Highway 13 is the backbone of Laos, the only paved road running across the whole country from north to south. We follow it, journeying through a country that still retains an atmosphere of the past

The sun has still not risen when, as they do every day, hundreds of Buddhist monks begin silently walking the streets of Luang Prabang, ready to receive offerings from the faithful. In the dim light of dawn they seem like an army of ghosts dressed in orange, one behind the other in orderly lines, everyone carrying bowls for the charity handouts. By the roadsides people kneel in wait, holding out hands as they pass to place a handful of rice or a piece of fruit into each bowl. Nobody speaks. The silence is absolute, almost surreal, broken only by the gentle flapping of orange robes.

Luang Prabang.Every morning at dawn the monks parade thru the street of Luang Prabang to collect food offered by people

In contrast, a few kilometres away, the noise of the traffic travelling on Highway 13 is already rising, shattering the peace. It’s as if the uninvited sounds of the twenty-first century are encroaching on this blessed quiet of a world immersed in another time. “In Laos there is something unique and poetic in the air,” Tiziano Terzani once wrote. The Italian journalist and writer described the events that shaped the history of this Southeast Asian land over the past 40 years as well as anyone. “The days are long and slow, and the people have a quiet softness not found in the rest of Indochina.” It is also worth repeating the old French colonial saying: “The Vietnamese plant rice; the Cambodians watch them; the Laotians listen to the rice growing.”

Highway 13 is the spinal cord of a country that, until the last century, had no other means of communication besides the Mekong, on which you had to sail for days just to move a few kilometres. Travelling the road from top to bottom is an easy way to gain insight into what was once Lane Xang, the kingdom of a million elephants, closed off in absolute isolation after the victory of the communist Pathet Lao in 1975, and only reopened to the world in the early 1990s. Luang Prabang is the northern terminus of the 13. The far north of Laos is still a tangle of mountains and forests where dozens of ethnic minorities—the Yi, the Hmong, the Kora and the Akha—live in villages only accessible by river or via narrow dirt roads that are buried in mud for much of the year.

Luang Prabang.Xien Thong temple

In Luang Prabang, on the other hand, the dazzling green tropical vegetation hides a string of artistic and architectural wonders, all enveloped in an atmosphere unlike anywhere else in Asia. Sat on a small peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, the ancient capital of the golden Buddha surrounds the sacred hill of Phu Si with a maze of more than 30 temples and pagodas, and an infinite number of cloisters, monasteries, mosaics, stupas, bas reliefs and sculptures illuminated by gold leaf and precious stones.
Luang Prabang.Xien Thong temple.

To begin with there is Wat Xien Thong (or Xiang Thong), the most refined symbol of Lao art, a complex of sacred buildings dating from 1560 constructed from coloured stone mosaics, bas reliefs, golden carvings on black backgrounds and the famous tree of life that glows on a red background. Or Haw Kham, the Golden Palace, constructed in the early 1900s for King Sisavang Vong, which still contains a copy of the Pha Bang (or Prabang), the statue of the Golden Buddha given in fourteenth century by the Khmer monarch Phaya Sirichantha to the Laotian king Ago Ngoum as a symbol of regal power.

Since 1995, when Unesco bestowed world heritage status on Luang Prabang, restoration and conservation plans have returned the pomp of the past and transformed the city into a major tourist attraction. Many temples have regained their original aspects and many French colonial buildings have reopened their shutters, becoming guesthouses or restaurants. New stores, bistros and internet cafés are opening everywhere. Even legendary Villa Santi, former residence of princess Manilai, is now one of the most fascinating luxury hotels in the Orient. The number of tuk-tuks and cars on the city streets is going up exponentially, as is the number of the European, Australian or Asian travellers coming here on holiday. But in spite of everything, Luang Prabang retains the bewitching air of a timeless place. “In this century of exact science and quick profits, this city continues to be the last refuge,” French naturalist Henri Mouhot once said. To escape, all you need do is walk through the alleyways of the centre, immerse yourself in the silence of the cloisters, breathe the scent of the frangipane on the banks of the Nam Khan, lose yourself in the harmony of the monks’ chants emerging from within the temples or be hypnotised by the flickering candlelight that every evening illuminates the night market on Xien Thong street, where Laotian and Hmong traders ply their wares.

