The trip to Laos that will revive my soul

One writer finds solace from a years-long grief through an imagined vacation to Luang Prabang

By BRANDON PRESSER / Pic BLOOMBERG

The author (left), with his late friend Neal and Neal’s son (pic: Courtesy of Brandon Presser)

IT’S a languid afternoon in Luang Prabang as I walk along the Mekong River. Nearby, street vendors grill catfish wrapped in banana leaves, a dish known as mok pa, and the steam and sizzle from their cooking swirl among dense, monsoon season clouds of humidity that weigh on my shoulders.

Through the haze, I can see uniform rows of aluminium-roof homes. Above them, gold-foil temple spires rise; in the distance is a rugged suggestion of karst mountains.

This exact vision has played out in my dreams every night for almost the past two weeks. As the camera pans back, I can practically taste my Laotian dessert: Puckery sweet mango and sticky rice.

The catch? I’m stuck at home in my one-bedroom apartment, 32 floors above lower Manhattan. And I’ve never been to Luang Prabang.

Dr Google has told me that in times of great stress, our subconscious minds work overtime, and clearly I need an escape. But the fantasies of South-East Asia surprised me.

The region was the backdrop of my 20s, during which I cut my teeth as a writer for Lonely Planet. Back then, the world turned less quickly. I remember being seduced by travel brochures instead of social media, and of drawing maps with a pencil rather than the swipe of an app.

I trekked across Thailand year after year with thousands of these pamphlets and handwritten notes — always during the more affordable monsoon season, from September to December. Going when few others do makes for less crowds and allows more spontaneity, even if it comes with some afternoon rain.

It’s how I met one of my best friends, Neal, who’d moved to Thailand from the UK to run a diving outfit with his wife. After paying his dues in the corporate world, he’d run the math: He had enough saved up to move abroad, buy a couple of Harley-Davidsons, follow his adventurous spirit and retire in his 30s.

Over the years, he became the big brother I never had and with every monsoon season, our friendship grew. I got my dive-master certification at his scuba school, we sailed around Myanmar and I became Uncle Brandon when he and his wife had a son.

Parenthood only bolstered his zeal for life:

Classic Lao dishes made at Tamarind Laos (Source: Tamarind Laos)

Neal was gregarious, a total character, with an unparalleled generosity of spirit and a penchant for pranks. I loved that he’d throw on a button-down shirt to cover up his two sleeve tattoos before his moonlight shifts as a volunteer consul for the British Embassy; once he even negotiated my release from police custody after a pimp tried to have me arrested for exposing her prostitution ring (long story!).

Eventually, I moved away from guide- books and started focusing my magazine writing on places such as Madagascar, Kyrgyzstan and Gambia where tourism was in its infancy. But I still sought excuses to visit Neal and his family each year — and to explore new destinations, from Chiang Mai to Bali, with them.

In 2016, we were set to explore Laos when Neal died suddenly in a motorcycle accident; I never returned. If exploring the world with Neal made me feel invincible, his loss made me feel suddenly mortal, like the world could be taken away from me at any minute.

South-East Asia has symbolised loss for me since then. But the Covid-19 pandemic is shifting that narrative. The region has largely evaded the worst effects of the crisis; Laos has logged only 19 confirmed cases and no related deaths.

As soon as flights resume and borders reopen, I feel ready to face the raw emotions I’ve shelved away for the past few years. I’ve already cracked open my old edition of Lonely Planet’s “South-East Asia on a Shoestring”, which I co-authored, to find Laos’ old capital touted as a “glittering Shangri La, so achingly beautiful it has you reaching for your camera at every turn.”

Here’s how I’ll explore it, according to the early pencil markings I scribbled four years ago and some new ideas I’ve concocted since.

The Old French Town

Luxury tents at Rosewood Luang Prabang (Source: Rosewood Hotels)

Wandering the old city of Luang Prabang is like time-travelling to the so-called Indochine era in the late 19th century, when the French took control of the Buddhist centre, made it their colonial capital and built an imposing palace to receive international dignitaries.

Along with their bayonets, the Europeans brought baguettes, which had a profound and lasting impact on the local cuisine and culture. Sandwich stalls selling khao jee pâté — spicy fixings on crusty loaves that bear resemblance to Vietnamese banh mi — beckon in the morning before they make way for a bustling craft market at night.

Luang Prabang is undoubtedly Laos’s star attraction, but it isn’t a metropolitan heavyweight like Bangkok or Jakarta. Instead, its character is quieter and more sacred, like a South-East Asian Kyoto where cafes and temples, instead of bank towers and malls, compete for space on block corners. I would explore it by bike, watching the fusion of French and Laotian architecture give way to sprawling urban dwellings, turning down side streets and alleyways and ogling old mansions.

Mostly, I’d pedal from meal to meal; after my khao jee sandwich, I’d continue on to the city’s best croissants. I could find those at Le Banneton, with its bistro-style sidewalk seating, or at JoMa Bakery Café, where the city’s expats congregate when they’ve had their fill of rice and noodles.

At Big Tree Cafe & Gallery, I’d get a fresh-pressed mango and dragon fruit smoothie, while perusing the sepia-dipped photography of Adri Berger, who’s documented life throughout the country over the past 20 years. It would serve as inspiration for a day-long trek with regional touring expert Smiling Albino to visit some of the mountain villages — untouched by modernity — depicted in Berger’s work.

But I couldn’t leave town without a cooking class at Tamarind, where I could further fathom how the Gallic palate has so elegantly mingled with traditional local flavours and taste-test some Lao classics, too. Fun fact: Dishes such as somtam (spicy papaya salad) and larb (minced meat salad) might be commonly found on Thai menus, but they owe their origins to their northern neighbour — I can practically picture Neal furtively tossing a few extra chillies into my recipe just to make my eyes sweat.

Modern Comforts

Avani+ Luang Prabang in the heart of the old town (Source: Avani+ Luang Prabang)

For decades, Luang Prabang’s elaborate French colonial villas have been transforming into beautiful boutique hotels available at every price point and level of service. I’d struggle to choose between 3 Nagas, a rambling relais with spice-red clapboard shutters and private, Unesco-protected gardens, or the Avani+ flagship, which was a formerly a French Army barrack and later the vacation home of Aman Resorts founder Adrian Zecha.

Then again, the city welcomed a whole new tier of luxury in May 2018 with the opening of the Rosewood Luang Prabang. Situated where the Mekong River Valley meets the scalloping karst crags, the sprawling property is another majestic ode to Indochine chic, with teak-and-turquoise suites and a cluster of luxe, safari-style tents.

A Spiritual Moment

Monks collect alms from tourists and locals (pic: Bloomberg)

Finally, I’d visit the more than 30 Buddhist temples that have earned Luang Prabang its Unesco World Heritage distinction and anchored the destination as an important spiritual centre for centuries.

Waking up early, I’d attend morning prayers at Wat Xieng Thong, where a red-hued mosaic of the Tree of Life climbs all the way up to the apex of the chapel’s swooping roof. Then I’d check out Wat Aham, erected in the 14th century in honour of the city’s two guardian spirits, who’re believed to dwell within the site’s surrounding trees.

And perhaps I’ll do all of this during Boun Khao Salak — Laos’s annual celebration of the dearly departed — when thousands of devotees gather at the feet of the Buddha and Bodhisattva statues to offer fresh fruits and curries as incandescent as the monks’ bright orange robes.

The festival is timed to the 10th full moon of the lunar calendar. This year, it falls at the beginning of September — monsoon season. I’ll be sure to make a special offering for Neal.

If you’d like to contribute to a non-profit that’s also worth visiting, check out Big Brother Mouse, a literacy project which commissions Lao artists to create children’s books in local languages. Travellers to Luang Prabang can also volunteer to play board games with students as a way to help them practice their conversational English. — Bloomberg

  • Travel writer Brandon Presser has spent years wandering across South-East Asia. But after the loss of a dear friend in recent years, he’s been hesitant to return. Now that such travel is off the table for the time being, it’s the one place he yearns to go.