Mad dogs and bowling in Luang Prabang

21:38, Feb 17 2009
SLEEPY TOWN: Luang Prabang, a sleepy town in northern Laos on the banks of the Mekong River, is home to more than 30 Buddhist temples dating back to the 1500's. It was nameda UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, paving the way for it's restoration and preservation. Around 140,000 people or seven times the city's estimated population visit the place every year.

The Australian, Irish and Welsh backpackers I met at the Hive bar in Luang Prabang invited me 10 pin bowling. It's not the sort of thing you'd expect to do in a UNESCO-protected town high up in the mountains of northern Laos.

But not surprisingly this town has few western night clubs or late night bars. And the only place to drink late at night in town is at the bowling alley.

But, by the time we'd had a few drinks of beer Lao, a deliciously spicy dinner at one of the many restaurants in town, then nightcaps of Lao Lao (or locally-made whiskey) with local Diet Coke (I'm not sure what was worse) we never got there.

I was lucky to find a tuk tuk driver to take me back to my hotel.

It was a fairly active night for what could be one of the most languid places I've ever been to.

It's almost as if time stands still in this French colonial town known more for its spirituality than bowling.


Even the Buddhist monks seem to move slower than normal.

And walking around town in 38 degree heat, I'm reminded that only mad dogs, Englishmen and then maybe tourists go out in the midday sun. It's so hot you can almost feel the air swallowing you.

Everybody else seems to be lying inside or in the shade using as little energy as possible.

They say Christmas time is better for visiting and can even get chilly at night.

I visit the 16th century Wat Xieng Thong, known as a masterpiece of Buddhist architecture with a tiered roof, glittering golden facades and richly coloured mural painting. It's a working temple and monks have hung their orange robes out to dry after doing their laundry.

I stop for an iced lemon tea and lunch at one of the riverside cafes overlooking the murky brown waters of the Mekong. The son of the restaurant owner is painting pictures of monks with pen and ink on saa paper made from the mulberry tree and its bark.

He tells me he's an art student. The town seems to be full of them, if you go by the number of art shops and galleries.

In the late afternoon, men play boule along the river front, on even the smallest patch of dirt.

In his book The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future (Allen and Unwin, 2006), former Australian diplomat Milton Osborne says the Mekong has "always been a river for work, for travel and for fishing, and, not infrequently, for war".

Luang Prabang was once known as Asia's sleeping beauty. The former capital of the ancient Lam Xang kingdom, with around 32 pagodas along with religious and historical monuments, was made a World Heritage town by UNESCO in 1995.

It has especially strong ties with Buddhism, being a traditional destination for novices and students of the faith.

Flying over the mountains on the way in, you can't imagine anybody living in such rugged land.

This is the country where what became known as The Secret War was played out - US bombings including attacks on what came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a North Vietnamese supply route through East Laos and the Cambodian-Vietnam border.

The Communist Pathet Lao took over in 1975; they've only opened the place to tourism in the past 10 years. Now, around 140,000 people or seven times the city's estimated population visit the place over a one-year period.

UNESCO's role is partly to try to support the town's growth within the framework of strict controls so the historic buildings are preserved. Development must take into account ancient Laotian social, architectural and religious mores.

The Pathet Lao forced the last king of Laos, Savang Vathana, to abdicate, snuffing out a 600-year-old monarchy.

Twenty years later, Christopher Kremmer, an Australian foreign correspondent, tried unsuccessfully to crack the mystery behind the fate of the royals - as outlined in his book, Stalking the Elephant Kings: In Search of Laos.

The former Royal Palace is now a National Museum, which is worth visiting for its rooms that give a glimpse of what life was once like for the royals. There's an eclectic mix of exhibits, including gifts from other countries, among them a boomerang from Australia.

It's where the Pha Bang Buddha is kept, which gives the town its name. It's said to be have been cast in Sri Lanka in the first century AD and twice stolen by the Thais. But, it has been back in Laos since the mid 19th century.

Luang Prabang is now on the backpacker route. My new friends had made their way across country after doing an elephant trek near Chiang Mai in northern Thailand then crossed the border and came by boat up the river, taking two days to get there. Others come down the river from Vietnam.

And it's also a town with a growing number of more well-heeled visitors. Many fly in to what is considered one of the most difficult airports to land in South-East Asia.

The hotel where I'm staying, La Residence Phuo Voa, has a spa which overlooks the mountains with its own small swimming pool - lazing in it after a massage is like having a huge bath to yourself.

At night, staff place candles in the main swimming pool overlooked by the floodlit shrine on top of Mount Phou Si. The food at its Phou Vao restaurant is traditional Laotian cuisine alongside European dishes with local influences.

The walk up Mount Phou Si from the town gives spectacular views and is popular at sunrise and sunset.

Apart from exploring the town and its wonderfully photogenic architecture and temples, shops and galleries there's also the night markets full of traditional clothes, woven cloth, scarfs, jewellery and souvenirs.

The only two relatively close excursions out of town are the Pak Ou caves and the Kuang si waterfall. Many agencies run half-day tours. But then there's also bowling.


La Residence Phou Vao is from $141 ($NZ159.32) per room per night for a garden view room.

To book/query call Orient-Express Hotels (02) 8248-5200 or email:

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Bangkok Airways flies daily and sometimes twice daily between Bangkok and Luang Prabang. Details visit