Luang Prabang, Land of Lotus Eaters (2007)
At the confluence of two mighty rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan lies a quaint and picturesque town that belies the notion that the east and the west can never meet. Luang Prabang, the former imperial capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos is a felicitous blend of two very different cultures, French and Buddhist, and is perfectly at ease with this hybrid identity. Luang Prabang’s high street is lined with trendy street cafés in the best tradition of their Parisian counterparts. Yet, the street is also home to splendid Buddhist wats and monasteries with gilded pagodas and glittering Buddha statues. The delicious aroma of freshly-baked baguette and croissants and the strong smell of dark-roasted coffee mingle with the heady fragrance of jasmine and parijaat garlands waiting to adorn the deities in the numerous temples that dot this town.
Up the Mekong
We, a group of four women from India had embarked upon a Mekong river trip, planning to sail upsream from Chau Doc in Vietnam all the way to Laos through Cambodia. Earlier, we had driven from a very vibrant Hochiminh City to the boat jetty in Chau Doc in a taxicab. En route we had to cross the Mekong and its tributaries a few times, cab and all riding on rickety ferries that carry everything from fowl, fish, rickshaws, scooters, entire trucks and other cargo, in addition to people for whom this is the only mode of transport. Chau Doc is a bustling Vietnamese town that perches astride the mighty Mekong and is the gateway to all adventure lovers who want to explore this living river that has never been dammed so far.
Guidebooks and travel websites had assured us that we could readily get passage on the many boats that sail upstream. That was certainly not our experience. Most of the boats had already been booked by tour groups from Europe headed to Angkor Wat. Those that were not, were not exactly ship-shape, pun, unintended. Finally, after cooling our heels in Chau Doc for two days, all one could manage was a single-hulled boat crammed with bucket seats most of which were also taken by a tour group from France. We decided to plough on, regardless.
So early next morning, we make our way to the boat jetty bleary-eyed and squeeze ourselves into the cramped and hermetically sealed cabin which was already packed with passengers and luggage. The steamer hoots tentatively and sets off, rending the dawn mist. With the boat on its way, we decided to colonise the roof of the boat to enjoy the caress of the sun’s emerging rays and the breeze. For the first couple of hours, visibility was near zero as a thick fog hung heavy on the river, obscuring even the banks. But soon, life on water’s edge begins to reveal itself, at first in tantalizing glimpses, but gradually and slowly, in its full glory.
Lifeline of Asia
Mekong is said to be the lifeline of Southeast Asia and nowhere is it more evident than when you sail on the river itself. The river is agog with boats of all sizes, vintage and purpose, their foghorns setting up a cacophony. Floating villages, some with houses on stilts, others fashioned out of tin or zinc sheets, are ubiquitous through the twelve hour journey that takes us to Phnom Penh. Occasionally we pass through small towns. These sport the brick-and-mortar variant of the dwellings on the embankments. Markets are everywhere, some floating, others perched on the river’s edge selling everything from pots and pans to plastic buckets, fruits, vegetables and items of everyday use; there are boat repair shacks, tuktuk sheds, small factories with smoke curling out of the chimneys, and a few schools; we spy herdsmen herding their flocks of ducks and geese on the river; families travelling to their destinations on their own little canoes; fishermen hunched over their catch. In fact, fishing nets are a ubiquitous sight throughout the stretch; the hauls could range from sardines to eels and coils of river snakes which are considered a delicacy in these parts. The river is said to be replete with otters and dolphins, but we did not see any.
Kaam Samnor is the immigration check point for those entering Cambodia by the river route. Our boat halts for a couple of hours and we sprint across a log platform to a shady grove with a sprinkling of huts one of which houses the immigration office. Time seems to stand still in these parts as friendly immigration officials and passengers lounge around. Finally, our passports are stamped and we scurry back to the boat baking in the midday sun. The harsh tropical sun blurs everything in sight and we skulk back into the dark recesses of the boat until evening when our boat enters Phnom Penh. The edifices on the river bank are no longer shacks of thatch or tin, but are glittering pagodas inlaid with gold leaf and embellished with intricate patterns. The Mekong is truly a lesson in paradoxes!
Originally we had hoped to sail all the way to Siem Reap and thence to Laos tracking the meandering course of the Mekong along the way. With very little information forthcoming regarding availability of speed boats and border crossing facilities, we had blithely assumed this was possible. But at Phnom Penh, we learnt that the journey by river to Siem Reap would be three times as long as a road journey and it could be riven with dangers, considering the kind of boats available and the Tonle Sap lake that one has to cross or skirt to reach Siem Reap. Besides, we would have had to retrace our journey back from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh and take the other branch of the river to the Laos border from Stung Treng to Veun Kham in Laos. Tonle Sap is Asia’s largest lake and can swell to 16,000 square kilometers in the monsoon when the Mekong reverses itself; during that phase, it can be very destructive, flooding fields and villages alike. What is a rickety boat in front of the fury of this unique river-lake system? Considering all the imponderables and risks involved in the journey, we had to abandon our idea of sailing up the Mekong and decided to fly directly from Siem Reap to Luang Prabang, also on the banks of the Mekong.
