'Refuge of the last dreamers': the Laos city suspended in time

Once a royal city in ancient Laos, Luang Prabang is home to Buddhist temples nestled in a valley on the Mekong River.

Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang in Laos [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]
Luang Prabang in Laos [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

A new day breaks to the rhythmic shuffling of bare feet upon the ground.

Like an apparition from centuries past, a procession of several hundred shaven-headed monks emerges through the dawn mist, snaking its way through the sleepy narrow streets. Buddhist locals line the route to make their daily offerings of rice and fruit as the monks file by with their alms bowls. Then, as silently as they appeared, the monks disappear back inside their temple walls, their saffron robes billowing softly behind them.

Luang Prabang temple
A monk rushes to dawn prayers and meditation at one of the hundreds of Buddhist temples in Luang Prabang, Laos [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

This dawn ritual in Luang Prabang is just one aspect of life that lends the small city its ethereal, forgotten air. Located in the country of Laos, 370km (229 miles) northwest of the capital, Vientiane, Luang Prabang lies in a beautiful valley at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.

That, during parts of the 20th century, the borders of Laos were sealed to foreigners, combined with its shimmering temples and ancient religious aura, has ensured the town has remained one of the most cloistered, unspoiled places on the planet.

Luang Prabang
Monks gather for a meal at a Buddhist temple retreat in Luang Prabang [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]
Monks gather for a meal at a Buddhist temple retreat in Luang Prabang [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

As the morning begins, the inhabitants of Luang Prabang go about their business amid the city's enchanting blend of ornate Buddhist temples and crumbling French colonial architecture.

Luang Prabang
A monk leaves his accommodation on temple grounds [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

The serenity of this holy place seeps effortlessly into the rhythms of daily life. The small alleyways off the main street are filled with young boys making kites, old men playing boules, schoolgirls laden with textbooks riding along on bicycles, women cooking and filling the air with the intoxicating tang of oil, chilli and garlic.

Sunday is dog washing day in Luang Prabang [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]
Sunday is dog washing day in Luang Prabang [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Other locals pass the time by sitting on their front porches making paper dragons, attaching them to pieces of string and watching them float up in the breeze.

Luang Prabang
A barber at work [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Myth and reality seem to dovetail neatly in the story of Luang Prabang's origins.

Legend says that centuries ago, two sorcerers were travelling down the Mekong when they arrived at a point where two rivers met. The whole area radiated an extraordinary beauty; flowers grew in a riot of colour, and majestic trees towered on the river banks.

Luang Prabang
Waiting for the wind. A boy with his kite on the banks of the Mekong River [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]
Waiting for the wind. A boy with his kite on the banks of the Mekong River [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

The sorcerers were so captivated by what they saw, they summoned 15 local water spirits to create a new royal city on the spot. Then, the sorcerers used their mystical powers to decide the best sites for the royal palace and the many temples. When the city's boundaries were established, they named their creation Xieng Thong, or "The Golden City".

Luang Prabang
A Monk prunes the bougainvillea hedge on temple grounds [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

In fact, Luang Prabang was founded in the 14th century when it became the seat of power of the Lan Xang dynasty that ruled land-locked Laos for three centuries.

Buddhism was declared the official religion around the same time, and a succession of Lan Xang kings promoted the faith by erecting magnificent temples in the Lord Buddha's honour. Thirty-two of these historic Buddhist temples still stand in Luang Prabang today. The most renowned is the stunning Wat Xieng Thong, or the Golden City Temple, built in 1560.

Luang Prabang
A novice Monk sleeps in his room after taking part in the alms ceremony [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]
A novice Monk sleeps in his room after taking part in the alms ceremony [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Set in green, shaded grounds, it has classic Luang Prabang temple architecture with roofs that sweep down to the ground in graceful arcs, a dazzling gold-leaf exterior and an intricate "tree of life" mosaic on its rear wall.

