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WeekendinFEATURE

WeekendinFEATURE

TRAVEL

Luang Prabang: Urban Eden
Once the capital of the French colony and palm leaves again glowing with burnished gold Kingdom of Laos, Luan Prabang is today is an leaf. The effect on me was of overwhelming opulence. Although buddhist temples are off the track tourist gem. open to all at all times, sitting on the floor of this I stood on the steps of an ancient temple site of grandeur were two families enjoying an looking at a stream of motorcycles roar past, indoor picnic obviously proud of the heritage accompanied by the odd tuk tuk (or jumbo as but unmindful of what surrounded them. they are called in the town) and an occasional Japanese pickup. Fifteen minutes later the It was difficult to leave so much beauty, and stream had slowed to a trickle and peace yet I wanted to stay and revel not just in the again reigned in this ultra laidback town. That, lavishness of the interior but to marvel at the I thought, must have been downtown Luang skill and workmanship preserved for hundreds of years. Tearing myself away, I emerged from Prabang’s rush hour. the coolness to the searing heat of midTurning my back on the straggling throat- afternoon, blinking at the strong sun allowing clearing motorbikes, I wandered through a my eyes to adjust to the light. white washed arch and saw a sight that made my jaw drop and eyes widened at what lay Looking back, the temple is just as magnificent before me. This was a gleaming Buddhist outside as on the inside, as the entire building temple prayer hall part of Wat Xieng Thong, glinted and sparkled in the sunlight. Again the Luang Prabang’s oldest and most magnificent richness of gold leaf-covered filigree decoration with infill of deep emerald green mosaics temple. covered the whole surface of the building. As I climbed the two flights of stairs to the prayer I wandered around the grounds, I came across hall. Removing my shoes, I am further awed traditionally decorated shrines and Buddhas in at a large elevated throne protected from the various poses. populace by a gold leaf-covered magnificently carved screen of Buddhist angles surmounted The temple also houses the royal barge house, by serpents. Beyond the screen a throne rises where the barges were once used to process metres from the floor and is roofed by a five down the Mekong for special occasions and auspicious ceremonies. tiered canopy. The throne, the walls and the supporting It is not possible to walk very far in Luang pillars are sumptuously decorated with ruby- Prabang without stumbling across an ancient hued mirrored mosaics that are decorated temple. It is this well preserved heritage, along with the spectacular scenery with gilded ornate filigree. The columns are and the Mekong, one of supported on golden bases and topped with the world’s greatest capitals of carved rivers, that wood persuaded the UN to bestow the coveted status of World Heritage on the town. By all means, visit the famed temples but also linger in the less famed, poorer and less visited temples that abound in this town. I wandered into the courtyard of one undistinguished temple only to find temple boys at their lessons, earnestly studying the Buddhist scriptures, Maths and English. Bright saffron robes fluttered limply on a washing line strung between two monks cells. Younger novices taking a break from their lessons ran and pranced between the robes playing an impromptu game of hide and seek. Spontaneously, they ran up to me to shyly say, “Hello, how are you?” Walking further into the temple yard, a young monk was explaining the Dharma to a small group of teenage girls, who listened intently to him. Seeing my curiosity, he called me over in perfect English and we chatted while the girls giggled and fidgeted. In ten minutes, I had heard his life story and he part of mine. As we parted, he gave me a blessing and a small amulet for good fortune. I walked through a bougainvillea entwined archway and passed a seated monk stroking a cat with his right hand and holding a Buddhist text in the other. I thoughtfully kept the smart phone and cameras in my pocket so as not to disturb the beauty of that moment. A few more steps and I returned back to reality. The next morning, I rose very early and walked to the National Museum to participate in what must be Luang Prabang’s most famous activity. As the sun rises from the jungle and mountains that encircle the town and dawn slowly, it

Once the capital of the French colony and Kingdom of Laos, Luang Prabang is today an off-the-track tourist gem.

