LET’S GET LAOS
Taking in the quiet streets and wats of Luang Prabang is a beguilingly surreal experience, asdiscovers
A STROLLING NOVICE monk, the blue-grey patina of his freshly shaved head contrasting agreeably with his vivid orange robes, makes for a memorable spectacle. In Bangkok, perhaps, such a cracking photo opportunity would result in a hurried scramble for the Nikon. In relaxed Luang Prabang in northern Laos, however, such Nat Geo moments are so commonplace they barely warrant a second glance.
No camera ever waits long to capture a young Buddhist-in-training in this ancient town, which today is one of the most unspoiled travel destinations in all Southeast Asia. During the morning “rush hour”, 200 or so photogenic monks might saunter by all at once. They are as inescapable here as sticky rice and frangipani blossoms.
The morning collection of alms is a timeless ritual, and the monks have slowly snaked in single file from Luang Prabang’s wats with every misty dawn for so long that nobody truly knows when the tradition began. They pad, ever so softly, along banyan-lined byways to accept offerings of rice and lychees, of cashews and bananas, from the faithful.
The monks are studiously impassive as they troop along, and their robes fluoresce almost supernaturally in the muted early light. And then, as if by magic, they all simply melt away, vanishing behind mottled temple walls like tangerine phantoms. The parade is ethereal and oddly touching. “Was that a beautiful dream?” one asks oneself. “Did that really happen?”
Centred on a slender finger of land naturally elevated above where the Nam Khan River feeds into the mighty Mekong, Luang Prabang, total population fewer than 50,000, is home to dozens of gilded temples and more than 1,000 monks. I’m in town to participate in a weeklong photography workshop headed up by multiple award-winning Australian shooters Jack Picone and Stephen Dupont, and held in conjunction with Hotel De La Paix Luang Prabang, a tranquil boutique hideaway in an already placid locale.
The town (officially a city, but it seems far too petite for such a grand word) was deemed a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995 for its “unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape” that blends traditional Buddhist mores with graceful French colonial architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s compact, pretty and pleasingly narcoleptic. The nature of the photography workshop, however, dictates that each would-be snapper must complete a hands-on assignment: shoot and present a cogent collection of images that document Luang Prabang life.
We are urged – in a location that ceaselessly but always gently nudges the visitor to quit thinking, to stop worrying, and just kick back with a brie baguette sandwich and a chilled papaya juice – to ask, “Is there more to Luang Prabang than torpor? What dramas might bubble beneath this stillness and calm?”
Well, days of chipping away at the coalface of journalistic truth confirm that Luang Prabang is no Las Vegas, no Hong Kong. Serenity really does govern the rhythms of daily life in this meditative town. It’s been said, after all, that the Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch rice grow, and the languorous Lao simply listen to the whispers of rice growing. Luang Prabang is simply – and lazily – enchanting.
That doesn’t mean there’s little to see or do, and the friendly competition of the photographic assignment encourages workshop participants to explore Luang Prabang with an unusual, possibly incongruous, urgency.
Participant Mimi, from France, for instance, immediately immerses herself in the lives of the novice monks. Mimi sometimes rises as early as 4am to attend their candlelit pre-dawn prayers. She also sits in on their daytime classes, and hangs out in shady temple courtyards to discuss everything from sacred sutras to the specs of the iPhone. Canadian Rob visually records eco-activities in the local “elephant village”, established to rescue endangered beasts from harsh and abusive working environments, and provide protection, medical care and rehabilitation.
Australian Megan takes a macro approach, focusing in on Luang Prabang’s humble barbershops. Providing little more than a no-nonsense short back-and-sides and a wet shave, many local cutters have transformed their hole-in-the-wall workplaces into quirky galleries of the weird and the wonderful, of the salacious and the smutty. Interiors are dense montages of busty calendar girls, of cheeky postcards (copulating pachyderms; ridiculous geezers with comedy moustaches…) and sun-faded pages torn from glossy celebrity mags.
Megan’s compatriot Owen hires a flinty boatman and his wooden barge to navigate up the churning Mekong. Along the way they investigate jungle-edged villages inhabited by the Hmong ethnic group that migrated to Laos from southern China centuries ago. Local photographer Vatthana also turns to the life-giving Mekong for his muse, leaping onto his trusty scooter each day to trail the meandering waterway, pausing to capture fisherfolk as they harvest the river with hand-thrown nets. This writer spends his days with a travelling funfair that has pitched its tents on a communal playing field.
To sum up: there’s much more to Luang Prabang than initially meets the eye, and while the town’s reputation for sluggishness is well earned, its veneer of sultry lassitude proves pixel-thin.
That said, as dusk arrives, there is no better – or more indolent – place to wrap up a day than at a restaurant on the banks of the picture-perfect Mekong. With the weary sun, now glowing the vibrant orange of a monk’s robes, bedding down behind silhouetted blue-grey hilltops, the workshop’s camera-toting team zooms in on a procession of frosty Beerlao bottles. It’s time to quit worrying about exposure settings, to forget about depths of field, to stop asking questions.
+ Abu Ahabi
+ The Sarojin
+ 137 Pillars
+ Conrad Koh Samui
+ The Kensington Hotel
+ The Pavilions
+ Renaissance Bangkok
+ Mandarin Oriental Paris
+ Waiheke Island
+ Hotel Icon
+ Phnom Penh
+ Buenos Aires
+ Shangri-La Paris
+ Passage to Hong Kong
+ Diving the Sweet Spot
+ The Far Pavilions
+ Hansar Thailand
+ Samui Wind
+ HOTEL DAS CATARATAS
+ The Ritz-Carlton
+ WALDORF ASTORIA SHANGHAI
+ Wolgan Valley
+ LA ISLA BONITA
+ SAIGON FOR MEN
+ ART OF THE CITY
+ Soneva Kiri
+ Langham Hotel
+ The Best of Boston
+ SULTANATE SUBLIME
+ SKYLIGHT VISTA – SEVEN STARS GALLERIA
+ MONGOLIA LUXE
+ The Plaza
+ INSTANT KARMA
+ HEAVEN SCENT, Phuket Pavilions
+ VINO, VIDI, VICI
+ ARABESQUE: A TASTE OF MOROCCO