My first impression of Luang Prabang is that it is profoundly serene. A community deeply rooted in Theravada Buddhism and animistic traditions, there is an air of preservation here lacking in many sacred destinations around Southeast Asia.
Perhaps the ground zero of Laotian spirituality remains untouched because direct flights into the ancient city are limited. And as I look out the window from my seat on the plane en route to Luang Prabang, I am treated to one of the best landing views of my life. The wet kiss shared by the mighty Mekong and Khan River stretches out lazily towards lofty hills, marking the tiny kingdom’s jagged fences. Green peaks almost meet the aircraft’s wingtip as we descend alongside streaks of sunrays that cast a numinous effect on the earthbound scene.
Once on the ground, I’m drawn towards the quiet streets wandered by shoeless, saffron-clad monks. Unlike the unnerving traffic in Hanoi or Siem Reap, crossing the roads in this quaint Laotian town feels like crossing my own front yard. I don’t see tourist-packed busses or bumper-to-bumper commotions, just the occasional scooter and vintage car.
At the Amantaka hotel, the staff, alongside Prince Nithakhong Somsanith, the hotel’s very own cultural advisor, greet me when I arrive. For the next few days, Nith, as he is fondly called, led us on a journey of cultural enlightenment. But before we do that, I walk past the tranquil compound’s main swimming pool, outlined by iridescent lanterns hand-lit every evening, to the doorsteps of my suite. I’m glad to see that I have my own good-sized pool and patio. Inside, the lofty-ceilinged space is a textbook illustration of heritage restoration, containing a towering four-poster bed and other custom-made colonial-like furniture. Beautiful black-and-white photographs of everyday Lao life dress up the white walls, while the building’s original pistachio-patina shutters add a dash of colour.
Ready for dinner, I head to the hotel’s main dining room. Its airy ambience is topped by the platefuls of warm Lao and international cuisine. On clearer nights, many guests choose to dine at the open-air terrace, facing the pool, to savour personalised tipples and delectable dishes, such as a bowl of ginger, bok choy and dill soup; bamboo shoot stuffed with minced chicken; and steamed fish in banana leaf with coriander, egg and coconut milk. Every Lao meal comes with the staple Laotian sticky rice, served in traditional bamboo baskets.
Straddling Luang Prabang’s main central grid, Amantaka is tucked away in a quiet corner close to many places of interest. En route to the Royal Palace Museum, a hike up stupa-topped Mount Phousi is simply too good to miss. There’s also the 16th century gem Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang’s grandest temple. The main shrine’s impressive gilded teak panels and tiered roof lines sweep almost to the ground. It is also decorated inside and out with scintillating glass mosaics and traditional stenciled gold motifs on maroon or jet-black backgrounds.
“A lot of tourists see temples as places to visit, but do not see the importance and meaning in them,” says Nith, a multi-talented artist and all-round protector of scared ancient Lao art. “These temples and their walls are actually like dictionaries. The craftsmanship of stencil works can also be seen as meditation, where countless acts of carving become a form of concentration.”
A descendant of the nation’s last viceroy, Nith personally thinks tourism is important but he hopes to help preserve the charm and authenticity of his beloved city. “I want to teach the younger generation the art of everything — dancing, music, embroidery and the value to preserve their cultural identity.”
However, increased social contacts with tourists are undoubtedly influencing local ideologies and aspirations. Cultural impacts and conflicts billow, especially when tourism comes into direct contact with religious sites or practices.
So, as I kneel by the roadside at the entrance of Amantaka the next morning, before the daybreak procession of almsgiving, I am reminded to be respectful. “We must dress properly, have good manners by bowing down, being silent and not making eye contact with the monks. It’s important to understand that this is a highly revered ritual of giving offerings of food to monks. It is also not okay to place money, or even anything else besides rice, into their alms bowls,” informs Nith.
While the city seems accept tourism, the expectation is that holidaymakers have to respect simple boundaries. My time in Luang Prabang has indeed been eye-opening. I will be back, maybe in a year or two, to see if the spirit of the place will be the same. I truly hope so.