Sivu 40

he legend of the Naga, a seven-headed water serpent, colours the myths and folklore of the entire Mekong region. Its rearing heads decorate palaces, temples and other traditional artwork. It doesn't look like the kind of creature you'd want to bump into on a leisurely sunset river cruise or fishing expedition. Nerves are jangling slightly, then, as the motorboat, with our host Mr Vanhsy at the tiller, carries its passengers towards a seven-headed shape bobbing downstream, back towards the town of Luang Prabang. The mythical monster is regarded as a protective entity in these parts, but the shape is emitting a series of scary raucous yells, and there's a good deal of splashing and restless rocking to and fro. As the boat approaches, the heads of seven young Lao boys become clear, each of them laughing and grappling to hold on to a shiny black tyre tube. The Naga has proved elusive yet again. Tubing on the Mekong is something of a national sport in Laos. Its simple and inexpensive ingenuity ­ all you need is an old tyre and a river ­ also seems typical of a country that hasn't been overwhelmed by the kind of tourist development proceeding apace in its bordering neighbours of Thailand and Vietnam. But then Laos is landlocked and its only beaches are on its inland waterways. Its considerable and famously laid-back charms have been preserved by a combination of protective government policy and the absence of ocean. Nowhere are these charms more apparent than in Luang Prabang, regarded to be the bestpreserved traditional town in Southeast Asia and built above the sandy banks of the Mekong and its tributary, the Nam Khan, some 400 kilometres north of the Lao capital Vientiane. Its mixture of traditional Lao, French colonial and Lao contemporary architecture and its concentration of historic temples have earned Luang Prabang designation by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Consequently the old town, crowning a promontory above the two rivers, is an intoxicating hybrid of colonial and Asian ambience. 40 BLUE WINGS NOVEMBER 2008 T FLASHES OF ORANGE Dreadlocked French backpackers mingle easily with well-heeled American pensioners in the shops and cafés lining the main drag, Sisavang Vong, but the tone of Luang Prabang is set by the orange swish of Buddhist robes flapping from the back of a tuk-tuk or flaring against the green of a jungle path. The Luang Prabang day starts with a dawn parade, known as the Tak Bat, of Buddhist novices and monks accepting alms from kneeling devotees, a show of devotion only slightly and occasionally tainted by the whir of tourist video cameras. Across the town, novices explain to temple visitors the terms and rituals of devotion. The hammer and sickle banner of the country's ostensibly Communist rulers still flaps over government buildings, but the abundance of orange confirms a more ancient spiritual allegiance. Much of Luang Prabang's charm, unsurprising for a settlement of just 20,000 inhabitants, derives from its compact proportions; any overnight location in the old town area gives access on foot to everywhere else, although the wilting heat makes a quick, cheap crosstown hop by tuk-tuk difficult to resist. Many visitors start their exploration with a visit to the Royal Palace, now a national museum of Buddhist artefacts and regal chambers, built in the early 20th century as a gift to the Lao King by French colonial rulers of the country. The museum gives cool and colourful respite from the heat, and makes a better claim as a useful central landmark than as Luang Prabang's top attraction. That prize goes to the Wats or Buddhist temples. You could spend a week just tracing a casual circuit of the town's more than 30 Wats. One of the most spectacular is the Wat Mai, the royal temple whose gold relief façade sparkles at the entrance of the Palace. Just across the road from Wat Mai you'll find the first of 326 steps ascending to the summit of Mount Phousi, the lushly vegetated outcrop dominating the centre of town and peaked with a golden stupa, a focal point for New Year or Pi Mai celebrations in April. It's a hot climb to the TOP RIGHT: Inner tubing on the Mekong is a popular activity for visitors and locals alike. BELOW RIGHT: Climbers to the top of Mount Phousi in the heart of Luang Prabang are rewarded with a fine view.

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