In Luang Prabang, as in the tropics all over, the line between being inside and outside is very thin. The hallways of the hospital are just covered walks connecting different wards. The reception area is a large open-sided pavilion, with the occasional bamboo screen to roll down for shade protection. The cooking areas are open air kitchens with cement troughs for washing, and charcoal braziers for stoves. Mealtime takes place on verandas. Here outside and inside dissolve into one another, rather than abruptly transitioning at a threshold. They embrace and spill into one another, and make the concept of public vs private more fluid than what puritanical westerners are often accustomed to. I’ve always loved this about South Asia, gated communities, garage doors, privacy fences, the things we use to separate us in the west have little traction here. In Laos, and throughout this part of the world, life is lived openly, out in your street. This open-sided architecture forces you to be part of the community. Forces you to know your neighbors and care.
It is an architectural style that makes sense given the climate. You can see it echoed across the world. Visitors to Hawaii, Indonesia, or St. Thomas encounter similar motifs, almost always with the caress of an ocean breeze.
Luang Prabang is landlocked. No salt scented breezes here. No daiquiri bars.
It does sit on a bend of the lazy brown Mekong, and somehow uses this fact to marshal a laid back vibe. It is surrounded by impractically steep sided mountains. Their near vertical slopes cloaked in a heavy matt of biomass so green as to be almost black. These karst formations are more like Seuss drawings dollapped onto a page by a cartoonist than real geology. And the misty mornings common here cut them off at their base and leaving them floating in the hazy early morning sun.
Luang Prabang was an outpost of French Indochina, and French Colonial architecture is dotted about. Black mold running down decaying stucco walls, verandas, galleries, colonnade. It’s decadent the way a good period piece is. Made more so by the numerous French expats making a home here, sipping espresso and chain smoking under lazy paddle fans.
This neuvo colonial tableau is shot through with lines of orange robed monks, gilded temples, and wet markets selling buckets of writhing eels. It is likely this is the exotic Asia that most tourists are hoping to find as they settle into their trans-continental flights.
For us Luang Prabang is all of those things but more. It is a community of grass-roots activists, entrepreneurs with an eye toward sustainability, outreach programs and green initiatives. Jen and the kids were able to plug into this scene by volunteering at projects like Big Brother Mouse (an English language tutoring center) and its primary school Sister Mouse. They visited the only buffalo dairy farm in the whole country, where a couple is teaching villagers how to make mozzarella. Jen gave yoga classes and talked about women’s health to weavers at a handicrafts project. There were projects as large as the Elephant Conservation Center and ones as small as discouraging single use plastic straws in favor of bamboo straws.
The atmosphere and setting in Luang Prabang drew us in, but it is the community that we fell in love with. The community of hopeful individuals making an effort to create a better place to live.