The Southeast Asian nation of Laos is still a fairly untraveled destination, especially compared to its neighbor, Thailand. But the word is getting out about the charms of the Laotian town of Luang Prabang. Gayle Keck went there recently with her husband and wrote about their experiences for the Washington Post.
Strangers talk to one another here, people who’d never strike up a conversation when touring London or Rome. It’s one of those clues that tell you this Mekong River town in northern Laos is an outpost. The atmosphere is part “Star Wars” bar, part “Casablanca.” Backpackers descend from the surrounding mountains or step ashore off slow boats, clutching tattered Lonely Planet guides. Europeans, Australians, Thais and a few Americans wing in on prop planes. Members of ethnic hill tribes, particularly the Hmong, appear at sunset, spreading their wares along the street. And everywhere you turn there are Buddhist monks in blazing-orange robes…
From our balcony, lazing against triangular bolsters, we shamelessly gaze down on our neighbors across the river with that fascination modern urbanites have for the simple life. The far bank is patchworked with small plots. Men hoe vegetables, women scrub laundry in the dingy water, a fisherman checks his bamboo traps, kids turn a washbasin into an impromptu boat and skid away from their soap-wielding mom.
The vast majority of Laos’s population is rural, but 10 minutes away by tuk-tuk, the bargain-priced motorcycle-powered open trucks, Luang Prabang bustles. In 1988, the year Laos reopened to tourists, only 600 of them visited the entire country; there are probably that many trolling Luang Prabang’s streets today alone. We see bamboo scaffolding where repairs are being made to colonial-era stuccoed homes with mossy tiled roofs and sagging shutters, efforts to meet the growing demand for guesthouses.