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The Land of a Million Elephants

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Laos
By Gayle Keck
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 27, 2008

"I feel like a gangster," an Irish fellow mutters, struggling to close his wallet around a fat wad of kip. We've congregated, with an ark-worthy queue of assorted foreigners, at the one ATM we could find in Luang Prabang. The most cash you can withdraw in a day is 700,000 kip: about 76 bucks. Within two days, you can be a kip millionaire.

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Strangers talk to one another here, people who'd never strike up a conversation when touring London or Rome. It's one of those clues that tell you this Mekong River town in northern Laos is an outpost. The atmosphere is part "Star Wars" bar, part "Casablanca." Backpackers descend from the surrounding mountains or step ashore off slow boats, clutching tattered Lonely Planet guides. Europeans, Australians, Thais and a few Americans wing in on prop planes. Members of ethnic hill tribes, particularly the Hmong, appear at sunset, spreading their wares along the street. And everywhere you turn there are Buddhist monks in blazing-orange robes.

My husband, Paul, and I have stopped in for five days because Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site -- and because Laos still holds enough mystique to offset the escalating buzz from media must-visit lists and tourists seeking the next hot destination.

A town of 26,000, Luang Prabang is shaped like a tongue, formed by the Nam Khan River as it curves to meet the Mekong. The waters of these two rivers are dense with mud, as if history were dissolved in them and were flowing relentlessly, opaquely past.

In 1353, this lick of land was the seat of a kingdom known as Lan Xang, or the Land of a Million Elephants. It also was once the Laotian capital, losing out to Vientiane when France took over the country in 1893. And it was home to the royal family until 1975, when the Pathet Lao communists gained power and, it is said, banished the royals to a cave.

We're in cozier quarters: a thatch-roofed bamboo bungalow set on a high riverbank outside town, overlooking the Nam Khan. There is no TV. From our balcony, lazing against triangular bolsters, we shamelessly gaze down on our neighbors across the river with that fascination modern urbanites have for the simple life. The far bank is patchworked with small plots. Men hoe vegetables, women scrub laundry in the dingy water, a fisherman checks his bamboo traps, kids turn a washbasin into an impromptu boat and skid away from their soap-wielding mom.

The vast majority of Laos's population is rural, but 10 minutes away by tuk-tuk, the bargain-priced motorcycle-powered open trucks, Luang Prabang bustles. In 1988, the year Laos reopened to tourists, only 600 of them visited the entire country; there are probably that many trolling Luang Prabang's streets today alone. We see bamboo scaffolding where repairs are being made to colonial-era stuccoed homes with mossy tiled roofs and sagging shutters, efforts to meet the growing demand for guesthouses.

Luang Prabang's architecture catapulted it onto the World Heritage list in 1995. The sublime mix of old Laotian wooden houses, half-timbered buildings, stalwart French structures and ancient Buddhist temples can be found nowhere else, UNESCO says.

But these days, to spot them on some streets, you need to look among swaths of telephone and electrical wires, restaurant signs, shops stocked with chorus lines of Buddha statues, fume-belching tuk-tuks and tour agents' placards with long, handwritten essays advertising offerings in fractured English. ("If you are interesting please contact us inside.")

It's hard to appreciate -- or find -- Luang Prabang's charms on our first day. Drenching rain falls nonstop. And this is supposed to be the dry season.

We scuttle to the Royal Palace Museum, where more than a hundred soggy, muddy shoes cluster around the main entrance. Etiquette forbids footwear inside most buildings, though shopkeepers often call out "Shoes okay!" to tourists. The parked shoes provide an instant tip-off to who's inside. (That comes in handy one day when I misplace Paul and track him down by spotting his battered size 13 Nikes.)

Exploring the royal palace is a bit eerie because the government has never revealed the fate of its former occupants. The early-20th-century building is a mash-up of Laotian and western architecture, highlighted by a throne room crusted with royal bling: thrones, swords, regalia, the monarch's howdah (a chair for perching atop an elephant) and spectacular mosaics of multicolored pieces of mirror set onto deep-red walls. The royal bedrooms are austere, furnished with drab, vaguely deco furniture. Backstage life in this monarchy had all the appeal of a two-star hotel room.


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