The Land of a Million Elephants

“I feel like a gangster,” an Irish fellow mutters, struggling to close his wallet around a fat wad of kip. We’ve congregated, with an ark-worthy queue of assorted foreigners, at the one ATM we could find in Luang Prabang. The most cash you can withdraw in a day is 700,000 kip: about 76 bucks. Within two days, you can be a kip millionaire.

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.

My husband, Paul, and I have stopped in for five days because Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site — and because Laos still holds enough mystique to offset the escalating buzz from media must-visit lists and tourists seeking the next hot destination.

A town of 26,000, Luang Prabang is shaped like a tongue, formed by the Nam Khan River as it curves to meet the Mekong. The waters of these two rivers are dense with mud, as if history were dissolved in them and were flowing relentlessly, opaquely past.

In 1353, this lick of land was the seat of a kingdom known as Lan Xang, or the Land of a Million Elephants. It also was once the Laotian capital, losing out to Vientiane when France took over the country in 1893. And it was home to the royal family until 1975, when the Pathet Lao communists gained power and, it is said, banished the royals to a cave.

We’re in cozier quarters: a thatch-roofed bamboo bungalow set on a high riverbank outside town, overlooking the Nam Khan. There is no TV. 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.

Luang Prabang’s architecture catapulted it onto the World Heritage list in 1995. The sublime mix of old Laotian wooden houses, half-timbered buildings, stalwart French structures and ancient Buddhist temples can be found nowhere else, UNESCO says.

But these days, to spot them on some streets, you need to look among swaths of telephone and electrical wires, restaurant signs, shops stocked with chorus lines of Buddha statues, fume-belching tuk-tuks and tour agents’ placards with long, handwritten essays advertising offerings in fractured English. (“If you are interesting please contact us inside.”)

It’s hard to appreciate — or find — Luang Prabang’s charms on our first day. Drenching rain falls nonstop. And this is supposed to be the dry season.

We scuttle to the Royal Palace Museum, where more than a hundred soggy, muddy shoes cluster around the main entrance. Etiquette forbids footwear inside most buildings, though shopkeepers often call out “Shoes okay!” to tourists. The parked shoes provide an instant tip-off to who’s inside. (That comes in handy one day when I misplace Paul and track him down by spotting his battered size 13 Nikes.)

Exploring the royal palace is a bit eerie because the government has never revealed the fate of its former occupants. The early-20th-century building is a mash-up of Laotian and western architecture, highlighted by a throne room crusted with royal bling: thrones, swords, regalia, the monarch’s howdah (a chair for perching atop an elephant) and spectacular mosaics of multicolored pieces of mirror set onto deep-red walls. The royal bedrooms are austere, furnished with drab, vaguely deco furniture. Backstage life in this monarchy had all the appeal of a two-star hotel room.

Alas, though I’m primed to shop in one of the few countries where dollars still have value, the renowned night market is canceled because of the rain. So we head for a performance of the Royal Ballet troupe, revived after a communist-imposed hiatus.

Before the traditional dances begin, members of a group of older Laotians chant a blessing, then fan out into the audience to tie white strings around both wrists of every spectator. This is the basi, a ceremony to ensure that guardian spirits essential for good mental and physical health are bound to a person’s body.

The spirits clearly realize that my mental health is tied to dry weather, and when we emerge, the rain has ended. We celebrate with tall bottles of Beerlao at Tum Tum Cheng, a restaurant named for the sound of temple drums and cymbals. We sample Mekong catfish, beef stew made with pungent galangal root and huge bowls of “Secret Soup,” packed with chicken and vegetables, including eggplants the size of cherry tomatoes.

There’s a French culinary influence here, too, left over from colonial days. In the market, we see baguettes and filled beignets, while bakeries are stocked with oddly evolved pastries, Galapagos versions of French desserts.

For authentic Laotian fare at lunchtime, we seek out Tamarind, a tiny restaurant where we pick up bites of sticky rice with our fingers, dipping it into small bowls of vegetables and chili sauce. We sample chewy dried water buffalo and fried, pressed sheets of “river moss” (which I suspect, after investigating the Mekong, starts life as green slime).

Curiously, a jolly-looking, solitary man is at both Tum Tum Cheng and Tamarind when we dine. Sure enough, he turns up at Tum Tum Cheng when we return to feed my newfound Secret Soup addiction. “I’m going to ask him where else he’s eaten,” Paul says. “Every place we’ve seen him, the food has been great.” As Paul invites the fellow to join us, I ponder whether he’s a spy.

“Australian Bob” has been adventuring along the Mekong, traveling like a backpacker, despite his crisp shirt and spotless khakis. He regales us with tales of $2-a-night lodging and prodigious (but refused) offers of drugs. “And the women!” he says. “There are lots of them traveling alone.” Then, sotto voce, “They keep propositioning me.”

We nod politely. It’s tough to picture this portly, 60-something engineering professor as a sex object. But, almost on cue, a tour group of eight women-of-a-certain-age passes through the restaurant, all of them ogling our chap. “See?” he says.

With a bit of sun, everything is transformed. We marvel at the graceful, sloping, tiered roofs of the town’s temples, or wats. Teenage novice monks sit outside, intent over their lesson books. For poor boys, wats offer the only chance of education. For tourists, they offer a chance to stalk the perfect monk photo: orange robes and shaved heads artfully arrayed on temple steps.

We climb Mount Phousi, the steep, 330-foot-high sacred hill in the midst of town. From the top we can look down on gaggles of slender, long-tail river boats and dozens of temples and also chat up young novices hanging out to practice English. “Do you like Laos?” one asks. “Where are you from?” I might as well be from Mars, I think, wondering how to describe what he might see from my city’s hills. “Do you have any books,” he asks, “or notebooks?” Those are rare commodities, we learn, and I wish I’d come with a satchel of reading material.

We ease that regret by tutoring young monks at Big Brother Mouse, an organization that prints books and provides a meeting place for local kids to speak English with foreigners.

Wandering tranquil Kounxoa Road, popping into temple complexes that catch our fancy, Paul and I happen upon Wat Xieng Muan, where wood chips fly as young monks carve Buddhas. It’s a UNESCO program to revive traditional arts that were squelched in the early communist era. At the small shop, we pick out a lithe Luang Prabang-style Buddha, happy to support the monastery’s work.

In the city’s most historic area, near the tip of the geographic tongue, we visit Wat Xieng Thong, founded in 1560. The main building, the sim, sports dazzling exterior mosaics similar to those in the palace throne room; inside, Buddhas large and small, sitting and standing, await worshipers amid regal, gilt-stenciled surroundings. Another temple structure holds the ornate, gold-leafed royal funeral carriage and a clutch of life-size standing Buddhas with the eerie aspect of exotic department-store mannequins.

On our stroll, we see racks of rice cakes, loops of sausages and frames of handmade mulberry paper, all set out in the sun to dry. I stop to peek inside a kettle an old woman is stirring over a brazier next to her house. She nods “okay” to a photo and flashes a big, one-toothed smile when we show her the image.

Up another street, I hear “Thwack!” as a coconut bangs onto the pavement. “That’s a weird coincide-,” I start to say, glad we didn’t get beaned. “Thwack!” Another plummets. Then I notice a man with a machete, swaying in the top of the palm tree. “Thwack! Thwack!” Two women in the street are acting as coconut crossing guards, calling up to the man when a vehicle comes along. A crowd gathers to watch the spectacle until the man finally shins down the trunk.

Although that is enough action for me, Paul hankers for an adventure tour. A tour company drives us seven miles up the Nam Khan to an elephant camp, where we, aboard elephants, lumber across a teak grove and through a stream. I even get to ease down from the howdah and sit right on the elephant’s shoulders for part of the ride, her ears flapping against my bare legs.

After the elephant ride, our guide, Phun, a wiry university student, pilots us on a raft down the sluggish river. We paddle till our arms ache, passing wallowing water buffalo, rickety rafts of market-bound bamboo, women washing — hey, one is even brushing her teeth in the river! — and men calling out with offers of lao-lao, a wicked rice whiskey. We float by another elephant camp as the mahouts bathe their charges in the river.

I feel more sure of myself navigating the night market, which flows over town streets like rivers of woven cloth. Swaths of silk and cotton scarves, old tribal clothing, appliqued pillows and rich, hand-loomed fabrics cover block after block. We negotiate for simple silk scarves ($4) and a fine, intricately patterned shawl ($18). “Lucky, lucky, lucky!” the seller chants, anointing her other wares with our fortune-bearing bills.

On our final morning, we wake before dawn to witness the daily gift of alms to the monks. Our tuk-tuk driver says he’ll take us to two spots: one nearby, with a few monks and no tourists; the other in town, with lots of monks and lots of tourists. As we hop out of the tuk-tuk, through the 5:30 a.m. gloom I see local women kneeling along the curb, clutching baskets. A line of monks passes by, each monk holding out his food bowl, into which each woman deposits a pinch of cooked sticky rice.

The last woman motions me over. She and the two next to her scoop rice onto a basket lid and offer it to me, demonstrating how to pull off the proper amount. I kneel next to them and shape little bites, silently depositing one into each man’s bowl as it pauses in front of me. As the last of 30 or so barefoot monks pads off into the dark, I turn to thank the women for their generosity. “Khap jai, lai-lai,” I say, raising my hands in the praying motion called a nop, the Laotian gesture of greeting, gratitude and farewell. “Thank you very much.”

A few minutes later, on Luang Prabang’s main road, bleary-eyed tourists are thronging, surrounded by vendors hawking cheaply prepared foods, some wrapped in leaves, to offer to the town’s monks as they pass by. Despite guidebook cautions against these substandard offerings, which the monks often throw away, people are buying. Lit by the hard rays of dawn, the monks’ procession takes on a parade atmosphere, with packs of paparazzi tourists snapping away. The spiritual magic has evaporated.

That afternoon, as our plane climbs up over the bamboo-forested mountains, I ponder Luang Prabang’s fate. Will the town’s allure help preserve its traditions or lead to their demise? Will this beauty survive the tourism beast?