Wearied by the early start and temple meanderings, I waited until the sun set over the mountains then walked to the large and vibrant night market. What a sight greeted me. Ablaze with light and colour the vermilioncanopied stalls lined the road side for what seemed like miles, selling everything from fresh fruit to smoothies, Laos silk shawls and scarves, colourful original paintings and hand crafted carved wood, silver and pewter objets d’art. I dislike haggling but tried my skills on one unfortunate vender who wanted an outlandish price for a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt. I was surprised at my bargaining talent when I paid less than half the asking price. I smiled and he replied not with a grimace but a broad smile that seemed to say, “You win, this time.” I return early to my hotel for I take a three hour boat trip up the Mekong to a Kamu village retreat the next day. I make my way down to the banks of the mighty Mekong and board a very long motor boat; two other intrepid ladies are already settled onto the wooden slatted seats. We pull away from the makeshift pier and start the cruise. The sediment-thick waters glide past as massive limestone cliffs and the jungle of multi-green hues sedately sashay before us. Towering blue-green ruggedly peaked distant dusky mountains are set against a blue sky. We pass fishermen and boat builders and children cavorting in the cooling waters. We eventually stop at the Pak Ou caves, a shrine filled with Buddha statues too many to count. I look at one in a no conflict pose and notice a coronet of guano, another whose tiny robes are caked with the dirt of ages and yet more were dusty and candle wax smeared, some were standing on one leg, others had no arms, a few no heads all blindly staring at the life-giving river. The Buddhas seemed like an allegory for the country; maimed and ravished by time and history but now standing in peaceful contemplation of the present and future. The serenity was shattered when approached by a tourist official who asked me what tourists wanted. I replied with a simple sentence: “Nothing more than this.” After a short while, we continued on our journey to the Kampu Village Lodge, where we were greeted by an excited gang of village boys, shouting the traditional welcome “Sabaidee”. An elephant and its mahout appeared from a
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reveals a shuffling saffron column of monks and novices on their daily alms procession. The townspeople treat this ritual with great reverence. The streets are lined with locals and foreigners who wish to participate in this most spiritual of ceremonies. I bought some sticky rice, fruit and biscuits enough to feed quite a few monks, as I placed the products in their alms bowls as each monk approached. The cost of the food was negligible compared to the satisfying sensation I gained from the alms giving. For 200,000 kip or S$32 it is possible to sufficiently supply provisions for two or three days. Remember though, that this is a solemn ceremony of devotion and strict rules of behaviour apply. The serenity and spirituality of the early morning ceremony provoked a strong sense of inner peace and contentment. As the silent procession was over, I walked back to my hotel in time for breakfast only to reflect on the difference between the West’s ingrained consumerism and the simple life in a Buddhist temple where meditation and denial promotes a higher self-awareness.

Rested and refreshed, I retraced my steps to the National Museum, formerly the royal palace. Built at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries during the French colonial period, the museum was the former royal palace until 1975 when the last Lao king Sisavang Vatthana and his family were overthrown and placed in captivity to die a few years later in unexplained circumstances. The museum is a treasure chest of art décor furniture and displays over 50,000 artefacts and personal possessions of the royal family. The quality of the diplomatic gifts presented to the King displays the importance of his court, especially to the Americans who were then fighting the Vietcong. A cabinet holds a silver pen from President Kennedy, a loving cup from erstwhile Secretary of State Dean Rusk, a red flag and plaque presented by President Richard Nixon. An identical cabinet standing opposite it holds similar items from the communist regimes; such was the nature of cold war diplomacy played not only with guns and bombs but trinkets and insincere compliments. During the Vietnam War period, the country had the very dubious status as being the most bombed country in the world. The claim still stands to this day. In the same room, a large dining table is set out in western dining style ready for the next state banquet that will never come. Just as poignantly in the king’s bedroom, his bed is made up as if waiting for his spectre to settle in peaceful sleep.

