A visit to the former royal capital of Laos, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a languid lesson in fascinating culture and cuisine.
The case of the missing “s”
Let’s start with names. I always feel uneasy travelling to a place whose name I don’t know how to pronounce. (Hence my ongoing reluctance to visit Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland.) I had this same problem before my recent four-day trip to Laos.
“It’s ‘Lao’,” said a whole bunch of people, rhyming the word with “cow”. Until then, I’d been more inclined to add an “s”, so it sounded like the singular form of lice. Other versions I heard included “LAY-oss” and “LAH-oss”
Who’s right? Backpackers in Laos seem smugly determined to omit the “s”, arguing that it’s how the local people refer to the country so we all should follow suit. Presumably these same backpackers also insist on “Italia” for Italy, “Shqipërisë” for Albania, and 中国 (“zhōngguó”) for China. No, of course they don’t.
Bottom line? If you plan to go to Laos (and I recommend you do; it’s brilliant!) and you want to pronounce the “s” at the end, you have my full support.
From hospital to sanctuary
Still on names: Amantaka, the hotel where I spent my three nights in Luang Prabang, comes from aman, the Sanskrit word for “peace”, and tipitaka, “teachings of Buddha” – highly appropriate, since more than 2,000 monks live in the town’s many temples.
Amantaka is equal parts glorious and quirky. Until 2005, this grand, century-old colonial property served as Luang Prabang’s main hospital. When a bigger premises was required for the hospital, the renowned Aman group transformed the site into the town’s most luxurious accommodation (by a country mile).
Set around a gigantic courtyard of lush gardens and candle-lit paths, the 24 stunning suites – 16 with private pools – are all louvres, high-ceilings, island bathtubs, four-poster beds and gentle gamelan music lilting down from Bose speakers.
Apparently there are four employees to each guest at Amantaka, but aside from the occasional smiling gardener under a conical hat you barely see them – unless you want to, at which time your request gets handled promptly and cheerily.
There’s no doubt that Luang Prabang (can I call it LP from now, to save a bit of space?) has a raft of much cheaper accommodation options – including some quaint-looking guesthouses along the river – but if you want to maximise your experience of this special town, Amantaka is the place.
Wat’ll they think of next?
LP is uncomplicated, which means you can chill from the get-go. In fact, it’s arguably one of the most relaxing non-beach destinations in Southeast Asia. The main part of town is a cigar-shaped peninsula, less than a kilometre long and just four streets wide, bounded by the mighty Mekong and a tributary, the Nam Khan. Here you’ll find wats galore. Most can be explored for a US$5 entry fee; a few are free.
After climbing Mount Phousi (don’t panic, it’s just a hill) for a spectacular overview of LP and its surrounds, mosey around Wat Xieng Thong, the best known of the temples. Built in 1560, it’s perhaps more remarkable for its exterior, covered with mosaics of coloured mirror-shards.
In this and other wats in LP, you’ll encounter Buddha statues with long arms stretched down by their sides. The pose is called “Calling for Rain”, and it’s a common feature of Buddhist symbolism in Laos. We scarcely needed more rain during my slightly soggy stay, though I’m told this place is parched in the dry season.
Once you’re all watted out, wander along the riverfront lined with French-colonial buildings and stop at any one of the many local restaurants for a bowl of noodle soup (ask for pho, Vietnam-style, and you’ll be sorted) and a Beerlao, the country’s famous and fantastic beer.
Une baguette, s’il vous plaît
Speaking of food, the French ruled LP for half a century and their legacy is happily evident in the local cuisine. For one of my breakfasts, I pulled up a plastic chair at a cheap eatery next to the produce market and enjoyed a plateful of sweet beignets with a coffee.
And then there’s the bread. Baguette-sellers are everywhere in LP, and they’ll whip you up a monster sandwich for a couple of Singapore dollars. My favourite came filled with pâté, strips of wok-fried omelette, sliced cucumber and tomato, and other goodies; it was called “Lao style” on the menu, but you can choose any filling under the sun – including Nutella and bacon. (Yes, together. In the same baguette.
You’ll also find a handful of upmarket restaurants run by French expats. I had dinner one night at L’Éléphant, LP’s grand old dame. The setting is admittedly wonderful; a shabby-chic balcony where I sheltered from a brutal evening thunderstorm. But the food – frog’s legs, duck confit and the rest – while tasty enough, was expensive, and the local employees seemed oddly keen to adopt the stereotype of the brusque French waiter.
Taking a lichen to river moss
Nearly every visitor to LP takes a half-day trip out of town, either to one of two popular nature areas with waterfalls and swimming holes, or to the Pak Ou caves via a long boat up the river.
I did the latter, and it’s a leisurely affair; almost two hours up to the caves and an hour back. There’s nothing to do but stare at the rich, reddish Mekong and ponder the day. It’s a perfect antidote to the busier aspects of travel, and it makes you feel a million miles from your office job back home.
The caves themselves, filled with hundreds of Buddhist statues, are interesting rather than astonishing. More fun was lunch at a restaurant on the opposite bank, where the specialty was fried river moss (known locally as khai paen; “skin of the stones”). It’s tasty stuff – like squares of Japanese nori that have been sprinkled with sesame seeds and toasted – and the perfect accompaniment to Beerlao.
