Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Amber warning for the land that time forgot

I just got back from a business trip to Luang Prabang. As I rolled into town I fully expected to see sweeping changes to Asia's most charming sleepy hollow since I penned this piece for Time almost a decade ago. I was shocked and delighted to see that in fact, almost nothing seems to have changed, with the exception of wi-fi, some ATM machines and the miserable silty trickle that now passes for the Mekong. Here's the link to the original:,9171,230444,00.html
Here's the story: 

Luang Prabang marches to the beat of an indifferent drummer. Nothing is rushed in this sleepy Lao hamlet where the somnolence is contagious and you can spot the new arrivals by the briskness of their gaits. On the streets, teenagers conduct confabulations on motorbikes, two or three abreast, scarcely going fast enough to stay vertical.

Rheumy-eyed old timers lean on fences in the grip of some nameless torpor. Silent saffron parades of monks glide by, footsteps raising little puffs of dust, stooping now and then to solicit alms. Time creeps by. You imagine some indolent imp has fallen asleep inside your watch and gummed up its works. Indeed, Luang Prabang might just be the best value holiday destination in Asia, if only because a day here seems to last as long as two anywhere else.

Its mellifluous name hints at hidden wonders, and Luang Prabang has certainly achieved cult status among travelers since UNESCO pronounced it the best-preserved city in Southeast Asia six years ago and put it on the World Heritage list. "What a delightful paradise of idleness this country protects, by the fierce barrier of the stream, against progress and ambition for which it has no need," wrote Marthe Bassene, a resident French doctor's wife, in 1909. Her words have since been immortalized in the august pages of the Lonely Planet. "Will Luang Prabang be ... the refuge of the last dreamers, the last lovers, the last troubadours?"

Once the capital of Lan Xang, the Kingdom of a Million Elephants, this town of about 16,000 inhabitants perches on a peninsula where the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers meet about 200 km north of Vientiane. It's a place of unsurpassed charm, which seems all the more fragile when you consider it's a mere 100 km or so from the infamous Other Theater where between 1964 and 1973 the U.S. was busy dropping a planeload of bombs every eight minutes in the so-called Secret War.

The town's old quarter, which on the map looks like a boot giving the fat brown snake of the Mekong a kick in the belly, is a conservationist's paradise: a kind of colonial Disneyland with lane after unspoiled, shade-dappled lane filled with French brick and stucco buildings and teakwood homes that sag with age. On almost every corner and rise sits a temple: there are more than 30, some half a millennium old. The golden sweep of their winglike roofs seems to suspend them in the hazy skies. The place is so photogenic the local Kodak concession must be a license to print money.

Luang Prabang has no McDonald's, no 7-Eleven, no ATMS. It doesn't have a single place to get a cash advance on MasterCard, as I discovered to my embarrassment, which resulted in a last day spent in penury hiding in my hotel. The town is refreshingly free of things to do, apart from wander around, drink coffee and beer in cafes, and soak up the ambiance. A dust-choked side trip to the gorgeous Kuangsi waterfalls or a jaunt down the river to the Pak Ou caves, which are crammed with ancient Buddha images, make up the extent of nearby attractions.

How long can Luang Prabang's slumber last? There are ominous signs of a rude awakening. In the old quarter's main street, Sisavangvong Road, tourists now outnumber locals. Satellite dishes bristle from roofs and backyards, sucking from the ether a steady stream of inane Thai game shows. Internet shops spring up daily, each filled with earnest backpackers clicking away. Highway 13 from Vientiane is now paved, putting the capital just a day's drive away.

Luckily, aside from a few dissenters who would rather get rich quick, most locals seem to welcome the World Heritage status and the protection from rapacious development it confers. "I think it's a good thing," says Mae Ouay Kum Lek, 86, owner of Ban Xieng Mouane, a 150-year-old teakwood home that's now a unesco-sponsored "Heritage House." She smiles. "And a nice young man from unesco gives me $50 every month."

Luang Prabang's charms seem safe enough if the abject failure of its first full moon-style party, modeled on Thailand's island raves, is anything to go by. "Us backpackers have got to make our own fun," said a shaggy type who bounded up to me in Sisavangvong Road and thrust a flyer proclaiming the birth of the Full Mekong Party into my hand. "I'm the Great Disco Dane," he explained, assuring me the party would be "wicked." Around 9 p.m., I ventured down to the sandy strip where the ferries land to find about 20 people sipping Beer Lao around a fire, a decided lack of music and a disconsolate Disco Dane. "I can't believe it, man," he moaned. "We got shut down."

Who needs a thumping techno beat anyway? It's clear that in Luang Prabang, the indifferent drummer continues to call the tune.

Read more:,9171,230444,00.html#ixzz1jBIoRXp5

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