Soaking in Luang Prabang

Benedict Anderson attends the Water Festival in Laos

In 1994, torpid Unesco awoke to the reality that Luang Prabang, the tiny royal capital of colonial-era Laos – core population about 16,000 – is the best-preserved, most beautiful old town left in South-East Asia, and so, the following year, solemnly declared it a World Heritage Site. ‘Besides, it’s true,’ as we used to say. The town is set on a remote bend of the legendary Mekong River, which runs almost 4500 kilometres from the Tibetan plateau down to the China Sea near Saigon, with only two bridges along its entire length. It is ringed with majestic, bluish tropical mountains that, when the burning swidden fields create the right pollution, seem to come straight out of the most bewitching Sung landscapes. In its heart is the hundred-metre-high hill of Phou Si, crowned with a restored Buddhist stupa (nicely floodlit at night) and an abandoned Russian antiaircraft gun. Below is a town that one can stroll across in 25 minutes but which has about forty elegant, modest Buddhist temple complexes, almost all warm browns, blues and whites, backed by huge bo trees, and opal-fired with the saffron robes of monks and novices. Here and there, one picks out former residences and office buildings of French colonials, which have by now acquired the charm of gentle provincial decay. Not a Hilton or Hyatt in sight: no Burger King, McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. One BMW.

‘Best-preserved’ indeed. But by whom or by what? First of all by French imperialism at the end of the 19th century, which, anxious about the brutal British conquest of neighbouring Burma, seized the left bank of the Mekong from the Thai monarchs in Bangkok, who had the bad habit of razing Lao townships that did not behave themselves as loyal vassals. This démarche created a new border far away from Luang Prabang, leaving most Lao-speakers, on the right bank, to become the industrious and despised ‘Irish’ of a Siam that was on the way to becoming Thailand. It made possible the absurd singular English noun ‘Laos’, stupidly taken from the French plural ‘les royaumes Laos’ (the three Lao petty principalities of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak). It led to the construction of a colonial headquarters in the Thai-razed, but ‘central’ locale of Vientiane rather than the remote and northern Luang Prabang. Ultimately the creation of ‘Indochine’ as a vast administrative unit run from Hanoi left Laos as the place where, in the Thirties, six hundred Frenchmen could peaceably indulge themselves, off location, in opium, girls, boys and drink. So to speak, the lotus-eating end of the colonial world.

In this the French were quite typical. Virtually all the colonial (and present-day) capitals of South-East Asia are, luckily, boring imperial-commercial creations, not gussied up ancient royal centres: Batavia/Jakarta (not Surakarta); Phnom Penh (not Angkor); and Rangoon (not Mandalay). It would be hard to think of a single architecturally spectacular creation – by the Americans, British, French, Spanish, Dutch or Portuguese – in the whole region, which one would dare set against Angkor, the Borobudur, Pagan, Ayutthaya and even little Luang Prabang. (The ominous imperial British buildings in Rangoon took on a new sheen when, after nationalisation in 1962, many were turned into apartments. The most ravishing sight in Rangoon today is the massive display of newly-washed, bright green, yellow, red, lilac, blue, orange and black underpants, bras and sarongs, hung out to dry from the broken windows of Orwell’s Burma.)

American imperialism also played a big part. It is easy to forget that in the post-World War Two era, the regime in Washington has killed or maimed more foreigners than any other country in the whole world: a world-class killer, one might say, matched arithmetically only by the Maoist regime’s cruelties towards its own citizens. Laos is a good reminder. On this UK-sized country, with not even five million inhabitants, the US dropped a higher tonnage of bombs than on the Axis powers, and per capita the most in world history. (Today, local murderers in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda are to be hauled before international tribunals, but Kissinger is still luxuriously at large.) Being the seat of the nominal head of state of post-Independence Laos and a playground for the reactionary, residual Lao aristocracy hired out by Washington, Luang Prabang was spared the Americans’ sky-borne fury. American brutality made possible the triumph in 1975 of the Lao Communist Party, which shrewdly based itself less on the lowland Lao than on the ‘tribal peoples’ of the mountainous zones where the bombing was fiercest. For a year or so thereafter, the dim, stout King Savang Vatthana was kept on as figurehead of state, but when in 1976 he was implicated in an attempted right-wing come-back, the monarchy was abolished. Since then the ‘petit château’ palace the French built in 1905 for his long-lived father has become a people’s museum.

An unpretentious Communism in a very poor country has made its own conservatory contribution. Suspicion of meddling outsiders has kept the inflow of tourists very low: in the mid-Nineties, fewer than fifteen thousand ‘global travellers’ (i.e. those who spent at least one night in Laos) – mostly from France, Japan and Thailand – entered the country each year. Luang Prabang’s small hotels offer no swimming pools, ‘fitness centres’, ballrooms or karaoke bars. The old royal city has been allowed to continue ageing on its quiet own. One is irresistibly reminded of the rundown elegance of Communist Prague in the early Seventies, where lamplighters still made their evening rounds – before it was tarred up in the time of Havel and Klaus; and of Kyoto, which escaped an international airport and the blight of Tokyo conglomerates, thanks (for a long time) to a Communist mayor with a political base among the traditional artisanate.

