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Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2000

The last paradise

A sojourn in the old capital of Laos


Special to The Japan Times In the early years of the last century, the wife of a French colonial doctor in Laos wrote in her journal, "Oh! What a delightful paradise. The fierce barrier of the stream protects this country from the progress and ambition of which it has no need. Will Luang Prabang be, in our century of exact sciences, of quick profits, of victory by money, the refuge of the last dreamers?"

Yes, would be the answer, nearly 100 years later. Still, paradises rest upon the past and last only so long as progress is kept at bay. So far, development, investment and exploitation have been successfully resisted in Laos. Or perhaps it is just that the country is late in joining the roster of progressives.

Laos was reopened to tourists in 1989, and its ancient capital, Luang Prabang, was rendered generally accessible only 10 years later when, in December, a new air route, Bangkok-Luang Prabang, was initiated. Progress -- meaning development and tourism -- has consequently not yet completely had its way.

Another welcome deterrent is that in 1995 UNESCO declared the old capital a World Heritage site as the best-preserved city in what used to be called Indo-China. There are zoning laws, nothing higher than a coconut tree, original arches from the times when invaders forced the removal of the capital to Vientiane, and more temples than in any comparable city.

In the 18th century, someone counted them and discovered 65. Today, nearly half of these, 32 "wat" in all, are still operating -- an indication that Buddhist tradition thrives. As it should, since the city's name means Great (Luang) Buddha (Pra-bang.) Indeed, the place often seems a city of monks.

Of some 15,000 inhabitants, hundreds are yellow-robed boys and young men. Their rounds start at five in the morning as they walk the streets soliciting alms, a daily ritual called "takbaat." One sees them everywhere, coming and going. It is their presence that helps create the feeling of timelessness the city still holds.

The magnificent Wat Xieng Thong (Golden City Monastery), built in 1560, looks as it must always have. Roofs sweep low to the ground, Lao-fashion, ancient "bodhi" trees spring from the temple pavements, royal gold shines against peasant pinks and blues, dusty statues are stacked in dim recesses as though waiting. It could be 1899 as easily as 1999.

Equally traditional are the two markets, open from five in the morning to five in the afternoon. One is for household goods, the other for food. To arrive when the latter opens and to view by candlelight the ruby-red blood pudding, the golden chicken feet, the great clumps of basil and coriander, is to understand what life was like in the past, to comprehend the enormous power of continuity.

Secluded in the forested, mountainous regions of the north, protected by the "fierce barrier" of the Mekong River, Luang Prabang was always considered difficult to reach and hence spared the full weight of colonization. A French civil servant in the 1930s noted that it took longer to travel by river from Saigon to Luang Prabang than it did to travel by sea from Marseilles to Saigon.

One result of this seclusion is that the city has been allowed to go its own way. While Vientiane is rapidly modernizing (the Lao People's Democratic Republic is, after all, now a member of the powerful Association of Southeast Asian Nations), the provinces remain much as they were.

Another factor favoring tradition is the mellowing of government policy. After the "revolution" of 1975 and taking over the country, the Communist Pathet Lao's prohibitions against Buddhism were so widely ignored that they were soon dropped. As early as 1979, the government began loosening what has been called the straitjacket of Stalinist economics; in particular, it backed down from the highly unpopular policy of agricultural collectivism.

As the same time, it began to look to the past and to allow, and even sponsor, an official version of it. Symptomatic is the elevation of the last king of Laos, Sisavang Vong, who died in 1959. Visits to the newly restored and now completely ostentatious royal palace are suggested. There, one is shown various relics -- presents from foreign heads of state, an oil portrait (Russian), a bronze statue (also Russian) -- and encouraged to regard royal rule in a favorable manner one would have thought impossible in a communist country.

As yet, there has been almost no mention of the king's son, who ascended the throne upon his father's death. According to official Pathet Lao history, the 1975 revolution prevented the actual coronation. There is another version of what happened, however. After serving as "adviser" to the president, King (or Crown Prince) Sisavang Vatthana, a cultured man who, among other accomplishments, read Proust, was exiled to the north with his family. There they eventually died, one by one it is said, allegedly starving to death in a cave.

There is a third version of events as well. An official brochure says that the Proust-reading king returned and offered his palace to the government. This would indicate that he is still living in Luang Prabang, but I met no one who had ever seen him. His father, however, is not so neglected. He is very much there in his golden palace, to show what a glorious past the present can boast.

And indeed, the government has instituted a number of reforms. It now allows farmers to own their land and to sell their crops at market prices. Trade, banking systems, foreign investment have all been, to some extent, liberalized. Economic problems remain -- although, to be sure, they are the very things that, from a tourist's point of view, keep the place paradisiacal). The country is very poor, and it is also underpopulated.

