It’s like being on a film set. Indochina, 1950′s, start of the rainy season. Frenchmen drink strong coffee in cosy bakeries, while orange robed monks hurry past, protecting themselves from the drizzle with black umbrellas. A water buffalo chews listlessly on what’s left of the grass in the muddy school playground while a cluster of school girls, wearing smart white shirts and navy sarongs with stripes embroidered around the bottom, cluster together, giggling and sharing gossip. Tuk tuk drivers sleep in hammocks strung from the roofs of their brightly painted vehicles.
The set designers have done a splendid job. Grand French colonial mansions have bamboo bird cages hanging from their intricately carved, hardwood balconies. Chinese shophouses jostle together, their ground floors are home to pharmacies, noodle shops, cycle repair workshops and laundries. The narrow lanes are shaded by heavily laden mango trees. Cyclists weave past racks of rice crackers baking in the sun and wandering cockerels.
But it’s the temples which really define Luang Prabang. Rearing silver nagas heads with fearsome pointed teeth and red tongues, lead you up the steps towards glistening white and gold buildings with steeply pitched terracotta roofs, mirror tile decorations showing rice harvesting and elephant riding. Boy monks, wearing novices’ yellow tabards, banging drums bigger than themselves as thunder rumbles overhead in an ominously dark sky, and practising their kung fu moves in the courtyard before evening prayers. Glimpses into private quarters with annatto orange robes hanging up to dry and alms bowls full of sticky rice.
It’s a sleepy place. Our days are punctuated by coffee drinking, croissant eating and chatting to friends. When we’re feeling energetic, we cycle from one end of town to the other in a morning or take a bumpy tuk tuk out of town to swim in a spectacular waterfall.
But mostly we wander. Through temple courtyards listening to novice monks practising their sutras, through the market looking at toads and monitor lizards and wondering how you might cook them, along narrow alley ways past centuries old wooden houses, down the film set streets with their beautiful buildings and cast of smiling extras. It’s a hard place to say goodbye to.