There are few greater pleasures than travelling on a slow boat down a great tropical river. On recent holidays we’ve taken boats down the Ganges and up the Indus, along the Irrawady and across the Brahamputra; but the most beautiful of them, and certainly the most gently and peacefully sensuous, has to be the Mekong.
The ghats lay below the royal temple, and once served both the temple of the White Parasol of Luang Prabang and the adjacent Palace of the Lord of the Kingdom of a Million Elephants. At the bottom of the long flight of steps lay the wide, brown muddy river, whose name Me-Kong, literally Mama River, recognises its role as the mother of Laos. Peasants with bamboo-brimmed paddy hats waded through the shallows. Fishermen’s skiffs crossed and recrossed with a distant whirr of outboard motors. More temples and monasteries lined the banks on the far side of the river, near the confluence of the great river with its tributary, the Khan. Along the waterfront were a line of French colonial villas, and beyond them thick woods rising up to the dragons’ backs of the mountains.
The long, open, wooden narrowboat was waiting for us at the bottom, with its shady wooden canopy. Leaving the bicycles the Amantaka hotel had lent us lying by the jetty, we helped the children on board and cast off. The spires and stupas and riverside cafés of Luang Prabang slipped far behind as we headed lazily up the river, with steep wooded hills rising to switchback peaks on either side, slaloming our way through occasional rocks and rapids, watching the riverside life of Laos slip past: a woman breastfeeding a baby on the bank as her husband set fish traps; children splashing in the shallows; an old man planting vegetables in a riverside garden; three women playing cards on a jetty.
We stopped at one village where the women made beautiful silk shawls, and bought three for the price of a single woollen scarf in London. Later we pulled in at another village where they brewed fiery rice wine called lao lao. Finally we reached our destination just as the sun was sinking, setting the river ablaze: a remote riverside Buddhist complex, the Tam Ting caves. Each rock cavity was full of gilt and lacquered wooden Buddha statues standing amid drifts of incense and marigolds, like crowds of ossified monks in their orange robes, deserted and unguarded in the middle of the jungle, with only herons and egrets and massive plumes of tropical bamboo for company.
It is impossible not to fall for Laos, often said to be the last unspoiled paradise of old French Indo-Chine. Despite 40 years of tropical communism it is still welcoming and innocent, with none of the grim corruption of Thailand or the repression of Burma. It is also almost impossible to imagine that only four decades ago, between 1964 and 1973, Laos sustained the most brutal bombing in history: in an attempt to disrupt the Viet Cong supply trails which snaked far inside Laos, the US dropped more than two million tons of high explosive, defoliants and Agent Orange — more tonnage of explosive than was dropped on Nazi Germany — on the fragile ecology of the area. Only the long lines of bomb craters, and tons of unexploded ordinance remains to witness a tragic misjudgment in global geopolitics that today seems almost as distant and unlikely as the Roman invasion of Britain. Yet it was that intervention that helped to bring down the old Laotian monarchy, which in turn led to the demise of so much of Laos’s cultural heritage.
That evening, on our return to the old royal capital from the caves, I went to meet Tiao Somsanith, a cousin of the former royal family, who told me about his struggle to maintain the traditional arts of Laos. Many of these arts — puppetry, gold leaf, lacquering, the plays of the Ramayana, Laotian dance, music, wood carving, painting, and gold thread embroidery — had been tied either to the temples or the court, and with the coming of communists of the Pathet Lao the artists lost their patrons, and all royal or Buddhist arts fell under the disapproval of the new regime. Now, although the communists are still ruling the country, there is a change of attitude and efforts are being made to find elderly artists, dancers and puppeteers — all now working as farmers or fishermen or janitors — and to get them to train up new generations before they take their secrets with them to the grave.
‘I was in the Sorbonne studying psychology,’ Tiao told me. ‘I loved it there, but I knew that I had to come back and do something to revive the old arts here in Luang Prabang. It wasn’t so much a mission as a vocation. The old culture of this country had nearly disappeared. Now the government has opened the door, and we’ve started a School of Fine Arts. My dream is to prove we’re not too late. Even the writers are now coming back. We can learn from what has gone wrong in Thailand and Bali. Luang Prabang has the chance to be a paradise again, not Paradise Lost. Mark my words, we can do it.’
William Dalrymple’s new book is Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (Bloomsbury). He travelled to Laos with Steppes East and stayed in the Amantaka hotel.