Luang Prabang
A monk enters the mouth of an animist installation on the road outside Luang Prabang coming from Vientiane. There are many similar structures, celebrating the 'Phii' - or animist spirits - made from concrete or fibreglass, peppered around various parts of Laos [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

When the Lan Xang kingdom fell in the 17th century, and the capital of Laos was moved to Vientiane, Luang Prabang adapted to the decline of its royal status by preserving its sacred role as a centre of Buddhist worship. It also survived by drawing on its ancient beliefs in "Phii", or animist spirits.

Luang Prabang
A young boy in his hammock [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]
A young boy in his hammock [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Phii are the spirits of wind, water, trees and the dead who are thought to influence human fortunes and the natural environment. Many inhabitants of Luang Prabang, as well as the ethnic groups such as the Hmong and Mien found in the blue-tinged mountains above the city, pray to these spirits to help them navigate difficult times.

Luang Prabang
A shop window displays old photographs in the centre of the old town of Luang Prabang [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Small shrines containing brightly coloured offerings of food and gifts can be seen on roadsides and in shops and houses all over the region.

The co-existence of Buddhism with such organic faith in the powers of nature undoubtedly helped Luang Prabang retain its tranquillity during other periods of turbulence, too, including the inception of French colonial rule in the late 19th century, and the civil war in Laos in the 1970s and 1980s.

Luang Prabang
Majestic trees line the banks of The Mekong, Luang Prabang, Laos [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]
Majestic trees line the banks of The Mekong, Luang Prabang, Laos [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Indeed, despite the fact that Luang Prabang is now more accessible to foreigners due to air travel and a tourist-friendly Laos government, little here has changed. The city seems to cast a spell over all its visitors, sucking them into its meditative slipstream and gently deflecting any intrusions into its old way of life.

Luang Prabang
Riverside commerce on the banks of the Mekong River [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

In 1995, UNESCO placed Luang Prabang on the World Heritage list, making it eligible for preservation funds from the UN and thus further contributing to a more stable future.

Emerging from the backstreets onto the main thoroughfare of Thanon Khaem Khong, the powerful yet soothing Mekong dreamily passes by.

Luang Prabang
Unloading building supplies from one of the many boats that dock on the Nam Khan River [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]
Unloading building supplies from one of the many boats that dock on the Nam Khan River [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

On its banks below, old wooden boats unload their heavy cargo, people cross to the opposite bank in shuttle boats, barefoot young men play football and tourists negotiate fares for the two-hour journey to the famous Pak Ou caves that are crammed full of Buddha statues.

Luang Prabang
A commuter boat speeds its way up the Nam Khan River [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Later, the sun sets in a giant ball of fiery orange and red, its rays kicking off the Mekong and painting its banks a warm golden hue. Day fades into the coolness of night as the first stars appear. The lively noises of children playing evaporate into the distance as they make their way home.

In the temples dotted around the city, monks begin their evening chant. The mesmeric sound reverberates across the valley and then dies, as the inky outline of the mountains bleeds into the darkness.

Luang Prabang
Bank-to-bank crossings on the Nam Khan River [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]
Bank-to-bank crossings on the Nam Khan River [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Nearby, sitting under a fringe of pastel-coloured paper lanterns at a riverside restaurant, a group of French tourists drink beer and converse in languid murmurs. Their mood seems to echo that of one of their compatriots almost a century earlier.

Luang Prabang
A chess table among the trees on the banks of the Nam Khan River [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

In 1909, Marthe Bassene, the wife of a French colonial doctor, described Luang Prabang as a "delightful paradise" devoid of the modern pressures of progress and ambition. Could this place, she asked in her journal, be the "refuge of the last dreamers, the last lovers, the last troubadours"?

Tonight, like every night here, Luang Prabang answers the question with gentle stillness and silence.

Luang Prabang
A dawn yoga session in Luang Prabang, Laos [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]
A dawn yoga session in Luang Prabang, Laos [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera