Yet it’s in restaurants where I see a return to authenticity and in the town’s main market where I get the feeling that it never left.
Restaurants serve dishes festooned by tangles of vegetables that taste like they have been ripped right out of the jungle. At Tamarind, we try barbecued cured pork cooked over the flames with lemongrass stalks, and a dish of deep-flavored greens, the least exotic of which is mint. At Coconut Garden, a salad arrives dense with peanuts, herbs, bits of dried red pepper, and banana leaves. It is intensely tasty, stressing texture and an appealing bitterness — two addictive keys to understanding local taste.
The next morning, I take a short tuk-tuk ride outside of the town center to Phousi market and find that whole jungle on display. Every recognizable food item is matched by something that I have never seen before.
“Those,” says a local chef, pointing toward cabbage and broccoli, “are for the hotels with Western clients.”
“And what’s this?” I ask, holding up a thicket of leafy greens.
“That?” he replies, “That has no name.”
Later that night, I take a lazy bike ride through town, following the Mekong River and the bumpy back streets, and hear the chanting when I stop to adjust my seat. I follow the sound to the dilapidated Wat Pak Khan, walk up to a side door, then take a seat on the floor in the back corner. Here, every evening in the dying light, monks come in for vespers, praying under their golden Buddha.
It feels like everyone else in town is heading for coffee or getting ready for dinner. At the temple, there is no tourism, no UNESCO, just the privilege of observing an intimate ritual. I’m not taking photos anymore. It is just me and the monks. I realize that more than almost any other town I have been in, one of Luang Prabang’s greatest rewards is pulling me into its flow.
On my last morning in town, I rise early to watch the morning alms procession and sit on the quiet side street, across from the two women I saw on my first day in town. Soon, I notice the eldest pulling at the string that attaches the top and bottom of her rice basket and a moment later, she turns the top into a bowl, fills it with half of her rice, and offers it to me. By the time I have crossed the street, she has slid over to share a mat with her neighbor and given me her low stool.
Dawn has barely broken, the monks have yet to arrive, and in my hands I have a basket of rice to offer as a gift.
Joe Ray can be reached at www.joe-ray.com.