From the moment I first walked around Luang Prabang I felt at home. It was familiar to me, as though I’d lived there for years. I suppose this was down to the familiar French influence on the architecture, with elegant shuttered villas lining the quiet streets, tucked in between the gold-leaf temples and lush banana trees. But more than that, there’s something about the atmosphere of the place that made me feel completely at ease.
Perhaps it was also because I felt like I’d stumbled into the setting of a lost Graham Greene novel, some half-forgotten colonial outpost sinking in mellow decrepitude into the banks of the Mekong – although the city’s history is far richer than that impression implies.
Luang Prabang has a fair number of wats to explore, a couple of museums and a handful of caves and waterfalls for day trips into the countryside. You can occupy yourself fairly well with sightseeing for a couple of days at least.
Whatever you choose to do, the real joy of the place lies in not doing much at all. The pace of life is deliciously slow. I spent most of my time there sitting in cafés, reading and writing or just watching the street. Watching a bubbling handful of sparrows dare each other to dart forward and steal crumbs from beneath the tables. Watching a tuk tuk driver pull up short of where he wanted to park, dismount and manhandle his tuk tuk towards the curb. Watching young novice monks straying through the courtyard of the wat opposite, eating ice cream. Watching dragonflies sketch their secret messages in the humid air.
My favourite café in Luang Prabang is Le Banneton, which has also made it on to my very short list of favourite cafés in the whole world. I practically moved into the place, establishing such a firm base camp at my favourite table that I could wander off for a while without settling the bill, run a few errands, stop for a chat and come back to find they’d kept my table and set out a fresh glass of ice water to greet my return.
If I wasn’t at Le Banneton or just wandering along Sakkaline Street, I was probably at L’Etranger, especially in the evening. Every town should have a L’Etranger. It’s a place where solitary bookish types can go and feel instantly at home. I was so comfortable there I once fell asleep on the sofa in their haven of an upstairs room, a shoes-off sanctuary where they show free films every evening as long as you buy a drink or your dinner. They have a great selection of tea, but like most aspects of Luang Prabang the main draw is the atmosphere of the place. I felt like I was part of a international family of book lovers.
I did very little in Luang Prabang, though I wrote a lot, and I did manage to find my way to Big Brother Mouse before I left. This was the real highlight of my time in the city. I wish I’d made it there sooner. Big Brother Mouse is a charity devoted to promoting literacy, and to teaching English. Volunteers are asked to come to their open sessions, one starting at 9am and one at 5pm, to help local teenagers practice their English.
I went to the 9am session and loved every minute of it. Naturally the teenagers were all late, but when they eventually showed up they were all eager to learn. I would strongly recommend bringing a bottle of water, because I talked myself hoarse over the two hour session, trying to explain what words like “habit”, “inevitably” and “judgemental” meant as simply as possible, and trying without much success to improve their pronunciation. You don’t need any teaching experience to come, and you don’t need to prepare anything. The students bring along their endless lists of vocabulary, and conversations arise of their own accord.
Some of the older, more fluent boys wanted to learn more slang, so I’m afraid I offered up a few choice London phrases, much to the disapproval of another volunteer. One boy in particular absolutely relished slang, and had his own homemade vocabulary list of it in his notebook. (“Can I say ‘I like your tongue-in-cheek?'” he asked me earnestly.)
But most of them were far more serious about it, soaking up new words with great intensity. It was a delight to meet them all.
A landslide meant I was in the city for a day longer than I intended, as my bus was cancelled. Although it threw off my carefully managed budget of Lao kip, I found myself thinking that if I was going to get stranded anywhere in the world, I couldn’t find a place that suited me better than Luang Prabang.