Still Serene

While Luang Prabang is now a fixture on the Asian backpacker circuit, community-based tourism is a good way to get better acquainted with the town, its people and their traditions

Twice a year Lu Guo Xiang leaves his home in Singapore and heads up to Luang Prabang for a holiday. A painter by profession, he finds the ancient royal capital of Laos an ideal place to unwind and also to hunt for artistic inspiration.

The prayer hall at Vat Xieng Thong has a shiny new look after a major restoration which was carried out there last year, costing in the region of 3.4 million baht. Built in 1559 by one of the greatest of all Lao rulers, King Setthathirat, this well-preserved temple is one of the highlights of a visit to this World Heritage site. Many people flock here during daylight hours. If you want to avoid the crowds, turn up just before dusk and you’ll also get the chance to listen to the novices chanting their evening prayers.

"Luang Prabang isn't too big and it's very peaceful," he explained. "There's not too much traffic. It's a very relaxed place... people are very relaxed. It's a big contrast to Singapore."

Blessed by pleasant weather and scenic views of the Mekong, this historic town is no longer the sleepy place it was prior to being listed as a World Heritage site by Unesco back in 1975 and then being "discovered" by a new generation of young travellers. Although it is now among the top destinations to visit in Southeast Asia, it is still possible to get acquainted with the locals here and sample their easy-going pace of life.

Ock Pop Tok is one of the places I'd recommend. It describes itself as a "living crafts centre" and offers to help you acquire the basic weaving skills once held by all Lao women. In fact, men are welcome to try their hand at it, too.

Founded by Veomanee Duangdala, a skilled local weaver, and British photographer Joanna Smith more than a decade ago, Ock Pop Tok (meaning "East meets West") has gradually expanded from an outlet selling woven cloth to a learning centre for handicrafts and textiles. Located about 2km south of the city centre, it offers various kinds of arts-and-crafts courses.

A couple from France I met there told me they were doing a half-day class in weaving techniques in order to get a feel for the local culture. It was their first time to operate a loom.

Offering alms to a Buddhist monk is something you should experience at least once in your life. About 6.30am every day, monks and novices file out of their temples in a single line and walk along the nearby roads, collecting sticky rice and other food cooked for them by lay Buddhists. The line can be quite long, sometimes containing as many as a hundred monks, but it is not contiguous, each section hailing from a different temple. One of the best places in Luang Prabang to offer alms, or just to witness this daily ritual, is along Sakkarine Road where many temples are located, including Vat Sensoukharam where this picture was taken.

"It is a bit difficult when you start, but later on it's okay. But I have to be more cautious when I do this [interweave] because if I make it too tight, the edge of my cloth will be bent," the woman explained. The place where the class is held has a pleasant perspective with lots of vegetation and while I was there I could hear the songs of woodland birds.

Another spot worth checking out is Ban Xang Kong, a village about 5km east of Luang Prabang which is well-known for its hand-made products, especially saa paper. Colourful displays in front of houses lining the dirt road through the village show what the occupants have for sale: lengths of woven cloth, hand-made dolls, sheets of saa paper and items fashioned from it.

Some residents also allow tourists to enter their backyard workshops to observe how saa paper is made from the bark of the mulberry bush. But if you visit on a Buddhist holy day (wan sin in Laos), you probably won't find anyone at all working.

"Wan sin is like a day off for us," said an employee at a business called Simone Saa Handicraft. "We believe that we shouldn't make any loud noises like pounding or winding a crank [on such holy days] because the sound might wake up spirits and bring bad luck to us."

It was for this very reason that the compound of Vat Xieng Mouane was so quiet the day I visited. Normally, the novice monks who live in this temple in Luang Prabang are kept busy with craftwork. This is because it is the centre of the Cultural Survival Project initiated by Unesco and the local authorities to give these boys training in traditional trades like woodcarving, bronze-casting, sculpture and mural-painting. Should you stop by, you can pay respect to the Buddha images in this venerable old place of worship and you might also see some of the novices' work on display.

Not far from this temple, heading eastwards, is Xatikhoumman Road where you will come across a small alley leading to a silversmith's. The sign reads "Phothisack Rattanakone Silversmith". The workers here design and make fascinating-looking ornaments and jewellery ranging from small pieces like ear-rings to more complicated necklaces and belts. The artisans perform their magic in a small area at the rear of the shop and if you ask for permission they'll probably let you in to observe the silversmiths at work.

Walking farther east on Xatikhoumman Road there's another interesting shop called Bounnachanh Fine Arts Gallery. From the outside it looks like a typical fabric outlet, but walk inside and you'll be dazzled by the displays of fine embroidery work on sin (sarongs for women). The owner is always on hand and seems happy to explain how she creates these glamorous patterns on silk using very short lengths of gold-coated metallic thread. The final product is a little too garish for my taste, but there's obviously a demand for these glittering garments.

So lots of sights and sounds and many curious things to unearth if you go on a leisurely walk around this town. And at the end of your wandering you may very well find yourself sipping some freshly brewed coffee and nibbling on a baguette as you gaze out over the waters of the Khan or the Mekong, the two rivers which flow through Luang Prabang.

