The waiter carefully poured a glass of Hungarian red wine, fastidiously replaced the cork, and nestled the bottle back into an ice bucket.
It was 1991, and there weren’t many international donor meetings in Laos in those days, let alone in Luang Prabang.* So the cocktail party for the annual meeting of the Mekong Committee was a very important function. And – aside from the wine, so carefully but so incorrectly cared for – very pleasant it was too. Our Lao hosts were delighted to have so many foreigners there, to see their beautiful town on the banks of the Mekong river. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed. Children were fascinated to see so many odd looking people.
In the early 90s, Laos was still suffering from its association with Vietnam, and was consequently very isolated. Desperately poor, it needed whatever assistance international donors could provide. Electricity supply was limited, and special arrangements had been made for electricity to be available to the hotel we stayed at in the mornings and evenings. But our meetings began early and so I showered in the dark, shivering in the cold, enjoying the luxury of hot water only in the evenings (when we rushed back to our rooms to bathe before the electricity was turned off).
Lao officials had limited English language skills and the older Lao officials enjoyed resurrecting their colonial French, speaking it with many of the European officials. I however reflected the modern age, and surprised them by conversing in Thai (the two languages are very similar, and Thai television was accessible and extremely popular in Thai) and enjoyed figuring out the script.
Luang Prabang was the ancient royal capital of the Lan Xang kingdom, with a history stretching back to the 14th century. As in Europe, royalty gave patronage to religions, and here they built temples. These are still over thirty in the town, and there used to be more. They are exquisite, and the main reason why Luang Prabang now has UNESCO World Heritage status.
But it wasn’t simply for these buildings that I fell in love with the town.
In the mornings, Luang Prabang was magical. The town is nestled amidst forest-covered hills and encircled by rivers. The mists swirled around them, making us feel as if we were cut off from the rest of the world. Smoke from fires preparing breakfast for the day would rise, and the sounds of the waking town would be of roosters, mothers calling to children, and the occasional motorbike. Monks walk the streets in their striking saffron robes, accepting (never begging) their daily alms from the local people. It was quiet. Still.
Like stepping back in time.
Later in the day, the heat rises and the mists from the Mekong River clear.The town is famous for the river and it was why we were there, so it was only natural for our hosts to organise a trip along the Mekong.
We climbed down the steps from the town to the river’s edge. The river is still relatively narrow here, in the hills and mountains, but is still powerful and impressive. It seemed impossible to understand that in the rainy season, when the Mekong swells enormously, it engulfs those steps, almost reaching the top of the river bank.
The Mekong is an amazing river. It starts in China, then flows through Burma, Laos and Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, providing life to the people living along it and its tributaries – food, power and irrigation. It is also fascinating for what lives in it. According to researchers the river houses more species of giant fish than any world river, most notably the Giant Mekong Catfish. As we sped along the river, I peered into the murky silt-filled water hopefully, but perhaps not surprisingly, didn’t spot one.
We visited caves on the banks of the river that day; caves that will be flooded if some of the dam projects go ahead. Whilst that would be a loss, the gains to the lives of the people and the economy of Laos would be huge, the economic independence invaluable, and so I find it hypocritical to block progress and yet still find sympathy for the poverty-stricken lives many Lao people still live. Still, I feel a sadness too, that lives and vistas will change.
Only too soon we had to leave, back to our cities, our airconditioning and 24-hour electricity, our cars and drivers, televisions and communications. The sleepy town could get its electricity supplies back to normal. Hotel rooms would empty. The hotel could restock their chicken supplies as, after hearing of trichinosis in the local pig population and learning that a diplomat’s family member had contracted the disease, we all consistently – with only a slight touch of paranoia – ordered chicken over pork to the frustration of the kitchen staff and, I’m sure, management! And so, with our departure, peace which would have fallen over Luang Prabang.
But not for long.
The Thai-Lao friendship Bridge across the Mekong at Vientiane would be finished in a year or two, and tourist buses were on their way. Another year or two and it was given World Heritage status. Lonely Planet discovered Luang Prabang. The world has found Luang Prabang, and whilst this will help protect it, I’m glad I saw it then, when its magic was still simple and pure.
* Luang Prabang is also spelled Louang Phrabang