08 January 2017 09:11:57 IST

Of freedom and frangipanis

Luang Prabang’s old-world charm draws from the gentle disposition of its people

“Lucky, lucky – your best price?”

It’s the local way of angling for the special discount reserved for a vendor’s first customer and I adopt it with aplomb.

The smiling, sarong-clad woman jabs at her calculator buttons. A number appears on the screen. I grimace. She returns to her calculator. I nod. And we conclude the deal to our mutual satisfaction.

Haggling is serious business at the Hmong Night Market in Luang Prabang, a serene little town in north-central Laos, at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, which attracts visitors from Europe on the strength of its hybrid appeal as an ancient royal capital and a part of a former French colony. Set up at dusk along the town’s main drag, Sisavang Vong Street, this lively, tourist-centric market draws us in with its alluring displays, the stellar attraction being an array of shawls, rugs and handbags flaunting tribal weaves and needlework so diverse, you wonder how they could all have been created in one tiny country hemmed in by neighbours Thailand, Myanmar, China, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Though October isn’t high season and business is lean, the “lucky, lucky” mantra isn’t always foolproof. Bargaining over an embroidered purse, for example, I ask for the price in dollars. The salesgirl indicates a number on her calculator screen. At my insistence on a better deal, she comes up, bafflingly, with an enhanced price. My indignant squawk prompts her boyfriend to pitch in, his earnest efforts on the calculator yielding a still higher figure. Outraged, I flounce off, realising in retrospect that the duo wasn’t out to fleece me; conversion to dollars from the local currency is probably as complicated for an unseasoned local as it is for us.

How dangerously tricky this can be is brought home to us when one of our well-heeled friends discovers — just in time — that the woven silk rug she’s been drooling over at a local outlet of Ock Pop Tok (“East meets West”), a Laos-based social enterprise dealing exclusively in indigenous handicrafts and textiles, actually costs a whopping ₹1,40,000 and not ₹14,000 — the sum she had arrived at through messed-up calculations and was preparing to fork out.

A forgiveable error, if you consider the number of digits involved — a single American dollar fetches around 8,000 kip.

The experience drives us back to the Night Market and its relatively affordable prices, though we’d rather pretend it isn’t retail therapy that brings us here, but the exotic fruit juices at a stall proudly advertising its crowning glory — “Fries Chicken + French” — or the buffalo-meat sausages and braised duck on offer at the overhyped food market in an adjoining alley. Not to mention the foot massage at the Lotus Spa nearby, from which you’ll emerge smiling beatifically if you can survive the no-pain-no-gain treatment.

Luang Prabang isn’t all about self-gratification, though. Its old-world charm is intrinsically linked to the laidback lifestyle and gentle disposition of its people, offering no clue to the country’s violent history. But a trip to the UXO Lao Visitors Centre lays bare the devastating reality of what the Lao have endured as citizens of the world’s most bombed country, caught in the conflict between Ho Chi Minh-inspired Pathet Lao insurgents and the former Lao royalist government, with the US spiking the deadly cocktail with its anti-communist contribution of bombs — two million tonnes of them. Four decades later, explosions of unexcavated American ordnance still claim life and limb in the rural areas.

Wondering how the locals continue to retain their equanimity in the face of such horrors, I can only assume that it is their natural resilience and unshakeable religious faith that sustain them. For while Luang Prabang’s French-style colonial villas and well-kept mansions are an intrinsic part of its identity, its pride lies in its ancient, meticulously preserved Buddhist temple-monasteries — the most impressive among them being the five-century-old Wat Xieng Thong, all intricate gold-leaf ornamentation and coloured glass-inlaid murals. The winning combination of disparate cultural influences have earned the town its distinction as a Unesco World Heritage Site. The daily alms-giving ceremony, where devout Buddhists line up at dawn on the town’s main street to donate food to a procession of saffron-clad monks, for accumulating merit in this incarnation, is a way of life here, as is the act of joining a religious order for several years or an entire lifetime. Though sometimes prompted by poverty, the decision is usually a voluntary one, claims our tour guide Kham La, a rather dour former teacher-monk who chose to return to the mainstream after seven years of monastic life.