A man operating a loom is not exactly a familiar sight. But this European tourist felt like a bit of cultural immersion, so he and his girlfriend paid for a half-day class on the basics of silk-weaving. They did so at a ‘‘living crafts centre’’ in Luang Prabang called Ock Pop Tok (www.ockpoptok.com) which runs short introductory courses aimed at curious travellers on subjects like dyeing yarn, making batik and plaiting bamboo strips into fans and baskets. If, on arriving here, you notice rows of colourful yarn hung out to dry on the lawn, they could be the fruit of a recent three-day course in weaving in which participants typically learn about dyeing and spinning yarn and weaving it into fabric. They can choose their own pattern or avail of advice from a local master weaver introduced by Ock Pop Tok, which also offers accommodation and food. If you don’t have the time or inclination for a class, it’s worth checking out the small shop here which stocks bolts of woven cloth with outstanding designs, some created on site, plus products hand-made by women from ethnic minorities like Akha dolls, Hmong batik and ‘‘pie bags’’, shoulder bags made from the fibres of a local plant regarded by farmers as a weed. The large piece of fabric seen in another of the photos here is an awardwinning design dreamed up by the weavers of Ock Pop Tok; almost the size of a tapestry, it is intended to enliven a wall or decorate a room.

A woman in Ban Xang Kong gives the final touches to a piece of saa paper before leaving it out in the sun to dry out for a day. Dried mulberry bark is soaked in water for two days, boiled twice (for about 12 hours in total) and then pounded for 30 minutes to reduce it to a pulp. The pulp is then put into a large container with some water. A screen is submerged in this mixture to cover it with a thin layer of fine pulp. The screen is then lifted out and the excess water allowed to drain off before the drying is finished off under direct sunlight. If this woman finds any bumps or uneven spots in the still-damp paper, she will use a small bowl to make the surface as smooth and level as possible. Saa paper can be customised by scattering colourful flower petals or small leaves over the mulberry pulp before it dries completely. Some painters use saa paper for painting images of the Buddha. the sacred bodhi tree or other religious subjects like monks on a pilgrimage. It is also commonly used as stationery and in interior decoration.

Carefully sewing short lengths of a goldcoated metallic thread into the hem of a silk sarong, the owner of Bounnachanh Fine Arts Gallery performs a painstaking task she first took up seven years ago. She said her work has become popular among local women who need an outfit for special occasions such as weddings and society events. She usually makes garments to order. After the delicate embroidering has been done, a single scarf can cost around 8,000 baht. The price for a complete outfit — embroidered blouse, sarong and scarf — can be as high as 80,000 or 100,000 baht, depending on the pattern. ‘‘And you can always pass it on to the next generation,’’ she reasoned, ‘‘because one of these garments can last for a long time — many decades.’’

Ma Te Sai (www.matesai.com) is the name of a shop selling handicrafts sourced from many different parts of Laos, but usually made by people from ethnic minorities. Next to each item is a small sign telling where it comes from (orma te sai in Lao, the phrase which gave the shop its name) and how it was made. The aim is to provide local people with a distribution channel for their products. Ma Te Sai has three outlets. The one on Sisavang Vong Road also runs regular afternoon courses which teach tourists how to create their own hat or cotton bag or the way to embroider a piece of cloth in the Hmong style. Classes are conducted in English by master craftspeople and will go ahead even if only a single person has signed up for instruction.

Want to make a difference while you’re on the road? Then drop into Big Brother Mouse (www.bigbrothermouse.com), a non-profit organisation in Luang Prabang started by a retired American publisher back in 2006 with help from a group of young locals. Their very simple goal is to publish readable books and distribute them, at no charge, to village children. You could help them promote literacy levels among Lao kids by buying some of the books stocked in their shop — the average price being 15,000 kip, about 56 baht — or by donating children’s books or making a cash donation. Every week, a team of Big Brother Mouse volunteers organises a ‘‘book party’’ in some village or rural school where they typically play games with the children and read stories out loud before leaving gifts of books with the school or the kids themselves. You could also volunteer your time and energy to help out on a project. The Big Brother Mouse office is located in a small alley off Sakkarine Road (see map).

Le Banneton has a reputation for excellent croissants and baguettes. Located on Sakkarine Road, it delivers croissants to more than 10 local hotels and guesthouses and also supplies baguettes to several convenience stores in town. It was founded by a French baker and fresh pastries are made here daily by the owner and his Lao assistants. If you drop by in the afternoon, there’s a good chance all the croissants and baguettes will have sold out. Le Banneton could be a good place for breakfast, since it opens at dawn, but may not be ideal for coffee connoisseurs: the way its coffee is presented is far superior to the flavour of the brew! Unlike other cafes around town, this place doesn’t offer Wi-Fi, but it does a brisk trade and is sometimes chock-a-block with customers.

No trip to Luang Prabang would be complete without a stroll in one of the local markets. If you’re up reasonably early in the morning, pay a visit to the wet market next to Luang Prabang National Museum. You’ll get an idea of what the locals like to cook as you weave your way past vendors flogging everything from fresh fish, vegetables and mushrooms to live ducks and even bats. At night, a popular place to check out is an open-air souvenir, clothes and handicrafts market set up along Sisavang Vong Road which is closed to traffic every day between 5pm and 10pm. It might feel at times that many of these stalls are all selling basically the same selection of goods, but you could look on this as a good opportunity to improve your bargaining skills!

About the author

columnist
Writer: Karnjana Karnjanatawe
Position: Travel Reporter