That turned out to be a fortuitous decision especially because it gives us a couple of extra days in this quaint town. Luang Prabang is a relatively obscure town not yet on the itinerary of tour operators and hordes of tourists descending elsewhere in this region. But it is getting there. A former imperial kingdom that was subsequently colonized by the French, naturally, the town is overrun by French expatriates and visitors. But the French have not interfered with the quintessential Laotian character of the town, leaving its architecture largely intact. Provincial French design was modified to suit the hot and humid tropical climate through the addition of verandahs, balconies and corridors to colonial villas, thus creating a unique blend that is at once French and Laotian.
In 1707, Luang Prabang became the capital of the independent kingdom of Luang Prabang. When France annexed Laos, the French recognised Luang Prabang as the royal residence of Laos. Eventually, the ruler of Luang Prabang became synonymous with the figurehead of the French Protectorate of Laos. When Laos achieved independence, the king of Luang Prabang, Sisavang Vang became the Head of State or the Kingdom of Laos. In 1945, Laos became independent of colonial rule, with Luang Prabang as its capital. Subsequently, of course, that honour was wrested by Vientiane.
Luang Prabang, an eminently walkable small town, is home to some thirty gorgeous wats , all densely concentrated around the centre. There are Buddha statues galore, of every material including stone, bronze, and even gold. In fact, most wats host a veritable parade of Buddhas of various vintages. The palace museum housing some stunning artifacts of the Laotian royal family is the piece de resistance of this town. Its murals of mosaic, glass and precious stones are a feast for the eyes. But visitors to Laos come here for the serenity and tranquility, to unwind and linger and soak in the sights, smells and sounds that have not been contrived for tourist enjoyment.
Prominent among the sights is the colour of ochre, of the robes of Buddhist novices who are ubiquitous. There is a group of very young novices sauntering down the highstreet, playfully giggling like any other kids, three elderly monks bobbing up the river in a canoe, their ochre robes fluttering in the breeze; you encounter monks on the steep steps to the top of the hill, in the long sunny verandahs of the wats, in the colourful night markets, virtually wherever you go. You spot a monk fiddling with a camera under a gilded arch of a temple, his attention focused intently on the gadget, a couple of monks fleet past on a scooter, their robes billowing behind them, yet another whispering into his cellphone. There are monks on motorbikes and Matador vans, monks on bicycles and rickshaws, monks on foot, monks meditating under the trees.
Alms and the Monks
But there is one special sight of monks for which many throng to Luang Prabang. In this town, an ancient Buddhist tradition is kept alive as monks file out of their dwellings in that solemn hour just before daybreak, to receive alms from the devout. What they receive then presumably constitutes their meal for the day. The devout who believe it is their duty to give alms to these renunciates line the pavements of the town, their offerings spread out before them in leafy trays. Cooked sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, ripe bananas and home-made sweets fill the tray. Eager to participate in this timeless and revered ritual, we too had risen early and rushed to the highstreet. Even at this hour, there are vendors who sell trays of offerings and stools for us to perch on while we await the arrival of the monks.
Time seems to stand still as hundreds comprising both the devout and the curious await the arrival of the monks in hushed silence. It seems like eons before a flash of the orange robe on the horizon heralds the arrival of the monks. The stragglers come first in ones and twos and soon there is a steady stream, quite orderly and even-paced and in single file. There is a wave excitement among the alms-givers, an intensity of purpose. The monks pad soundlessly past each of us, their lacquer tiffin boxes hanging from their left hands, their right hands outstretched to receive. The entire exchange is soundless and wordless. It is as though there is an unspoken compact not to tarnish the moment with sounds.
During the day we wander around the various Wats, admiring the intricate latticework in metal and stone and soaking in the serenity. Steeples and spires draped in gold leaf sparkle and shine. We climb the 350 odd steps to the top of the hill to admire the view of the lush green valley. In the evening we make our way to Luang Prabang’s fabled night market, ablaze with lights and colours. Like everywhere else in this region, almost all the shopkeepers are women. The merchandise ranges from very beautiful hand-crafted umbrellas to embroidery, woodwork and silk scarves. Discarded bottles are magically transformed into works of art when draped in intricate wickerwork. It is sheer pleasure to weave through the stalls and admire objects that have not come out of a machine, but have been painstakingly made by hand. Almost all of them are useful everyday objects embellished aesthetically in the best local tradition.
Our next stop was Vientiane from where we flew to Bangkok and back home. The Mekong journey that took us through four southeast Asian countries has been an education in the co-existence of extreme contradictions and paradoxes. The river served up such varied fare as villages that were no more than a collection of miserable hovels to splendid temples that bespoke a very prosperous and aesthetic civilization. Along the same river were a people who created a grand edifice like the Angkor Vat and yet suffered the excesses of the bloodthirsty Pol Pot regime. The haunting sight of a stack of skulls in the museum in Phnom Penh is a stark contrast to the glorious Khmer palaces that dot the river bank. The Mekong showcased vibrant Vietnamese towns that are a testimony to the resilience of a people determined to leave behind their war-torn past to embrace development. But above all, the river revealed the relaxed and tranquil way of life of the Laotians who seem to be in no hurry to catch up with a rapidly changing world around them. The one binding force in this stream of contradictions, ethnicities, religious and linguistic diversities is Mekong, the river of life.