Thursday, October 27, 2011
Just about anywhere else in the world, a trip to the local Red Cross office would probably be a sign that your holiday had gone badly wrong. But not in the former Laotian royal capital of Luang Prabang, where the unprepossessing wooden structure tucked away behind Mount Phousi offers a surprisingly pleasant treat for the body and senses.
In this delightful Indochinese outpost, where the French colonial legacy mixes easily with traditional Laotian influences, life is enjoyed at a pace so gentle it borders on the somnolent. Amid such tranquillity, there is only one thing to do after a few hours spent meandering around the Buddhist monasteries in the marvellous old town or taking a long-tail boat trip along the Mekong. That is to unwind some more - and that is where the Red Cross comes in.
The organisation raises much-needed funds for its health work in dirt-poor outlying villages by providing traditional Lao massages and a natural herbal sauna. And rarely has doing a virtuous deed felt so good or come so cheap.This pampering in the raw is unadorned by the luxury and fuss usually associated with spa-going.
First stop, for a remarkably reasonable outlay of about £1.50, is the massage. Don't expect to be able to tell the masseur or masseuse that you have a particular ache or pain as the English spoken here is negligible. But that's fine - expert hands identified my knots and tensions without verbal directions.
Well-kneaded and suitably relaxed, I moved on to an even more revelatory experience for another couple of pounds - the herbal sauna. A quick word of warning: this is not for the faint-hearted or claustrophobic. But it is worth every drip of perspiration and I certainly got to meet the locals who squeezed into the small wooden sweatbox (sorry, steamroom) in cheerful cheek-by-jowl intimacy.
The ritual is largely explained with hand gestures from the staff who direct men and women to their respective cabins. After tucking my clothes into a locker, I put on one of the sarongs provided and ventured into the intense cleansing heat. I swear I could feel the toxins pouring out of my pores as blasts of sizzling air wafted up a secret cocktail of herbs from the coals that heat the room from below.
After taking as much as I could bear, I retreated to the bench on the open terrace outside and gulped down black tea from the kettles constantly topped up on the table as my reddened, panting state provided some amusement to the locals. Revived, I returned to the fray for three repeat performances in the herb-infused atmosphere.
Luang Prabang sits in a bowl of mountains on a peninsula where the Nam Khan river flows into the Mekong. It was an ideal retreat for the rulers of the Kingdom of a Million Elephants and it still retains that sense of marvellous isolation and understated majesty.
I had first read about its charms two decades ago in an old guidebook pre-dating the communist takeover in 1975. But when I tried to visit Laos in 1986 as a student backpacker, the hardline communist regime only welcomed the occasional closely vetted tour group and the rebuff when I sought a visa at the embassy in Bangkok was as polite as it was firm. "We are repairing our country so that you can enjoy it better," a functionary informed me with a smile. "Please come back another time."
In the mid-1990s, shortly after the gerontocratic rulers realised that Mammon (and in particular tourist dollars) filled coffers that Marxism did not reach, I finally made it to Luang Prabang and was mesmerised by its beauty, its languid pace and seductive serenity. So I returned this year with some trepidation, fearful that the allure of this real-life Shangri-la would have fallen prey to the relentless march of modernity. But those fears were unfounded - the old town is as well-preserved and laid-back as ever.
Luang Prabang's most timeless tradition plays out in the gentle early-morning light as hundreds of monks emerge from the 30 or so temples for the dawn collection of alms. Aged eight to 80, they file barefoot along the streets, a long, sinewy line of saffron, opening their bowls to receive sticky rice and vegetables from the locals kneeling before them. One tip - there are a couple of bottlenecks marred by the flash of tourists' cameras, so the rite is best observed on one of the quieter back streets.
At the end of the day, as the last rays glint off gilded temple roofs, climb the 328 steps up Mount Phousi for the sunset view over the pocket-sized former royal palace-turned-museum and the waters that define the town's shape. Or for a more solitary experience, a short long-tail boat ride across the Mekong brings you to a string of deserted temples with a fabulous perspective of Luang Prabang as well as a sad, abandoned grandeur of their own.
Back in Luang Prabang, I lost myself strolling around the array of wats (temples) that makes this one of the region's religious centres. With its sweeping roofs, richly decorated gables, gold-stencilled columns and dark, luxuriant interiors, Wat Xieng Thong ("Golden Tree") is quite rightly regarded as the jewel in Luang Prabang's spiritual crown. But it was just as rewarding to wander around the smaller shrines where knots of novices sat studying their scripts in the courtyard in the shade of a tree.
After dusk falls, the night market springs into action as hill tribeswomen offer the sort of bargains in silk and linen that have long since disappeared from the streets of neighbouring Thailand. But in a town not renowned for its partying, our best after-dark experience came when we happened upon a wedding celebration and the bride's cheerfully tipsy father insisted that we join the revelry.
Luang Prabang has seen an influx of excellent restaurants in recent years. Elegantly decorated with traditional silks and cottons, the Apsara leads the way with its setting - a French colonial riverside residence - and an imaginative menu mixing the best of South Asian and Western. My mouth still waters at the memory of the buffalo sausages served with fresh ginger, peanuts and garlic followed by a fresh-water fish stuffed with lemongrass and accompanied by a garlic, tamarind and lime sauce.
The accommodation options are just as impressive. We opted for Maison Souvannaphoum, the one-time home of a Laotian prince, now converted into a very classy hotel with beautiful manicured grounds. The bedrooms include the erstwhile suite of the eponymous prince himself. The hotel's renowned spa also offers a rather more traditionally sumptuous experience than the Red Cross.
The hammer and sickle on the flag of the Lao People's Democratic Republic fluttering above the gates of Maison Souvannaphoum may be a gentle reminder that Marxists rather than monarchs have ruled the country since 1975. But in Luang Prabang, whether it be the humble environs of the Red Cross or a residence fit for a prince, the royal treatment is never far away.