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Jul 05

Breakfast in Luang Prabang

It is raining. Not the kind of rain that plummets down from ominous grey clouds and attempts to punch holes in your umbrella, but a soft, steady, non-threatening sprinkle. A kind oddly fitting for Luang Prabang, the sleepy town of about 16,000 in the north-west of Laos, a town on the World Heritage List.

At 8.00am, the Joma Bakery Cafe is already pumping out fresh pastries and bread; the rich aroma of butter and coffee drifting through the air. Motorbikes occasionally putter by, ridden skilfully by locals with one hand on the handlebars and the other on an umbrella, shielding themselves from the rain. Sometimes a second passenger would be riding pinion, or balanced behind gracefully like a side-saddled equestrian competitor, long skirts making it impractical, not to mention immodest, to straddle the seat. Monks stroll down the street after the morning’s alms collection. They carry umbrellas – tattered black ones – which seem to clash with their bright, almost fluorescent orange robes. Wet tourists clutching damp, well-thumbed copies of the ubiquitous Lonely Planet scurry by, some retreating into the refuge of the bakery.

Despite its unpainted grey concrete walls, the bakery has a certain charm to it, one of the many by-products left over from the days of French colonialism. Of course, only tourists can afford to eat here. Luang Prabang is a town “revitalised” by tourism. However, unlike so many other tourist hotspots in neighbouring countries, the local Lao, for the most part, seem largely unaffected by it all. There are no throngs of scrappy children begging for money, or tuk-tuk drivers doggedly soliciting for fares, or store vendors calling out “Hello! Hello!” for passers-by to buy their wares. When we first arrived in the city centre, somewhat disorientated and struggling to don our backpacks, two men approached us. We braced for an offer of a guesthouse to go to, or a tuk-tuk to get on. Instead, they merely asked us where we needed to go and pointed us in the right direction.

The people here are used to white faced Westerners tramping around the roads, taking it all with a stoic indifference. Their smiles are genuine, with no traces of slyness or a sinister gleam in their eyes which hints at some ulterior motive.

Besides the beautiful restored French villas, now converted to expensive hotels maintained on tourist dollars, the decaying remnants of colonialism manifest themselves in crooked paving and shoddy brickwork. But beyond the uneven roads and pathways, intricate temples adorn the landscape, their entrances guarded by gilded nagas – mythical seven-headed serpents. A wat on top of Phou Si, the hill around which the town is built, stands as a golden cap upon a cloak of greenery – the lush jungle which escorts the swiftly flowing Mekong River down towards the South-West.

The previous day, we had arrived by Lao Airlines on a surprisingly well-maintained twin-propeller plane and were driving into the town centre, chatting to a kindly Thai lady in the back of the songtel. It was her fifth or sixth time in Laos and she was going trekking. We had told her that we would be leaving for Vientiane in three days and her expression suddenly darkened. “Oh, but foreigners cannot get entry into Vientiane. The ASEAN meeting is on.”

We’d heard about this meeting only a few days ago when picking up our air tickets from the Lao Airlines office in Chiang Mai. “Sorry, no entry to Vientiane on the 27th,” Mr Sittidet told us hesitantly.

This remark had caused us to sit up very straight. “Ministerial meeting. Big news.” Big news to everyone but us, it seemed. “Foreigners not allowed.”

“But you issued us with tickets, and we have a pre-issued visa.” Mr Sittidet made a few phone calls and when he issued us our tickets, we thought the problem had been avoided. But apparently not.

The first morning in Luang Prabang we headed straight for the Lao Airlines office to reschedule our flight. There was no way around the 38th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, so coincidentally timed to coincide with our one day transit through Vientiane, so we were thus forced to hold up in Luang Prabang for several days. But no matter. If there was any town to get stuck in for a few extra days, this was a good one.

The rain has now eased. Soon it will be hot again, the streets being brightly lit by a strong, glaring sun. But for now, we will head out and enjoy the cool, damp air while it lasts.

See also
LA Times article