Not unexpectedly, the Buddha’s image greets us at every turn as we pant up the 328 steps leading to the summit of Mount Phou Si, an important local landmark showing where Luang Prabang was originally founded. And nearly two hours upstream the mighty Mekong, the millennia-old Pak Ou Caves high up on a limestone rock face, at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers, beckon Buddhist pilgrims from far and near. Within their dark interiors lie an incense-scented, marigold-bedecked shrine and a treasure trove of antique Buddha images.

While Buddhism is Laos’s predominant religion, I can’t help marvelling at the seeming harmony with which diverse faiths — Christianity, Hinduism (elements of which are showcased in the costumed dance-drama, featuring scenes from the Ramayana, performed every evening at the National Museum complex auditorium), and Sasna Phi, the local animist folk religion — coexist in a country governed by a communist regime whose rise to power in 1975 was marked by extreme violence. The impression of pluralism is somewhat eroded, however — despite the presence of spirit shrines outside several homes — by a local man’s quiet admission that public ceremonies celebrating the ancient folk religion are prohibited by the authorities. And the illusion of tolerance is further dispelled as an exploration of the royal apartments in the austerely elegant National Museum (formerly the Royal Palace) brings me face-to-face with larger-than-life portraits of the last Lao monarch, King Sisavang Vatthana, and his ethereally beautiful Queen Consort, Khamphoui. Forced to abdicate at the time of the communist takeover, the ill-fated couple allegedly died of starvation in a “re-education” camp. The official record merely acknowledges their “disappearance”.

I find it hard to reconcile such brutal repression with the gentleness of a people who seek happiness and good fortune by releasing caged songbirds. Until it strikes me that this apparently noble act of liberation is preceded by trapping and confining those very birds in covered baskets and offering them up for sale.

The realisation doesn’t prepare me, however, for the shock of the early-morning experience at the Morning Market, set up in an alley off Sisavang Vong Street. Vendors here tempt locals with “delicacies” like dead bats and mice, beetles and frogs — live, desiccated or deep-fried — and disembowelled snakes, robbed of their power to strike terror. The gory displays trigger memories of Laos’s notoriety as an epicentre of wildlife trafficking, eclipsing its renown as the “land of a million elephants” and undermining ongoing efforts at the elephant and bear rehabilitation centres near Luang Prabang. My suspicion that many of the creatures on sale are banned items deepens when a vendor snarls, “No photo!” as I train my camera lens on the small, dead birds heaped in her basket.

A disturbing thought, pushed back earlier, resurfaces: I haven’t spotted a single feathered creature since I arrived in Luang Prabang, a town of lush gardens, redolent with the fragrance of frangipani. Nor, strangely, were any bird calls audible in the densely forested areas we had driven through on our way to a popular tourist attraction 29 km away — the Kuang Si Falls, a magnificent spectacle, framed by trees and foliage, of water roaring down naturally terraced rocks. Butterflies abound here, but not a bird is in sight. Where have they gone? Devoured? Trapped, to be ritualistically set free — only to be trapped again?

As evening descends, however, and the Night Market comes alive, the colourful drama of commerce involving multiple zeros sweeps aside such concerns. And thoughts of depleting wildlife, of dead or maimed villagers, of petty crimes by local drug addicts are shrugged off as I board the Lao Airlines flight back to Bangkok next morning. The twin-propeller ATR aircraft bears on its tail a painted representation of a single white frangipani — the national flower, whose likeness is replicated in local souvenirs. This delicate-looking blossom is apparently so resilient that it doesn’t burn unless subjected to temperatures exceeding 260ºC. If this isn’t pure myth, I can’t help thinking, there could be no symbol more appropriate for Laos, a country that has survived many trials by fire and may need to face many more.

(The article first appeared in BLInk.)