Indeed it may be that the adherence to Buddhism by the monks have stabilised the country through the turmoil of colonialism, war, destruction from the sky and communist rule. Because Buddhism has been the Laos’ past, present and surely its future, it will continue to bring certainty of a better life after the tumult of the today. The museum is open every day except Tuesdays, and entrance fee is 30,000 kip or S$ 5.50.
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WeekendinFEATURE

WeekendinFEATURE

TRAVEL

Settled into our tented accommodation we toured the small village as Lod, our guide, led the way. Chickens, ducks, dogs and a giggling gaggle of kids formed a Pied Piper procession as they followed these strange people.

Of Royal Pedigree
The anchoring villa at Villa Maly, Plumeria, was built in 1938 by His Royal Highness Khamtan Ounkham, a grandson of a Lao king, Kham Souk Zakarine, and the first of his seven wives, Queen Pheng. Khamtan Ounkham was born in 1909. bend in the dirt track and continued onward to its destination. Porters carried the women’s backpacks while I travelled light and had just one small bag. Cresting a small hill, the village came into sight—a huddle of bamboo huts clustered around a small stream sat on the edge of a mountainous jungle, lush and verdant - the view from the hillock was mesmerising. Below, a small paddy field provided rice for the community. Flat and vibrantly green, a couple of buffaloes lazily grazed an unplanted plot and then chewing the cud they wallowed in the cooling mud bath churned by their heavy hooves. food was plentiful, hot and delicious. Post meal drinks were taken in the stilted bar. As we quaffed the gin and tonics, dusk fell. Slowly the pathways were illuminated with a processional way of kerosene lamps that twinkled and blinked their soft amber beacon light through the darkening skies. The village was quiet with not one light to penetrate the darkness. I looked at the heavens only to marvel at the canopy of stars, bright and shining like silver buttons on a cloak of the deepest black. Orion, the Plough both large and small were clearly visible as was Pegasus. Now and then, rapid flashes of light streaked across the void as meteorites burned up in their earthward death throws. The now fading lamps flickered the way to the tents. Unzipping the entry flaps, I flicked on the solar powered light and fan, secured the flaps again and showered before settling in for what was a fitful sleep. Pulling aside the mosquito net and clambering into bed, I switched off the light so that not a single shaft of light penetrated the darkness of the tent. I blinked at the unfamiliar blackness and strained for some illumination no matter how little, but none came. teenagers wander into the jungle. I asked Lod what they were doing and he said that one group was gathering bamboo for food and the other group tending to small gardens of wild vegetables, everything from kale to wild garlic and egg plants. Nature I thought provided all that this small village required for their sustenance. Then it was time to leave. As we boarded the boat for the return journey, a group of children appeared to wave us off and they gladly accepted handfuls of sweets and lollipops as a reward. Two hours later, we landed in Luang Prabang. The Kampu Village Lodge overnight trip costs US$120 or S$150. Today Luang Prabang is Laos’ second city but remains a sleepy outpost, with a mixture of traditional buildings mingling with often crumbling French colonial style architecture. With its brand new airport, a planned high speed rail link to China Luang Prabang’s future is approaching fast; go now because it will be a very different country tomorrow. A visa is required for entry to Laos and may be obtained at the airport upon arrival (US$35, plus two passport-sized photos). Many of regional airlines fly into Luang Prabang but fares tend to be fairly costly. Laos Airlines also flies a regular shuttle from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. November to March has the best weather, drier and less hot than the rest of the year. The once private villa of the grandson of the last Laos king, the Villa Maly has been transformed into a comfortable, art décor inspired oasis of calm in friendly Luan Prabang. First, light and the rural sounds of central Luang Prabang disturbed my sleep, as I lay half awake and half in the arms of Morpheus as the incessant cockerel’s crow provided the early morning background music. I turned over and huddled deep in the warm, snow-white duvet and drifted into sleep until the shrilly-insistent siren of the mobile alarm sounded reveille on my slumber. Blinking at the unfamiliar surroundings, my eyes accommodated to the dim morning light. Yawning, stretching and inwardly grumbling, I struggled from the comfortable bed taking in my temporary home for the next three nights. I staggered to a window and peered out onto the clear swimming pool