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Two-faced city

Two-faced city

Ellen Creager

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Like beautiful people, beautiful towns are always adored. While Laos as a whole is a poor communist country, Luang Prabang glides along in a golden bubble of coolness, propelled by quaint French colonial architecture, spectacular mountain setting and its storybook Buddhist temples.

Royal families lived here until overthrown by the communist Pathet Lao in 1975. Now, Western tourists are the kings and queens.

Cell-phone service, the internet, ATMs and satellite TV have arrived, plus pizza, bratwurst, ice cream, an English book exchange shop, white picket fences, fine dining and boutique hotels.

Eco-tourism is big, too - hiking to waterfalls, elephant riding, visiting villages, taking a slow boat up the Mekong River.

I liked it, but it must be said it has an atmosphere that you either love or hate.

The local people are formal and polite. Unfortunately, Luang Prabang is packed with snobbish international tourists who want to be first to visit a cool spot then get mad when they discover anyone else there.

Deemed a World Heritage site in 1995, the city of about 100,000 in northern Laos is in a fortunate location, hugged by two rivers - the Mekong and the Nam Khan.

Only an hour's flight from Hanoi and two from Bangkok, it is a world away in terms of pristine setting and small-town feel.

Gentle mist lingers at the top of lush green mountains. At dawn, hundreds of orange-robed Buddhist monks walk down the street, accepting rice from tourists and the devout for

their breakfast, while hundreds of cameras snap. (I saw the monks' laundry hanging on a line at one monastery - orange, orange, orange and orange.)

The town is walkable, picturesque, and the World Heritage status gained in 1995 prevents its quaint downtown from ever building above two stories.

Its architecture remains a charming combination of French (who ruled here from 1880 to 1954) and Lao - blue shutters, sloping roofs, small passageways, lush gardens.

Compared with its Asian neighbors, Laos did not open itself to international tourism until 1989. And Luang Prabang, its major tourist attraction, has a lot worth seeing:

At the top of my list are the National Museum's cut-glass mosaics. The former home of the Lao royal family was made a museum in the 1970s after the Pathet Lao took power and exiled or imprisoned the monarchy. Chief among the beautiful things left behind was a throne room. Its walls are covered with cut-glass mosaics on a bright red background. Created in the 1950s, the mosaics make a glittering rainbow of light on sunny days.

The vista from the top of Mount Phou Si. Yes, it's 328 steps up to the top of the downtown hill (the first 100 steep steps are killers), but those who persevere will be rewarded by the spectacular mountainous green view and a tiny temple - Wat That Chomsi - at the peak.

The temples. Luang Prabang is known for its gorgeous temples, particularly Wat Xieng Thong from the mid-1500s.

The ride on a long-tail Laos slow boat up the Mekong for lunch, stopping at Pac Ou Caves, which has a collection of 5,000 Buddhas.

The handicraft village of Ban Sang Khong near Luang Prabang, which has beautiful handmade saa paper and textiles. The village also has incredible butterflies - not in a cage but flitting around wild.

Tourism to Laos is growing 9.2 percent a year, accounting for 34 percent of its gross domestic product.

That is significant in a country with only a couple of major tourist attractions - Luang Prabang and the capital, Vientiane.But it is relatively unspoiled compared with neighbors Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.

In Laos, the air is clear and the views are sweet, and the only thing you have to worry about are those stuck-up tourists.

-- Edited by khonthakek on Friday 28th of May 2010 04:17:00 AM





I totally agree,
Foreigners are now king and queen in Luang Prabang

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