Kingdom of a Million Elephants

Wat Nong Sikhonmeuang, Luang Prabang

The next morning we woke up early and caught a ride to the Vientiane airport. We hadn't called to confirm our flight, so we got bumped. It was no big deal; the next flight was leaving in a few hours. We spent the morning writing in our journals, smiling at kids, and eating bread. As the morning progressed, more and more people poured into the waiting room. They carried baskets of live fish, sacks of baguettes, and plastic bags bursting with green plants. Around 11AM, we boarded the Lao Aviation plane, a retired Soviet plane from the 1950's complete with faded Russian writing on the wings and no seat belts. The baskets of live fish were stacked in the back, and as I stepped on board, I felt a splash of water on my cheek.

Luang Prabang (essentially pronounced long pah-bong) is without doubt the most mellow, relaxed, friendly and tranquil city I have ever visited. Located in the northern reaches of Laos, Luang Prabang was founded by King Fa Ngum in 1353. This was the very heart of Lane Xang, the Kingdom of a Million Elephants. Today, the monarchy is gone, but the city still possesses a noble mystique. Palm leaves line the narrow roads. Gilded wats stand on every corner. Countless monks go about their daily chores. The city takes its shape from the Mekong, as it hugs the muddy shoreline. Less than 300 yards from the river, sits Mount Phousi (poo see), a large hill that anchors the town. Phousi is crowned with the golden Wat Chom Phousi; from afar, it looks like the gateway to Xanadu.

We stayed at the Phousi Hotel, right at the base of the hill. On the hotel verandah, French tourists sipped cocktails and sat barefoot in rattan lawn chairs. At night the hotel was lit with strings of white bulbs. In the daytime, butterflies drifted through the garden.

The most amazing thing about this city is its familiarity. Everything about it is foreign to me, but somehow everything just felt right. I automatically fell into its ambling pace. Without thinking I acclimated to its natural friendliness. Within a few days, we knew the shop keepers and their children. Even in my American hiking boots and gortex jacket, I felt like a part of the community.

A boy leaning out of a French colonial window
The best way to get to know Luang Prabang is to wander aimlessly through the streets. Cloth shops line the main thanon (street). Shop keepers hold infants. Toddlers swat at each other with plump hands. Men lean against door frames and eat from their rice bowls. Novice monks stroll by, holding up umbrellas to shield them from the pounding sun. School children play hopscotch. A little boy grips a sign post and swings around it. Hmong women sit by the roadside, sewing red and blue geometric patterns. The occasional westerner walks by in a Beer Lao shirt, admiring the ornate wats that appear on every corner.

Wats are literally at every turn, down every dirt road and side street, behind every curve in the road. Monks sweep the grounds with straw brooms. A young novice hangs a saffron robe out to dry. An elderly monk shaves his chin while sitting on the stairs of his wat. Another old monk hangs out a window and exhales his cigarette into a beam of sunlight. Chickens strut down side streets that ramble down to the water. Along the riverbank, fishermen string their nets. Boys sink their oars into the muddy Mekong and push their father's longboats into the current.

Luang Prabang is less than 100 miles from China, and you can feel it. Women wear the pointed rice bowl hats. Banisters are sculpted and painted to look like long red dragons. Black pillars encrusted with lines of gold shine when the sun hits them.

A novice shaves his head, Wat Saen

At Wat Saen, I ducked into a clump of trees behind one of the shrines. Hard beams of sunlight broke through the palm trees and fell, to my surprise, on two young monks, half clothed and heads shaven. Water dripped from their bare chests onto the saffron cloth wrapped around their waists. Clearly, I'd stumbled into some kind of outdoor washroom. They were splashing their faces with water from a large metal bucket when I walked in. I was afraid I had invaded their territory or embarrassed them. Monks are allowed only limited interaction with women - they can't even take something from a woman's hand. I wei'd them; that is I pressed my palms together and bowed. They both burst into wide smiles. One of them put his hand on his head and declared, "Shiny hair."

I thought maybe he was referring to my blond hair. I smiled and nodded, "Shiny hair." They both looked at most 17 years old. The talkative one wanted to know my name, where I was from and where I had been. I asked their names, and then apologized for wandering in on them. The talkative one sat down on a wooden bench and explained, "Today is the day we shave our heads." So when he'd said "shiny hair," he was probably talking about his own freshly shaven head.

We said good-bye, in English and Lao. The monks went back to washing, and Andy and I turned the corner onto a dirt road. A little girl ran up and shook my hand. "Hello," she declared proudly. "Sabai dee (suh-buy-dee)," I answered in Lao. She laughed and ran away. We continued down the road to Wat Xieng Thong, one of the most important wats in Luang Prabang.

Andy at Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
On the edge of town, perched above the riverbank, is Wat Xieng Thong, "The Copper Tree Temple." Built by King Setthathirat in 1559, this temple is widely regarded as the ultimate in Lao architecture. But the scene is nothing like the Eiffel Tower or Westminster Abby. There are no lines, no crowds tourists, no other distractions. Just a quiet garden, a few young monks washing saffron robes and a graceful cluster of temples. Just to the right of the entrance is a gold-faced pagoda. The perfectly polished gold facade depicts images of Hanuman, the monkey god, in scenes from the Ramayana. A branch, bursting with red blossoms, hung over the doorway. The first thing I saw as I peered inside was a gang of golden dragon heads, practically leaping out of the building. They rose out of the bow of King Sisavangvong's funeral chariot. This foreboding, 12-meter-high chariot carried the king's urn to the cremation site after his death in 1959. The last Lao king got a very different kind of "royal treatment." After the communists took over in 1975, he and his family were slowly starved to death in a cave.

Beyond the chariot temple stood an open-air hut with a large hanging drum and several smaller gongs. Scanning over the blossoming trees, past the Chinese-lion statues that guard the steps to the riverbank, my eyes were magnetized to the wat's main sim. It is truly impressive. The roof is terraced so that each level sweeps down and reaches out farther than the last. Wat Xieng Thong was built during the height of the Kingdom of a Million Elephants, and today it is a perfectly preserved relic of grace and power.

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

Walking counterclockwise, I came across a garden of small temples. Each one was inlaid with intricate images of animals and people, made of polished glass and stones. When the sunlight hit them head-on, the effect was no less spectacular than Disney's Main Street Electric Parade.

The monk's quarters are set across from the cluster of temples, on the other side of a dirt path. One boy chopped firewood in the courtyard. Another novice leaned out of a window, and with his elbows pressed against the wooden frame, he recited aloud from a book. I was bent over my camera, trying to blow a piece of dust off the lens, when another novice leaned over the balcony and said hello. Unlike all the other monks, he still had a full head of hair. In perfect English, he asked my name and where I was from. After Andy joined the conversation, the monk told us that he had been studying English for just two months. He asked if we'd like to meet him that night at a traditional Buddhist celebration of the November full moon. He could practice his English, and we could watch the concert. Excited and honored, Andy and I agreed to meet him at a particular wat at 8PM.

A novice monk leans against a songthaew by the Mekong
We said good-bye and headed down a flight of stairs that led to Manthatourath Road, then on down to the riverbank. Walking along Manthatourath, we found a bar that hung over the beach. At the next table, locals drank bottles of Beer Lao. They smiled shyly when we sat down. On the riverbank below, a pair of children swung sticks like makeshift swords, then spun around and flung them into the water. The Mekong is a relatively thin river, and from our table, the opposite riverbank was less than 200 yards away. We spent a long time just sitting back and staring out into the dense jungle across the Mekong.

That night we caught a songthaew to the Malee Lao Restaurant. Lao cuisine specializes in exotic dishes like serpent's head and cow viscera soup, but luckily we found plenty of westerner-friendly food at Malee's. Across the restaurant, a group of children sat around the TV watching sappy Lao dramas and Chinese warlord flicks. The littlest boy stood in the middle, trying to get a good view of the screen. Malee, the owner, brought us a plate of chicken-on-the-bone. There was a lot more bone than chicken, and I swear, the claw was still attached. But the vegetable soup was good. We also split a one-liter bottle of Beer Lao. It was incredible. I can't say if it was just because we'd been drowning in humidity for the last two weeks, but it was the smoothest, most refreshing beer I've ever tasted. For the rest of our stay in Laos, we drank at least one bottle of Beer Lao every day.

By the time we finished dinner, the streets were dark. Andy pulled out the tour book, studied the map, and pointed us toward the wat where we had planned to meet the novice monk for the concert. We stopped at the end of the block and realized we were heading straight into an abandoned field. Andy insisted that the wat was just up the hill, on the other side of the field. I could see something like a temple, outlined with white bulbs, way off in the distance, but the field directly in front of us was pitch black. I kicked the dirt with the toe of my boot. The ground seemed solid enough. We walked gingerly through patches of grass and stretches of dirt until, suddenly, Andy sank ankle deep into a pool of mud. It was just about then that my eyes acclimated to the darkness, and I realized that the whole field was pocked with mud holes. From the base of his khakis to the nooks beneath his shoelaces, Andy was drenched. Even his sock was plastered in a thick coat of brown mud (and who knows what's in that mud). An old man carrying a bucket seemed to come out of nowhere. He motioned us toward a bridge of solid dirt. We followed his lead and made our way back to the main road. From there we caught a songthaew to the hotel.

I felt terrible about ditching the monk. I imagined him standing in front of a wat somewhere, wondering why these unreliable Americans hadn't shown up. But Andy was drenched, and considering that monks aren't allowed to even touch women, I figured it would be inappropriate for me to go alone. Instead, we washed our shoes and went to bed. As we nodded off, we decided that before we left Luang Prabang, we would go back to Wat Xieng Thong, find the novice and explain what happened.