below. Lounging on a couple of sunbeds, two intrepid souls were enjoying the warming rays of the early morning sun. But I opted for a cup of tea and reflected that not every day do I wake up in the home of a former Laos princess. Prabang’s town centre, the Villa Maly makes a notable first impression. A short flight of brilliant white steps leads to a small fountain where tangerine and silver carp sought shade from the midday heat. The staff took my case and led me through a portico entrance to the intimate reception area. With formalities quickly over, I followed as I was shown to my room. I dislike those hotels that consider three hangers sufficient even for a short stay but the Villa Maly’s spacious wardrobe provides a sufficiency of hangers. The room was shady and cool, overlooking the swimming pool and part of the garden, despite the place being quiet. From Axle the genial manager, I learned a little of the history of the house. Built in 1938 by Prince Khamtan Ounkham, a grandson of the last king of Laos; he happily lived here with the first of his seven wives where they raised four children. They led a happy family life until the early 1960s when the world’s spotlight illuminated Laos; the country was in the front line of the western democracies’ fight against South East Asia’s rise of communism. The countries’ fortunes suffered as did those of the royal family, many of whom were incarcerated by the communist regime while others fled to France or were never heard of again. The prince, however, survived but died in an air crash in 1968, but his wife continued to live in the house until 1994. It was then named Villa Vanninda and bought as a private residence. The happy times (along with the sad) that this house must have seen since the late 1930s contributes to the sense of history and heritage that wraps the Villa Maly in a comfortable and peaceful maternal shawl. The staff and the Villa extends a welcoming hand to those who seek tranquility and harmony in this hectic world. Even with nature’s early morning wake-up call, the Villa Maly is an ideal cocoon from care for all ages. Villa Maly BP 78 | Luang Prabang | Lao PDR T +856 71 253 902-4 | F +856 71 254 912 www.villa-maly.com
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Settled into our tented accommodation, we toured the small village as Lod, our guide, led the way. Chickens, ducks, dogs and a giggling gaggle of kids formed a Pied Piper procession as they followed these strange people. Buddhist chapel, rice and corn store rooms, a school and stilled houses made up the Kamu village. We were shown how the men hunted using cross bows and home adapted rifles that were used in a nightly wild boar hunt. I even had an attempt at firing a cross bow at a suspended apple. I am afraid to say that William Tell was a better marksman than I. Sleep came as I listened to the unfamiliar sounds of the jungle, crickets and cicadas, distant bird Down to the river and a demonstration of calls, whoops from monkeys, and the rustling traditional fishing and gold panning followed. I of branches right outside the tent provided cast the net but did not catch a fish and was just the night’s sound track. Then a crack of a rifle as unlucky in gold panning. No chance of my shot, the men of the village were on a hunting finding my fortune on the Mekong. expedition, gathering the village dinner.

The three of us ate dinner in the open-sided The adventure was over all too soon. While bamboo restaurant, where traditional Laos eating breakfast, we saw two lines of village
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With just forty or so rooms, the hotel has a boutique atmosphere where serenity pervades the place; a feeling that the guests I spoke too endorsed. The reception area and pool are connected by a small but well-stocked bar, that is light and airy it perfectly unites the efficiency of the formal operations with the relaxed poolside. It is a great place to enjoy a quiet drink before or after dining; it appears that the hotel is so well regarded that I shared a drink or two with at least one off duty tour company executive who enthused about the hotel. This is My room at the Villa Maly was large with the truly a recommendation. usual facilities; tea and coffee, minibar, safe and a large flat screen TV with enough channels To get to the pavilion-style dining room requires to keep even the most finicky viewer or child a short walk through the garden, where a path happy. Zapping the channels, I settled on a has been designed to maximise the walk morning news programme and settled into an through the greenery. Palm trees, banana armchair, my thoughts covering the previous plants, bright red heliconia, white jasmine, pink day’s arrival. Driving down a narrow side street and yellow hibiscus, Plumeria and frangipani just a stone’s throw away from sleepy Luang make this walk a delight in itself.

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