One way to judge a country’s arrival as ‘’the next big destination’’ is by its high end hotels — and one’s inability to get a room during peak season. For a tiny country like Laos, its cultural capital Luang Prabang, which you can walk the length and breadth of in a day, has five.
The latest is the Amantaka by Aman resorts, whose chain of resorts have come to define luxury living. Maison Souvannaphoum is the 1970s 24-room residence of the former prince; a massage in a quiet spot in its luxurious garden, complete with real sounds of the tropics can turn the staunchest republican into a royalist. Villa Maly is a charming boutique hotel whose showers with their various settings deserve an article all their own. The Three Nagas, whose restaurant is perhaps what makes the hotel a popular choice, is a modern structure smack in the middle of town, with a vintage Mercedes Benz as its calling card. A ten-minute rickshaw-cum-jalopy ride into the mountains gets you to La Residence Phu Vao, from whose infinity pool you can avail of stunning views of the sleepy town below.
Truth be told, Laos is one big stunning view from wherever one stands, sits or sleeps, yet in this part of the world, it doesn’t get the coverage its siblings in the Mekong, Vietnam and Cambodia do — and that too is a recent phenomena. Pakistanis can’t get enough of Thailand yet what was once known as Indochine has more to offer in rich heritage, art and culture and food. Pages and pages can be written on the delicacies and not-so-delicacies in food (if it moves, it’s considered meat) in each country but because there are no malls, no air-conditioned plush cinemas, no modern public transport system and no one welcoming you in permanent bowing positions, a country like Laos will get overlooked.
But it must not be. Laotians are the warmest, most hospitable people in Southeast Asia. Even when they are ripping you off — a common trait and cause for complaint in the region — it is done with such finesse, such genuineness (none of the aggression you’ll find in Vietnam or arrogance and outrage you might witness in Siam Reap) you’re only too happy to hand over your dollars at the market. And the manner in which they take your money and then use it to bless the rest of the products is so endearing that you don’t feel gypped when you discover three minutes later that you paid $4 for a $2 t-shirt; it’s still much cheaper than what you’d find at Crossroads and of comparable quality. Cheap here doesn’t necessarily translate to one-time wear.
For a town whose major tourist sites — 58 temples and palaces — are within walking distance, four days in Luang Prabang appears like a lot of time because, let’s be honest here, you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen ‘em all. Yet it is the serenity and solemnity, the narrow lanes, the wooden houses, the colonial structures and the laid-back attitude of travellers and residents that’ll keep you back. As is the feeling that you are shut off from the world: perhaps it’s the mountains that act as palisades that lend it this air but never does one feel trapped or bogged down by tourist traps.
Since being declared a Unesco World Cultural Heritage site in 1995, when the organisation cited it as “one of the best preserved cities in Southeast Asia”, both the administration, developers and foreign investors have remain committed to preventing an assault of eye-sore development. So far, so good and it would be a real pity if, as it becomes more popular as a tourist destination, its backwater nature is converted into stuff that concrete jungles are made of. This has happened in Vietnam and Cambodia where, thanks to the billions being pumped in by foreign developers, the quaintness which once marked their capitals has given way to all that is ugly about modern cities. While Hanoi and Phnom Penh still retain some charm, how long can they hold out?
While it may take this much longer for Laos to catch up to the relative economic success of Vietnam or tourist ratings that Cambodia attracts, catch up it will; foreign plans to invest in 3G sector are remarkable given that that level of investment in telecom doesn’t exist in Vietnam or Cambodia. There is a danger then that Luang Prabang could lose much of that stop-time quality as developers vie for prime properties along the Mekong River, thereby threatening the existence of water rafting or elephant rides in the river, or worse, making these activities the exclusive realm of luxury resorts.
But this will take a few years, especially because the Communist regime in Laos has been slow to wake up to its country’s potential as a tourist destination. That Luang Prabang only got an airport a decade ago is testament to this. This perhaps best illustrates how the moment its doors were opened, high-end hoteliers jumped in, well aware of the country’s potential to draw in the well-heeled. The capital, by comparison, has virtually nothing to offer in high-end anything and can be missed altogether if pressed for time.
The consensus amongst travel writers is that mass tourism is coming — but that it won’t have arrived by the time you get round to planning your trip. By my humble estimates, you have a few years. Luang Prabang was not just a royal city but a monastic one and the latter remains, exemplified not just by the sheer number of temples (58) but by the local monks who are its nerve centre. Neither would have vanished by the time you arrive; the monks’ morning rituals of seeking alms from locals will, at most, become more crowded with tourists behaving badly, disregarding the norm in attempts to get a good shot. Thankfully, the Lao way is to grin and bear it — and rip you off some more.
Published in the Express Tribune, May 30th, 2010.