Luang Prabang: Mists & Mystery, Religion & Tradition

by Jakob Rouilard

Writing about Luang Prabang is a dangerous proposition, dangerous in that others more qualified have tried to do it and failed. Throw a basket of superlatives into the rarified air of the ancient capital and almost any writer still misses the mark by a wide margin. Be that as it may, my introduction to the Kingdom of the Divine Buddha--the meaning of Luang Prabang--was couched in these words, ones where superlatives were kept to a minimum:

Luang Prabang, venerable capital of the ancient kingdom of the same name, is a spacious town of a few wide streets, softly paved, if at all, with narrow Laosian streets like lovers' lanes between them. It is well wooded, with roomy yards usually whispering with palm-trees. In other words it is not a city at all, in the crowded, noisy, Western sense, but a leisurely congregation of separate dwellings of simple lines, each in its ample garden-park, or at least with sufficient ground so that its opinions or doings need not interfere with its neighbors. In short, Luang Prabang town is in many ways what idealists picture the cities of Utopia to be, whatever insurance companies may think of the fire-risks involved in more thatch than tile roofs.

Before television, these introductory sentences opened an accurate if prose window onto Luang Prabang a la 1924 for the readers of East of Siam by Harry A. Franck, the first "North or South American," as he himself put it, "who had ever done this humble capital the honor of visiting it." For all his effort and trouble, the king, Tiao Sisavang Vong Somdet Prah, conferred upon quintessential traveler Franck--barely 40--the order of the "Million Elephants and the White Parasol," then the highest order in the land. Wrote Franck about those million elephants:

I do not know whether it is actually claimed that there are so many pachyderms in the kingdom at the same time, but a little exaggeration is always admissible in the tropics; or it may be that the souls of departed elephants are also included in the reckoning.

To use a few superlatives, how fascinating, charming or quaint you might say. Moreover, it's terribly easy to become detached when the writer is not only someone whom you don't know but whose soul unequivocally withdrew from this world at least two decades ago. But in this case there is a difference: I remember Harry A. Franck quite well. That is I remember him as a teenager, because I was no more than in my teens when he died, and the memories of youth are always fresh and vibrant like a clear summer day. Also, I was the same age as "little Pat," his beautiful granddaughter whom I made every excuse to see, the Pennsylvania farms of her and my paternal grandparents' being within easy walking distance of one another.

Everyone (all the Solebury Township locals) knew Harry A. Franck was a writer and held him in extreme awe if not in fact jealousy--to depreciate him, some in the latter category were known to state openly that he was arrogant--because he had seen so much of the world and was paid great sums of money to write about it in the first person. But what I myself always wanted to know was, was what traveler Franck wrote for all intents and purposes true? Some, say, 30 years later, in 1989 to be precise, I would finally get that rare opportunity to test the validity of the writer's prose.

1989 was the year the Lao government formed the National Tourism Authority. In doing so, for the first time since the war ended it also threw open wide its doors to tourists, dreaded backpackers included. In fact mostly backpackers, because the Laotians catching the world unawares with its new policy, backpackers and backpackers only just happened to be in the local vicinity in great numbers, the "vicinity" being where else but Nong Khai on the not-so-far-away-opposite-side of the Mekong. As for myself, I simply stumbled into it--or rather flew into it--coming to Laos by an intriguing if teetering 2-engine Soviet-built Antonov-24 from Cambodia.

The Harry A. Franck book, as you might suspect, was all but under my arm. More important, in any language, there was no travel guide to Laos available at that time. And as far as maps were concerned, they were in short supply too--mine was a 1967 edition of Indochina and Thailand produced by the National Geographic Society. Making matters worse--in my attempt to retrace traveler Franck's footsteps to Luang Prabang 65 years before--the great Nam Ngum artificial lake had been built and modern travelers chose to transverse it rather than follow the former horse path through the valley lying immediately west of the region. Tellingly, in 1924 it had taken Franck a full five days to cover the 125 air miles (but 225 twisting as they are tortuous road miles--347 kilometers) between Vientiane and Luang Prabang on horseback.

Suffice it to say that it took me six, and I had to change vehicles four times and walk two stretches of several hours each on two successive days, one in total darkness and calf-deep mud--it was August and the height of the rainy season. The backpackers called me "old man" because I was 45 and they were about half my age. As for the common if incorrect assumption that backpackers are undesirable, one was none other than the great great grandson of Germany's Prince Otto von Bismarck and yet carried the family moniker; another was a sophisticated young fund-raiser for then-presidential-candidate George Bush. And even carried by those among us with less recognizable names, there were a half-dozen gold and platinum American Express cards, albeit they were useless in Laos then--but not now!

As I thought he would prove from knowing his immediate family, traveler or rather "vagabond" Franck was a purveyor of truth. I recognized his Laos of 1924:

Rocky mountain scenery increased, with great sheer cliffs, filtered sunshine on wet vegetation and brown. Here banana blossoms were a beautiful pink instead of the usual purple; there were giant ferns in great clusters, one leaf easily twenty feet long, a tree so covered with vines that it looked like an old ruined pagoda, cathedral aisles of damp and deeply shaded path. All that third afternoon we went up with a small river through a narrow corridor of magnificent cliffs, everywhere wooded except on the sheerest face--spires, turrets, pinnacles, stalactites and stalagmites, whole Milan cathedrals of jagged rocky peaks, scenery which, were it within two hundred miles of New York, would have a hundred thousand visitors every Sunday; yet here no one but a rare roving foreigner ever gives it a passing glance.

Coming from Vientiane, it was the proper interlude if not in fact prologue to an aged and patriarchal Luang Prabang. We did come out of high white mists and entered a seeming incomprehensible mystery within an isolated bowl-of-a-valley representing some sort of cryptic Shangri La. Mists and mystery for Westerners, expressly religion and tradition for Easterners, but to everyone, enchantment. Some have compared it to Kamakura in Japan. Franck concedes it to be a "tropical fairy-land." The Laotians themselves call it "the dream town in our own country that has spawned fairy tales for everyone." Perhaps for many of us an unknown tourist said it best: "Seeing Luang Prabang made me understand the greatness of Lao culture."

I won't attempt to describe the indescribable because there is that ever-present all-encompassing quality about Luang Prabang that is ethereal. In the end, consciously or unconsciously, Franck waxed eloquent on the philosophy of life before leaving the ancient capital. It also happened to me; indubitably it will happen to you too.

In Luang Prabang the French go so far as to provide for the up-keep of the temples and monasteries in the annual governmental budget. In a way this is a means of supporting the educational system, for the priests act as schoolmasters to their novices. In great contrast to China, there is not a single Christian missionary in all the Kingdom of the Divine Buddha, not even a Catholic priest. There was almost a sense of relief in finally getting completely beyond the reach of missions, however good an opinion one may form of mission work in some of its phases. For in certain moods one feels a species of boastfulness in our insistence that so alien a race give up its own beliefs in favor of our more or less generally accepted guess as to the after-world and how to reach it, in our Western efforts to impose our philosophy of life upon a people that has a not unworthy one of its own, and one that seems to make them much happier than we are.

Said more directly, traveling forces reality upon the imagination. From first-hand experience, most likely the effect is greatest in the land of the Million Elephants and the White Parasol.

This article is reprinted here with permission of the author--see his site at

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