I have read that if you want to see a place that still sets out a true view of the rapidly diminishing small Asian towns of old, that you should rush to Luang Prabang, Laos.
Truly a gem, it is not as remote as its legend. A brief and comfortable flight from the airfields of Thailand, you sweep down narrowly between verdant and staggering mountains aligned for the modest landing strip serving the international airport.
The drive from the terminal into the town center passes through a village area unremarkable. But then as the route leads onward and with finality into the town center, the loveliness assumes rule and old Asia emerges. Actually, rushing to Luang Prabang before the venerable views dwindle may not be fully necessary. The old town center is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and thus, is to remain protected.
The UNESCO area nestles on a neck of land that pokes into the confluence of the River Khan and the Mighty Mekong.
I'm staying in the lovely Amethyst Suite of the serene Villa Nagara. I am resting. I am reading. I am writing. I walk only across the small lane to the terrace restaurant alongside the serene Khan and savor an ancient calm, and last night, down the lane to the Apsara.
The Apsara to me is former worldly, perhaps in a colonial sort of way, the days of the French colonizers long gone but their mark still imbued. When the young Lao server asked, I chose to sit inside rather than the graceful terrace. Albeit a bit less air-flowing, even with the fans, it was a fine spot from which to 'take-in' the room. Tables attractively set. Quite professional service, but warm and smiling, from well trained and tentatively charming Lao young men.
As is often the case when dining alone, I was the only guest. I was early. I asked, and straightaway received, a gin tonic. It seemed the right call to acknowledge the aforementioned colonialism. I chose two 'small plates': house smoked fish on betel leaf, Lao herbs, chili relish, crispy shallots & carrot, lemongrass and coconut soup. I finished with honey and ginger ice cream and Lao coffee.
I had only just sipped twice on the gin tonic when my server, the handsomest of the three (he wore all black, the others were in tan), slipped gracefully by, stepping onto the terrace to place a small card onto one of the tables there. A reservation? I mused. Here in low season, with an empty room save for one lone melancholy diner talking to himself?
And after only just a few more sips, here they came. Walking briskly down the payment, then crossing over to restaurant side, and up the few steps onto the terrace. They recognized the table for which and on which they apparently had requested the 'hold' card be placed. They ungracefully plunked down. He in polo shirt worn out over the waist of the cargo shorts and with camera around his neck. She in a flowered muumuu, a muumuu! She immediately asked for the standing electric fan to be pointed directly to her. They were hot. They were sure to be soon sweating. They became my gin-sipping interest.
They ordered drinks while they cooled. A server in tan passed with two concoctions expertly held and balanced on his tray, with his left thumb firmly anchoring the base of the tallest of the two while in transit. The tall, quite tall, greenish, multi-colored one (I have no idea what it was!) was placed in front of the man. The shorter, whiskey-ish glassed one was placed in front of the woman. She used a straw to drink it!
I may seem too uppity. But remember, I was sipping gin. And I've told you, they were my interest for the time. They may well have been celebrating a special occasion, or they may have arrived at a point in life where they were more right for the room than myself. But, upon the serving of white wine chilled-in-bucket, and then a beer for monsieur! and a table now holding four drinks, I doubted it! I'm all for democracy but really, it needn't be everywhere! They decided they needed photos. He arose and stepped across the lane apparently feeling that such a grand occasion needed a sweeping panorama shot. I was in the 'line of shoot'. Partly not wanting to intrude in their posterity and partly just not wanting to be associated in any way, I swiveled aside. Of course, I grouse in jest. I am happy that others enjoyed the evening as much as I. Even in their own 'special' way. It is the bewitchment of old Luang Prabang.
In the early hours of the following morning I joined the gathered devotees to await offering Morning Alms to the sustained procession of monks from the many wats (temples).
Luang Prabang is a special place. I have been enriched in each of my several visits. Come. Let’s meet there.