Luang Prabang.A street of Luang Prabang

Four hours’ drive south along Highway 13 and you start noticing the bizarre shapes of the karst mountains that line the river Nam Xong near Vang Vieng. They seem like giant cliff fortresses scattered over the plains, as if hurled down from the sky. On the other side of the river, Vang Vieng is an anonymous city that was ‘discovered’ in the mid-1990s by Western backpackers who arrived here following the call of the opium. It was found anywhere, and sold at paltry prices. To cater for them, guesthouses, new age restaurants and shops selling ethnic products all sprouted up, with the result the population has now swollen to 40,000. These days opium has gone out of favour and virtually disappeared, but in its place two other pastimes fill the days of those who stop by. You can explore the hundreds of caverns that dot the limestone walls of the mountains, some of them considered sacred by the local villagers. Or you can try tubing: floating downriver in the inner tube of a truck tyre, perhaps with a book in hand, letting yourself be carried by the gentle current of the Nam Xong through unspoilt nature. In Vang Vieng, Western visitors don’t have to do anything. Bo pen nhang—“no worries”—is the most recurrent phrase on the lips of the Laotians.

That same sense of relaxation is also found in the capital Vientiane, even if in recent years the population has doubled and the traffic multiplied. These days, jams often block Lane Xang Avenue, the Lao Champs Elysées which culminates in the stocky form of the Patouxai, the local version of the Parisian Arc de Triomphe, constructed with concrete intended for an airport. But in spite of everything, the city is still a small village compared to other Southeast Asian capitals. It has a human scale, where everything moves in harmony with the environment. That feeling is echoed in the silence of Wat Pha Kaew and nearby Wat Sisaket, among the serene looks of the Buddha statues, or under the golden spire and golden lotus petals of That Luang, the great stupa that is the symbol of Lao Buddhism. And topping the list of daily pleasures for most visitors is a stop in a local restaurant, or one of those around Nam Phou square, where you’ll find baguettes, café au lait and bouillabaisse—indelible reminders of a colonial past. Then, at sunset, no one resists the call of a Beerlao, the local beer, drunk in one of the open-air restaurants along the Mekong, as the sun turns the river flaming red, before dropping behind the trees on the opposite bank. Over there, less than 300 metres away, is Thailand, a paradise of consumerism that young Laotians, without the money to buy beer, have always eyed like a mirage. Today they still don’t have money—Laos remains one of the poorest countries in the world—but the allure of the Thai wonderland appears to have faded somewhat.

Vang Vieng.Crossing a bridge on Vang Vieng river

To the south of Vientiane, Highway 13 enters the immense plains that stretch to the southern border, crossing an infinite string of rice paddies following the course of the Mekong. It passes through the cities of Pakxan, Thakhek, and Savannakhet. In Paksè, you can take a ferry to Wat Phou, the immense temple of the mountain, now reappearing thanks to Unesco-funded archaeological digs. This was the birthplace of the Khmer civilisation that would later create the sacred city of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Here we are just a few kilometres from the border, also the end of the 13.

In this region, Laos puts on one of the greatest shows in nature: the Mekong widens and divides into a hundred channels to form Siphandon—the Four Thousand Islands—a maze of islands, islets and simple sandbanks that appear and disappear with the seasonal changes in river level. It is a world of water and tropical forest, and occasional villages inhabited by people who live almost exclusively from fishing. Nothing here seems to have changed for centuries. Not even the dramatic events that scarred Lao history elsewhere, like the French colonial period or the American War, have left their mark on this region. Indeed, it was here that the French government’s dream of turning the Mekong into a trade route across Indochina ran aground, as the river is blocked by a sequence of rapids and cascades at Khon Phapheng and Somphamit that render navigation impossible.

Luang Prabang.Two boys sleeping in their family handicraft shop.

On the islands Don Khon and Don Det, a rusty old locomotive and some railway tracks are the only remaining evidence testifying to the failure of the French plans. Today they stand out like the abandoned relics of a vanished dream.

More photos available at : http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=327537&id=18801397386&saved#!/album.php?aid=327537&id=18801397386

Words and photos Giancarlo Radice/TCS, article appeared on Expatriate Lifestyle January 2011 issue.

  • Edmund

    VANG VIENG ROCKS! Awesome eco-ventures!