Peace and tranquillity in Laos

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A memory of the lost idyll of childhood, the Oldie, January 2009

In Brisbane, Australia I spent the first six years of my life in realms of gross pleasure. Everything around me, the house with a banana plantation and an aviary of budgerigars, the never-faltering Queensland sunshine, represented life as it should be, and I only saw slowly, long after my mother and father brought me back to damp, mortgaged England and I had to wear shoes for the first time, that those six years were something more: my benchmark for freedom, for generally doing as I pleased. They are my lost domain, to which I daily want to return.

I have looked for it often in adult life, on desert islands, in mountains and ancient cities, and never found it. Then last spring, at Luang Prabang, Laos’s old royal capital, I brushed against its fences. Saturated in Buddhist tradition, the town’s temples and French colonial-era villas snuggle into the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers like a spiritual Manhattan island, its atmosphere parcelled out in gusts of calm. In 1951 Norman Lewis wrote, “It is the home-town of the siesta and the [ital] ultima Thule [ital] of all French escapists in the Far East.” Luang Prabang manufactured its own tranquillity. After dinner with a French colonial administrator, “The evening was rounded off by a routine visit to the local opium den, which, probably by design, was as decrepit and sinister as a waxworks exhibit. We stayed only a few minutes in this green-lit, melodramatic establishment…. One had to make some show of going to the devil.”

It is not true to describe Luang Prabang’s appeal as preserved colonial charm – Laos has been a Communist state for more than thirty years – but graceful French villa architecture nestles down easily among the temples and you still see Europeans in linen trousers stepping out of the odd postwar Mercedes onto deep-shaded restaurant terraces on Sisavangvong Road, invisible to the passing clusters of monks.

More than any other single influence, the saffron-robed monks are responsible for the state of immaterial serenity that envelops the town and, though their regime is severe (up at four, no food after midday), there is always a fresh supply of novices whose parents wish them raised in the “way of the elders”. Theravada Buddhis goes on flourishing in Laos because it has been useful for its Communist leaders in preaching the spiritual benefits of poverty and providing an education that neither the state nor parents can afford otherwise.

It was these elements above all – the atmosphere of undisturbed pleasure, and the withdrawal from the temporal world signified by so many monks – that made Luang Prabang’s haze and warm country air feel as enfolding as a Brisbane afternoon.

The day I arrived I walked up Mount Phousi, the sacred hill in the middle of town, and at the top secured spiritual credit by buying two tiny birds in a straw cage and releasing them. At six the evening came down softly – in fact the city rose gently to meet it – and the night market filled Sisavangvong Road. Luang Prabang is also about letting go: I who flee after five minutes in Oxford Street became addicted over several evenings to the ribbons of stalls sequinned with the glitter of small lightbulbs. Low stools are provided to customers to examine the handwoven silk, silver and carving at road level. At the market’s north end a half-dozen excellent Laotian-French restaurants wait.

The city’s tranquillity has not erased memories of the violent past. On show at the royal palace is an audacious gift from President Nixon: a Laotian flag and a scale model of the Apollo 11 lunar module. Audacious, because the gift was made in 1969 in the middle of a US offensive that dropped 2 million tons of bombs on north-eastern Laos. When I mentioned this artefact to a Lao silversmith he nodded. “Yes, Nixon went to the moon and he thought Laos should look like that, so he bombed it until it did.”

After several days of sitting by the Mekong, visiting temples and inspecting lotuses in roadside gardens – silent roads from which wheeled traffic is excluded – I found myself willing my state of pleasurable elevation and pampered serenity to last forever. I had, I thought, come close to re-entering that lost place of childhood. Perilously close. Urgently I phoned my wife, to check that she was still waiting for me. Luang Prabang is a place where I imagine young European men to be at extreme risk of spontaneously marrying a Laotian wife, abandoning ambition and settling to a life of modest commerce, six children, and daily pétanque by the Mekong. It could be a happy destination. But not for me, or for anyone who has their lost domain, because for us the secret is not to find it again. When your life’s work has been a never-ending search, you’re not a finder but a searcher. You can never go back. Though, given the chance to relive Luang Prabang’s glorious freedom and peace next year, or the year after, I’d probably take it, to carry on looking.

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