Gentle and serene with some of Asia’s best preserved architecture, Laos’ remote former capital Luang Prabang is delightful. World Heritage listed, tourism is now booming, posing only one question: Will Luang Prabang’s charms last?
Sinsalone Soumpholphakdy leans back in his chair, knots his hands behind his head and looks around at a hive of activity. Dozens of men are scurrying like ants as they polish, nail, laugh, smoke and inject new life into a century-old colonial house. On one side a wall of granite rises up through to the second floor that is supported by whole logs wider than Soumpholphakdy’s hug. ‘Were sitting in reception now’, he says as he runs his finger through a thick layer of sawdust. “The best rooms are above”. Each has a private balcony with original banisters and superb views over the Mekong River. Having spent most of his working life as head designer for one of Australia’s top architectural firms, Soumpholphakdy has recently returned to his native Laos to embark upon the most challenging project to date- restoring two old colonial buildings into a boutique hotel. Using a fusion of French and Lao styles, he aims to create what he calls a ‘historical journey in architecture’- one that displays the many influences that decorated Luang Prabang through the ages.
Abandoned during the 1975 communist revolution, Luang Prabang was little more than a ghost town 10 years ago. But since it was awarded World Heritage status and the title of Best Preserved Town for Traditional and Colonial Styles in South East Asia by Unesco in 1995, it has been in the midst of an architectural and bohemian renaissance, attracting a stream of Lao and foreigner entrepreneurs, architects, and artists who are recreating its regal past and establishing it as one of the region’s most fashionable holiday destinations. Colonial mansions and royal palaces are being converted into luxury hotels, provincial cottages into cafes, terrace houses into galleries and workshops, and the age old artisan traditions of silk weaving, paper making and wood carving are being re-invented with vigor.
Luang Prabang was first made the royal capital of the Empire of a Million Elephants in the early 1300’s and has been a spiritual centre ever since. Bathed in a sea of emerald green wilderness, the town sits on a slender peninsula by the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers- an auspicious natural landmark that explains why the town is a revered heart of Buddhist learning.
On arriving in Luang Prabang in 1861, French explorer Henri Mouhot described it as ‘delightful, with almost an access of grandeur’. Already an important trading hub, the capital of successive kingdoms and a place of profound worship, Mouhot would have been greeted by a timeless and revered world of gilded pagodas, old wooden buildings and ageless traditions.
Some of what he would have seen remains: ancient and elaborate temples with walls inscribed with gold leaf, their spires rising above splays of hot pink bougainvillea. They are now nestled in amongst French remains; yellow and ochre coloured mansions adapted for the tropics with rambling verandahs, high ceilings and low hung ceiling fans.
Slow and serene, Luang Prabang is Asia without the hustle, bustle, velocity or traffic- and with more old world charm than you could stuff into a museum. Tardiness best summed up in the favorite local saying, ‘,baw peng young‘, literally meaning ‘it doesn’t matter, it will happen tomorrow. No problem”.
When it was presented with World Heritage status, stipulations were put in place to ensure its character would not be destroyed. Zones were established indicating what areas could be rebuilt and those that had to be preserved. The town’s charm is thanks to years spent restoring temples, houses and traditional wooden houses. But not everybody in Luang Prabang can be credited. A popular backpacker destination means there is a big demand for cheap lodging, and a few of the locals have been cutting corners with building regulations, or even demolishing the existing structure to replace it with an angular concrete block. It’s a problem Francais Engelmann, author, resident and project manager assisting the preservation process, says stems from a lack of authentic locals living in the town. The majority of Luang Prabang’s population arrived after the tourist boom, and according to Engelmann don’t have an innate wish to preserve it. Battling high inflation and an ever-growing need for a cash economy, people think in short term economic gains- not investing in the future, which is what the preservation of Luang Prabang requires. But despite this, the town has maintained an unusually laid-back ambience – one that artists languish in, many who have been stationing themselves in the basements of old provincial houses.
Traditional methods of silk weaving, woodcarving, screen printing and paper making have been reinvented. Amid this spirit of renaissance, cafes, restaurants, galleries, guesthouses and small luxury hotels are also opening. It’s a feeling that Elizabeth- Bulgarian, artist and owner of a funky new guesthouse called Tum Tum Cheng- calls ‘inspirational’. See it while its still there.