Although Laos is about the same size as Britain, its population -- some 5 million -- is only 8 percent of the British population. There are reasons for this. At the time of the communist takeover, some 10 percent of the population, including many of the country's commercial and administrative experts and its skilled technicians, fled. Included in this diaspora were some three-quarters of the Lao intelligentsia and those who had been educated abroad.

In addition, Laos was attacked. The United States carpet-bombed strategic areas of the country during the late 1960s and early 1970s, killing many people. Places such as Nambak were heavily hit, but Luang Prabang, in the same province, was relatively spared. Still, even today, one can see used U.S. shell casings being recycled as planters and a U.S. parachute serving as a wedding pavilion.

Though the Lao Lum, the lowlanders, still make up about 50 percent of the population, Laos has more minority groups -- the government estimates some 68 -- than any of its neighbors. The life of these so-called hill tribes is far removed from that of progressive Vientiane.

There has been a good deal of government persuasion designed to get these people move to the lowlands. There they can be better integrated, and a watch can be kept on what they grow, since some cultivate the beautiful but dangerous poppy.

Around the outskirts of Luang Prabang now, there are number of former hill-tribe settlements. The Khamus are much in evidence, but the most numerous are members of the Hmong tribe. I visited a village outside the town and saw many traditional homes, made of natural materials, each containing a loom, since the Hmong are among the finest of the local weavers.

And in the midst of these homes was a new one -- made of concrete, with gables, a front door, glass windows and a porch. The owner, I was told, had a lot of money because he had relatives in America. Indeed, the U.S. hosts a large Hmong colony.

This is because during the 1960s a number of Hmong people were recruited by the CIA to fight both North Vietnamese and Laotian communists. When the communists took over Laos, the Hmong went into refugee camps and hundreds of thousands, it is said, eventually settled in the U.S.

The majority left in Laos, however, do not yet build with concrete; in fact, their contact with modern civilization is minimal. I was taken to see one of the Hmong's celebrations. This was a seasonal get-together when the young people, dressed in their finest, gathered in a nearby grove to engage in what looked like a ritual sport, but which was really a mating game.

As the two lines of youngsters, boys on one side, girls on the other, tossed small winter oranges back and forth, they sang traditional songs and at the same time sized one other up. The girls were demure and aloof, but making the most of their elaborate costumes. The boys in salesman-like fashion enumerated their finer points.

And to one side were some older people, pencils poised, tape recorders running, were transcribing the old songs, since they are now known by only a few. Walkman in ear, others were checking the various versions.

This wonderful spectacle could serve as a metaphor for modern Laos. Monks use pocket calculators, deep-dish TV antennas bring the world into the living room, rock booms just around the corner, and here, medieval courtship dances are unselfconsciously being performed in a grove.

Those of us who approve of final paradises must always face the awkward fact that life is better for people once paradise passes. Here, however, is one way to retain it. Laos right now takes what it wants of the new, retains what it will of the old, and in the amalgam holds much of what is useful and beautiful of the past while, at the same time, it reaches into the future.

If you decide to go ...It is now possible to get a Laotian visa at the Luang Prabang airport upon arrival from Thailand. After filling out two official forms on the plane plus a further form that is available only at the immigration counter at the airport and handing over $30 (in U.S. dollars), you will be issued a visa. Leaving the country, a departure fee of $10 is required.

Inside Laos, three currencies are in use. The official national currency is the kip, but with a rate of some 2,500 kip to the dollar and notes only in small denominations, this means a lot of paper to lug around. Consequently, almost everyone also uses Thai baht and U.S. dollars. In Luang Prabang, every hotel, restaurant and shop I went to was ready to accept any of these (and to give proper change in the same currency), and some would have taken credit cards as well.

Prices are low. Laos is, after all, one of the poorest countries in Asia. I was told that the annual wage was the equivalent of between $500 and $700. Education is free, however, as is health care -- although medicines and drugs are not. Taxes are relatively low, but local big spenders must beware. There is a 300 percent tax on foreign automobiles.

For the tourist there are a variety of places to stay, from the hilltop Phou Vao Hotel to the many pensions and bed-and-breakfasts that have sprung up along the main road through the town. There is a variety of places to enjoy Lao food -- every one that I tried was excellent. There is also, on the main corner, a new Internet cafe. All this makes it easy for the budget-conscious traveler or the backpacker to spend a few days.

For those who have a slightly larger budget and no backpack, an alternative is to prepay everything through your travel agent. This has many advantages. Laos' tourist infrastructure is still new, and having a car and guide is of great assistance -- at immigration no less than elsewhere. This means no hassling about hotels and meals, no bargaining for trips to the Kuang Si Falls or the Pak Ou Caves. Besides, although the city has a small population, it covers a lot of ground, and a car is handy in getting around, particularly to surrounding "hill-tribe" villages.

Since Luang Prabang is not yet a common tourist destination, some travel organizations do not know the routine. All of my preparations were done by Executive Travel, Inc., (03) 3588-0971.



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