People wear down. Vacations to new locales become busy with itineraries peppered with cultural events and good intentions. Hopping off a 26-hour marathon bus ride from Hanoi, Vietnam to Laos, I wanted to literally do nothing. And so for the next week, that’s exactly what I did. I scrapped the itinerary, burned the guidebook, checked into a hotel, and lingered for seven days.
I’m going to suggest a re-edit. At the end of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, when Bruce Wayne goes into retirement and he gives his butler that knowing nod in a café somewhere in Europe. I think that exact same scene should play out, but in Luang Prabang, all balmy and serene. It could be argued that Luang Prabang is the most languid enclave in all of Asia. Then again, no one in Luang Prabang could work up the vitriol to argue with you, finding themselves too relaxed by the city’s charms.
For those not in the know, Luang Prabang is a hamlet of a thing in Laos. It is a resort town with heavy French influence. Two roads, three if one is feeling generous, create a mile, which contains the entirety of the town’s noteworthy subjects. At night, the main strip is closed down to traffic and converted into a bazaar, where craft trinkets are sold to the Europeans who meander in and out, sipping on fruit smoothies or munching on coconut macaroons.
There is a midnight curfew set nationwide, so that the people of Laos may wake up early and feed the monks. Guests of the country need not adhere to this edict, though. When everything closes by 11 p.m., there really isn’t much of a place to go but to bed. Hotels seem to be relatively standard in form, I stayed in two hotels with rooms offering a comfortable combination of wallpapers in cream contrasted by the dark wood flooring. WiFi in both establishments proved to be spotty, cutting into Orange Is The New Black binge-watching marathons with dropped connections. I then had to venture out.
Beyond the town were plenty of opportunities for exploration. A group of German students tittered an offer to visit a nearby brewery. Tuktuk drivers spouted rote pitches for elephant villages and guided waterfall tours. I reminded myself, “You don’t have to do anything.” And so, there I sat, in cafés and on museum benches. There’s an opportunity to scuffle across a bamboo bridge if diversity is needed, but this only seemed necessary once.
Mornings are equally sparse in demand. Due to the size of Luang Prabang, the southeast Asian standard of a motorbike can be eschewed in favor of a much more romantic pedal bicycle. The only shops in town exist to cater to the needs of a visitor, so bakeries alternate with spas, and mingle with the occasional temple. The north end of Phothisalath specializes in French pastries and silence. Traveling a quarter mile further south elicits more cuisine standard of a Southeast Asian getaway—blended drinks and local fusion bars offering ridiculously early happy hour specials. Again, curfew in effect at 11, so getting one’s drink on in Luang Prabang means mimosas at brunch.
I, as much as my editors, hate explaining visually intensive set pieces without photographic reinforcement, but we were not allowed to take photos in the centerpiece of the city, the National Museum. Formally a royal palace until 1975 when the ruling family was overthrown and taken to reeducation camps , the interior is a bizarre and gleeful mix of 20th century sensibilities and classic monarchy grandeur. Colorful glass adorns the walls in shades of cherry and turquoise just shy of neon, depicting figures in a style contemporaneous to mod art. It’s worth Googling. Whether the images told a tale or were simply waltzing about the throne room, I cannot be sure, as nearly nine of the placards wasted time in explaining the context of an exhibition.
In fact, rather than anything of real historical value, it seemed to primarily serve as a warehouse of curiosities once dedicated to the royal family. From my home country, the United States, appeared a moon rock, gathered during our first landing, I supposed, as the lunar stone offered little contextual relief. It seemed the curator, much like the city itself, had relaxed himself into negligence.
On the very last day of my stay, I crossed from the National Museum and began the ascent of Mount Phousi. At the base, villagers offer songbirds and water bottles. A path snakes uphill, before summiting with a temple overlooking the Mekong, and offering excellent views of the town beyond the destination. The mountain crests in the distance were variegated by some afternoon clouds, but the view proved to still be spectacular. While those around me winced or panted from the hundreds of steps, I realized I was no worse for the west. And a week after the bus trip from hell, I was here, in full, ready to embrace heaven.