Alms and the man
The clichéd image of LP shows a procession of orange-clad monks collecting alms from the locals at dawn. (As my photo on this page reveals, I’m a sucker for a cliché.) Called tak bat, this is an interesting ceremony to watch – once you’ve got over the shock of waking at 5.30am on your holiday. Guidebooks harp on about overzealous tourists sticking their cameras lenses into monks’ faces, but I saw no evidence of this; either it’s a problem reserved for the very high season when the town is busy, or visitors have wised up.
Adventures across the river
Southeast Asian settlements that are bisected by a river – I’m thinking of Yangon, Ho Chi Minh, even Bangkok – tend to have a busier, more commercial side of the water, and then a more rustic side. I find myself insatiably drawn to the latter; they’re usually ripe for exploring and great for photos.
After queuing with the locals for a ferry across the Mekong ($1, five minutes), climb the short hill then turn right and follow the path along the riverbank. Here, you’ll pass a succession of wats, some functional, some abandoned. You’ll likely be alone, too.
Wat Chom Phet is worth the sweaty climb up a hundred stairs. I found two monks passed out on the cool floor of the temple, their snores harmonising with the chanting from a prayer tape playing on an old stereo. The only actual praying going on was courtesy of a mantis climbing one of the white columns outside the wat.
Further along this path, I was greeted by two young girls from a nearby village who, for a haggled fee, unlocked the gate to an extensive cave system and showed me some Buddhist artefacts with the beam of a weak torch. When the same beam was inadvertently waved across my body, it revealed the sweatiest person on the planet; these caves are hot.
Cooking up a storm
Back at Amantaka, I had arranged to partake in one of the hotel’s cultural activities. (These are awesome: don’t miss at least one of them during your stay.) My cooking class took place a 15-minute drive out of town on a peaceful organic farm. Chef Anousith (say “aniseed” and you’re almost there) led me to a thatched pagoda beside a rice farm and proceeded to unravel the secrets of four local dishes: moo phak sikai (braised pork in coconut milk), mok pa (steamed fish cakes), keng som kai (clear chicken soup) and tam mak hoong (green papaya salad).
Of the latter, he commented: “Papaya salad is the best thing for a hangover.”
(As good as a Nutella and bacon baguette? I almost asked.)
“But it has be very, very sour, salty and spicy,” he added.
“Ten chillies. At least.” Wow.
We used four during the cooking class and it was close to lethal; many Amantaka guests, said Anousith, can tolerate just one. Once we had chopped, sliced and mortar-and-pestled our way through the one-hour class, I climbed onto a bale overlooking a fishpond, where I was served a cold beer and the four dishes I’d just made.
If I say so myself, this was the best food I’ve eaten in an age: incredible flavours, awesome textures. As spots of heavy rain started to smash onto lily pads around me, provoking a chorus of frogs, I realised that I had literally cooked up a storm.
In the footsteps of Jude Law
For a final slice of Lao culture, I took part in a traditional Baci ceremony at Amantaka. Jude Law and Sienna Miller were married in a similar ceremony when they stayed at the resort last year. (The unobtrusive Aman people didn’t mention this, of course; I read it in a gossip column.)
The Baci, which has its roots in animism, takes place around a sacred silver receptacle (pa khouan)draped with flowers and food offerings. Amantaka’s cultural advisor and a trio of respected village elders led me through the ceremony which comprised some gentle chanting followed by the ritual tying of my wrists with short lengths of white cotton thread, for well-being and good luck.
A Baci ceremony is a very happy and peaceful note on which to end a holiday. The only issue is that the threads are meant to stay on your wrists for three full days (after which they are untied rather than cut). Because of this, I returned to Singapore looking like a hippie backpacker or an Eat Pray Love wannabe, someone who’d been to a cool part of Asia and “found the answer”.
But I didn’t find the answer. What I did find in Luang Prabang, though, was an easy four-day getaway that’s as atmospheric and interesting as anywhere else I’ve travelled to in the region.
|When to Go
Late November to mid-February is best, with warm days and cooler nights. March and April are hot. The rest of the year can be wet, but it’s no biggie – usually just a tropical storm here and there.Getting There
From Hong Kong it takes two short flights: HK to Bangkok (2 hours 40 minutes), then connect to Luang Prabang on Lao Airlines (2 hours). I’d not flown Lao before; the service was efficient, the planes were spotless, and they tend to depart early if everyone boards on time.
From Singapore: Good news. Laos Airlines begins direct flights three times a week to Vientiane (2 hours, 25 minutes). If you’re only going to LP, you can take a domestic flight from Vientiane; alternately, fly any airline from Singapore to Bankok and then take Laos Airlines to LP.
Founded in Singapore in 1993, and now with additional offices in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, the company originally specialised in trips to Nepal, India and the Antarctic. Today, the list of destinations includes not just Laos but Japan, Myanmar, Cuba, Africa and Russia, from hiking in the Himalayas to quad biking in Cambodia. Guests choose their own departure dates.
Country Holidays is at Unit B. 17/F On Hing Building, 1 On Hing Terrace, Central. Call 2525 9199 or visit www.countryholidays.com.hk for more information.
Amantaka and other Aman resorts: www.amanresorts.com