Finally, there is the little town’s sheer inaccessibility. The winding old mountain road in from Vientiane is sufficiently bandit-infested that the few buses have machine-guns on their roofs. Plans for a huge highway linking the town to China and the south have been postponed thanks to the difficulties now faced by Chinese and Thai financiers. The minute airport, across whose single strip cows and village women casually wander, is still served only by the state airline, using rickety Eastern Bloc propeller planes (an up-to-date fleet was repossessed by the manufacturer after the kip was dragged to near worthlessness by the collapse of the Thai baht). The finest way in is by boat from the sleepy border town of Huay Xai almost 350 kilometres to the west. The boat is basically a canoe, seating perhaps four or five people, with a powerful Toyota outboard engine. Not comfortable by any means, but the six or seven-hour journey down the majestic mountain-girded Mekong at breakneck speed is enthralling. An hour can pass without the traveller seeing a single human being, though occasionally towering pillars of smoke indicate that swidden farmers are burning the upland fields to restore the steep land’s fragile fertility.

This was the way I went, a few weeks ago, to enjoy Songkhran – the guide-books call it the annual Water Festival – which celebrates, throughout Buddhist South-East Asia, the traditional beginning, at full moon, of the lunar year. In this part of the world April really is the cruellest month, the climax of the torrid dry season before the monsoon arrives. The land is too brickbaked for much agricultural work. People have a lot of hot time on their hands, which probably explains the two central features of the festival: a meticulously prepared procession through the town in accordance with syncretic Buddhist-animist ritual, and a wild free-for-all in which people douse and are doused with deliciously cool water.

Preparations start well before the official three-day festival. Impatient little boys, armed with cheap plastic water-pistols and water-tommyguns (effective range about ten metres), are already rushing about looking for willing victims. Less mobile teenage girls, often giggling from the effects of the ubiquitous Bière Lao, have the hoses and huge tubs of water needed to create the gauntlets through which strollers must pass. Each night, a cheerfully rowdy set of beauty-contest heats is held to decide who will be the processional Queen of the Festival. The town starts to fill up, as valley Lao and upland Lü, Khamu and Hmong, each group in its own brilliant Sunday best, stream in for both holiday and business purposes. For the opening event of the festival is a vast one-day open-air market stretching along the steep levée above the low-water Mekong.

To get into the spirit of things, it’s a good idea to make the pre-dawn climb up the 339 steep steps it takes to reach the top of Phou Si, then watch the smoke-red sun swim up over the Sung horizon. The great river emerges from the misty north, swirls round the town and vanishes into gorges far to the south. The monks in saffron are already walking the streets single-file, looking for the hodge-podge breakfasts provided by the numerous devout. In the first year of the revolutionary regime the Sangha had a difficult time. The population was forbidden to give alms, forcing the monks to do agricultural labour to survive. Buddhism was banned from the primary-school curriculum. But popular hostility induced the Party quickly to change its position. It was not long before the regime itself was subsidising the Buddhist monkhood, and in 1992 the hammer-and-sickle on the national insignia was replaced by the image of a celebrated Buddhist stupa in Vientiane.

From the top of the steps, one sees, far below, the miniature royal palace squeezed between the levée and the main drag; a country squire’s palace, ‘just around the corner’, in full public view, quite like the bumpkin mini-palaces of Bali, where, 25 years ago at least, one could see the local monarchs dressed in sarongs and not much more, tending their fighting-cocks, scratching their balls and gossiping with village elders. It’s not at all like the secretive grand palaces of Mandalay, Bangkok and Surakarta, impenetrably surrounded by ceremonial guards and walls five metres high. The palace’s symmetrical French garden is saved from tedium by a huge Soviet statue of King Sisavang Vong (r. 1904-59) badly disguised as Stalin – a gift from Brezhnev during the 1972 state visit to Moscow of Sisavang’s feckless successor.

