As EL’s Shamus Sillar discovers, a visit to Luang Prabang, 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”
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 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”. They argue that it’s how the local people refer to the country so we all should follow suit. Presumably these same backpackers also insist on referring to Albania as “Shqipërisë”. 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”. This is 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.
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. Yet aside from the occasional smiling gardener under a conical hat you barely see them. That’s unless you want to, at which time your request gets handled promptly and cheerily.
There’s no doubt that Luang Prabang (I’ll call it LP from now to save 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 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 a few streets wide. It’s bounded by the mighty Mekong and a tributary, the Nam Khan. Here you’ll find wats galore, most of which that can be explored for a US$5 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 town, you’ll encounter Buddha statues with long arms stretched down by heir 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 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 colonial buildings and stop at a local cafe for a coffee and a plateful of sweet beignets, or one of the ubiquitous baguettes. (The French ruled LP for half a century and their legacy is evident in the local cuisine). Baguette-sellers are everywhere and they’ll whip you up a monster sandwich for a couple of Singapore dollars. My favourite came with pâté, strips of wok-fried omelette, sliced cucumber, tomato and more, but you can choose any filling under the sun – I even saw Nutella and bacon. Yes, together. In the same baguette.
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. (Amantaka can organise both on your behalf.)
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 travel’s busier aspects, making 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 a bottle of local brew Beerlao.
The clichéd image of LP shows a procession of orangeclad monks collecting alms from the locals at dawn. And, as you can see above, 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 5am 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.
Showing some cheffing skills
After a sublime breakfast back at Amantaka, it was time to participate in one of the resort’s cultural activities. These are awesome, by the way: don’t miss at least one during your stay. My cooking class took place a 15-minute drive out of town on a peaceful organic farm. Chef Anousith 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 must be very, very sour, salty and spicy,” he added. “How spicy?” I asked. “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.
For a final slice of Lao culture, I took part in a traditional Baci ceremony at Amantaka. The ceremony has its roots in animism, and 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 from Singapore 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.
Visas: A visa on arrival at tiny Luang Prabang airport is a simple, five-minute affair; you just need one passport photo and around US$30 in cash (the sum varies slightly for different nationalities).
Amantaka: For bookings and more information about Amantaka and other Aman resorts, visit aman.com.
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