans and icy fruit shakes.
What hasn’t changed are the temples. Temples so magnificently frescoed and bejewelled, they should merit pages in guidebooks but here they are barely identified, that’s how many abound.
It is the sort of romantic splendour-in-the-tropical-grasses that captures the imagination of many Chinese travellers. In places such as Shanghai, where I was living during the time I visited Laos, the handful of well-kept religious sites are so overcrowded , you risk your life passing the mob’s flailing sticks of burning incense.
Here, however, you can still board an empty longboat for a late-afternoon cruise to an obscure hillside village. Or sneak away to the Kouangxi Falls, a 20-minutes drive southwest of town, for a glacial dip in stepped turquoise pools before lunch (after noon, any concierge will warn you, hordes of touring students arrive to cannonball off the cliffs in their underwear). And you might be one of only a handful of visitors on any given day at Shangri-Lao, an elephant sanctuary in the misty northern wilderness, where trekkers can lunch poolside by a posh safari tent; we had the pool to ourselves that afternoon and, consequently, a front-row view to a lone elephant and its rider climbing out of a stream.
This was not the same “shangri-la” feeling we first encountered in Vientiane, as we emerged from our humid B&B into a diesel-clogged intersection south of the consular district. But Vientiane’s charms came into focus as we approached the old centre, one of the last bastions of Graham Greene’s Indochina – light on the tourist front but for a few travellers scribbling into notebooks over iced coffees.
We wheeled our stroller through crumbling colonial villas (housing the odd handicraft atelier) into overgrown parkettes with more temples. We played with local children along a riverfront promenade recently revitalized to compete with the more prosperous Thai villages across the Mekong. And we negotiated around the effervescent night market into more tranquil streets hosting newfangled restaurants with names such as Tamarind, stopping in at stylish Makphet, which rehabilitates street kids by training them to perfect colourful curries, dips and sweets.
In Vientiane it’s still possible to enjoy a day by the pool at the Settha Palace, an Old World hotel that is the city’s most luxurious, for a few dollars apiece without renting a room. So we did, leaving a trail of sweat past the tearoom after a morning exploring Pha That Luang, a solid-gold Buddhist shrine in Patuxay Park. We shared an acre of tropical gardens with one French-Lao couple from Paris for several hours, then left for a café, where we snacked on deep-fried crickets while the kids snoozed in their stroller.
It was all spectacularly low-fi. For two weeks, we felt as if Southeast Asia was ours. But what will it be like next time? Laos will never have a sea, and the sex shows may forever remain in the jurisdiction of Bangkok’s Khao San Road, but changes tend to come when a country is engraved onto the tourist map.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Mekong Riverview Hotel has a prime location next to Luang Prabang’s Xieng Thong temple, overlooking the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. Doubles from $160; mekongriverview.com
Jetwing’s new Xieng Thong Palace, on the opposite side of the temple, has one of the few pools in Luang Prabang and luxury rooms featuring carved-wood antiques. Doubles from $150; xiengthongpalace.com
If you can’t swing the grand Settha Palace in Vientiane, go for the quietly luxurious Green Park, a quick tuk-tuk ride from the din of the city centre. Doubles from $195; greenparkvientiane.com
Where to eat
Luang Prabang’s Dyen Sabai (dyensabai.com), across the Nam Khan River (access is by a rickety bamboo bridge), is the bohemian choice for sweet Lao curries and home-cooked breads and dips.
Honestly, you can’t go wrong with any of Luang Prabang’s highly rated restaurants, but Tamarind (tamarindlaos.com) has a pretty shaded terrace and delightful dishes of grilled eggplant and peanut chicken with sticky rice.
Makphet, behind Wat Ong Teu in a colonial villa near Vientiane’s night market, doubles as a non-profit, educating Lao street kids to cook traditional specialties. The dishes, though geared to Western tastes, are worth writing home about.
What to see
Just east of Luang Prabang, Shangri-Lao (shangri-lao.com) is a modern version of a colonial expedition camp, offering elephant safaris, boat tours and overnight stays in luxury tents with baths, bars and a swimming pool. From Luang Prabang, charter a slowboat down the Mekong to outlying villages, where children bathe at dusk and pilgrims visit temples deep in the jungle. Shompoo Cruise (shompoocruise.com) offers charters for groups, but many boat-owners on the Mekong in central Luang Prabang will take you out for a competitive rate.