What one cannot see from Phou Si is the palace’s interior. Like the English and the Dutch colonialists, the French understood the importance for Europeans, in a pre-air-conditioned age, of high ceilings and thick walls. (In the traditional literatures of Indonesia and Thailand, neither heat nor mosquitoes are ever mentioned, let alone complained about.) Parts of the palace are now open to the public: a half-dozen cool, respectable rooms which are mostly the gumbo one would expect from colonial and post-colonial puppetry. One of these rooms, heavily guarded, contains priceless traditional statuary, including the palladium from which Luang Prabang takes its name: a solid-gold Buddha, almost three feet high, said to have been cast in Ceylon in the first century AD, and in 1359 presented to the medieval Lao monarch Fa Ngum by his Khmer overlord Phaya Sirichantha. (The Bangkok rulers stole it twice, in 1779 and 1827, but gave it back in the reign of Yul Brynner’s Rama IV.) Another contains the jumble of kitschy gifts that heads of state these days bestow on each other; a bizarre array of French colonial gimcrackery, and portraits of the last royal couple by the Soviet artist Ilya Glazunov which have borrowed something of the inbred pathos of Velâzquez’s Spanish Habsburgs. Still another has walls decorated with charming scenes of Lao village life done in brightly coloured glass tesserae. Behind these salons one finds the separate bedrooms of the monarch and his consort, which remind one of Irish country houses in their ewer-and-basin simplicity, except for the huge wooden beds designed to accommodate their corpulent majesties; and a dining-room with a spartan dining-table seating not more than eight or nine family members. Nowadays closed – although they could be seen five years ago – are the spacious turn-of-the-century bathrooms with their pull-chain loos and rusty tubs. (In the same way, in Manila’s presidential palace, one is no longer permitted to see, as one could in the late Eighties, the nauseating splendour of Ferdinand’s personal mini-hospital, Imelda’s ultra-glitzy bathroom and her armoires stuffed with shoes and fur coats.) What one misses most from the top of Phou Si at this time of the year are the rows of immemorial Chinese barges, with their upcurving poops and bows and black, tubular-roofed midship cabins. The River Ou, flowing down from Yunnan until it debouches into the Mekong 30 kilometres north of Luang Prabang, is too low-watered in the dry season for safe navigation by these deep-keeled craft crammed with cheap Chinese manufactures.

The open-air market reminds one of what shopping-malls and supermarkets have cost modern life: the savour and endless variations of homemade cooking and the exuberant inventiveness of a ‘cottage’ artisanate. At the stall of a genial, toothless old Hmong woman, for example, I found an elaborately embroidered baby’s cap from which a circle of 12 silver alloy coins dangled, while the scarlet tassled top was held in place by a larger, heavier coin with a hole bored through its middle. The larger coin was inscribed: ‘1938’, ‘Indochine française’ and ‘5 centimes’. The smaller ones, dated 1980, have passed out of circulation because they are still etched with the hammer-and-sickle, and because inflation has anyway made them valueless. High colonialism and high Communism, once mortal enemies, now cheek by jowl on the endless junkheap of progress, can still light up a baby’s face. Of all the ethnic groups in Laos, the Hmong suffered the most severely, first as cannon fodder, cynically exploited by the CIA during the Vietnam War, and later as the object of the Revolutionary Government’s suspicion and vengeance. Tens of thousands fled to Thailand and overseas, and many who stayed behind were forced down from their opium growing hilltops to more supervisable makeshift lowland settlements. One can’t help thinking that the baby’s cap is a small, mute token of Hmong laughter and refusal.

In the early afternoon, large crowds pour down the levée to embark, in a swarm of little boats, for the far bank of the Mekong. In the villages on the red-earth escarpment by the river, electric bands pound out fast-paced Lao ‘country music’, and multitudes of youngsters pile onto bamboo-fenced earth floors to perform a charming mix of globalised disco moves and traditional rural Lao dancing. The girls, dressed mostly in baseball caps, jeans and long-sleeved cowboy shirts hanging loose over their behinds, sweating happily under thick pink face-powder, and reeking of beer, could almost be from Oklahoma. The boys are less abandoned, perhaps because of the fine local marijuana which the Revolutionary Party tolerates if it is homegrown and purely for personal consumption. Young European female tourists jump at the chance to join in, if only to escape the waterpistol attentions of swarms of agile little urchins. And as the sun sets one has a breathtaking view of Luang Prabang’s whole length, from the celebrated jewel-temple of Xiang Thong through Phou Si and the former palace, and over to the sports mini-stadium, and the shadowed pinnacles in the west.

The next day, the biggest day of the festival, is marked by a giant procession from near the stadium to Xiang Thong, with le tout Luang Prabang as either participants or excited spectators. It is headed by the city’s middle-aged worthies, dressed in the kind of colonial-era finery that these days is usually left to hotel major-domos, and carrying sheaves and ewers of temple offerings. Behind them strides a long crocodile of monks and novices, in their dazzling robes, carrying large black umbrellas. Then two pairs of little boys, in red trousers, blue jackets and blue caps with red earflaps, banging away at big two-headed drums suspended from the ornamental poles they tote on their slender shoulders. After the drummers two strange dancers prance along, their heads concealed inside huge red masks with glaring eyes and gaping mouths, their bodies behind a rastafarian waterfall of braided hemp. Identical in every respect except that only one has a large black moustache, they are ‘Grandfather Nyeu and Grandmother Nyeu’, said to be the original ancestors of the Lao, and evidently residues of ancient fertility rites such as one still finds in many parts of rural South-East Asia in this rain-awaiting season. Behind them come two dancers hidden beneath a single Chinese-looking, prosperity-bringing lion, whose brilliant red, gold and black head and tail are also attached to dense braids of hemp.

Next cavorts a big rowdy group of young men and boys, many drunk or high, their faces plastered with mud, red facepowder and local talcum. Laughing, singing and shouting, they escort a small bevy of tall transvestites in black tanktops, heavy rice-powder make-up, and headwreaths of frangipani blossom, who blow kisses left and right. (I was reminded of a conversation with an elderly boatman a couple of days earlier, who swore that Luang Prabang had no beggars, no addicts, no prostitutes and no pickpockets, but – with a roar of laughter – ‘masses of transvestites’). The Buddhist motif returns when the transvestites and their escorts are followed by a large truck, on whose open back half a dozen very old monks are seated around a gilded palanquin in which sits the senior abbot of Luang Prabang.

Finally, it is the moment for the town’s beauties. Long double lines of them lead the way, all dressed ravishingly bare-shouldered in traditional silks, their hair combed up high in gold-pinned buns, carrying rainbow parasols, armfuls of temple offerings and sometimes national flags and banners. Behind them rumbles a huge float, edged with red and blue paper dragons, in the middle of which is a gigantic wood and papier-mâché image of a boar. Around the boar’s four paws kneel the losing finalists in the Miss Luang Prabang contest, while the winner lolls sidesaddle on top, holding a trident in one hand and a bow in the other, under an immense pink, gold and green umbrella. To the front of the float, on a gilded tray, is a brand-new papier-mâché image of a single four-faced godly head.

Contemporary legend has it that long ago the four-faced god-king Phanya Kabilaphom kept himself amused by proposing risky riddles to all challengers. Those who failed to solve a riddle within seven days would lose their heads, but a successful solver could have the King’s. One day a young scholar took up the dare and solved his riddle by using his knowledge of the language of vultures, whom he overheard discussing the delicious dinner they would have when they came to eat his body. The royal loser graciously accepted his defeat, but the young man hesitated to act because the god-king was so magically powerful that if his lopped-off head touched the earth it would burn all the world’s crops to cinders, and if it fell into a river the world’s water would boil away. The King then advised him to keep the head away from land and water by placing it on a golden tray and entrusting it to his orphaned daughters. To ensure the world’s peace and prosperity, they were to take it in turn to bring out his head once a year and carry it in solemn procession for the people to pay homage to it. After the King’s beheading, each of his seven daughters was made curator for one day of the week and given her own magical-animal mount. Ever since, local belles have fulfilled the duties of the dead princesses. Since in 1998 the lunar year opened on a Tuesday, that day’s animal, the wild boar, was the featured steed. The European ‘Tuesday’, of which precolonial Laos was innocent, shows the Beauty Queen’s modernity. Indeed, she was a commercial innovation of the late Sixties monarchy.

The Party is virtually invisible, but it has made stellar contributions to Songkhran 1998. By eliminating the monarchy, it has freed the festivities from mumbo-jumbo and kowtowing. And it has allowed the long-suffering elephants, traditionally dragooned into pompous service, the leisure of a banana-filled, reposeful holiday at home.

As the procession slowly winds across town to the Xiang Thong temple, one can observe the old-fashioned niceties that characterise Water Festival practice in Luang Prabang. In many urban parts of Thailand, malice and loutishness mar the old festivities. Young toughs pelt people with icecubes, and drench them in beer, gutterslime and dyed water. On the other hand – and this is a real, democratic pleasure – many non-lager-louts go after the corrupt, disliked traffic police, who for the duration of Songkhran have to smile grimly as they are doused by all and sundry. In Luang Prabang, however, neither loutishness nor populist vengeance has yet appeared. Monks have their lower robes gentry wetted by pious women bearing bowls of flower-scented water. And one sees not a single drop of water aimed at the dour, stocky policemen who try to maintain some order and escort the first-aid minibus that follows in the Boar’s wild wake. But everyone else is laughing game.

Meanwhile, throughout the day, and all over the city, the most revered Buddha images, including the palladium in the cidevant palace, are taken out for their yearly ritual bathing; the water that cleans them up is widely taken to have beneficial properties.

This year, to the astonishment of a citizenry not yet well acquainted with El Niño, a violent thunderstorm broke out in the middle of the Festival’s second night. The town’s shaky electricity system was extinguished for a time, and the floodlit stupa on Phou Si vanished from sight. People went out to stand in the refreshing, out of season downpour, the startled targets of a colossal water-pistol aimed from heaven.