(Published in the NOW! Jakarta Magazine, April 2016)

Luang Prabang, Laos

The township of Luang Prabang in Northern Laos has long been regarded a survivor of old colonial-Asian style in rapidly urbanizing Southeast Asia. Its architecture is protected by UNESCO; its unique Laotian culture has been preserved by its isolation (political and geographical). Even legendary hotelier Adrian Zecha, who has his birthday there every year, has chosen Luang Prabang as the site of the first hotel in his four star boutique hotel chain, called the Serai.
Luang Prabang sits serenely on a broad meander of the Mekong River. It is served by convenient flights from Vientiane and Bangkok. The visa on arrival process is Soviet era but painless.

There are any number of excellent homestays and small boutique hotels and one or two quite grand hotels. Most hotels are in French colonial-era buildings. The Amantaka, for example, is in the old colonial-era hospital. The Hotel de la Pais is in the old jail.
I stayed at Mekong Estates, a small boutique hotel built in the Laotian style. It sits right on the Mekong river, just ten minutes down the river from the Pha Tad Kew horticultural garden where I had meetings. The garden is still under construction but will be amazing when it opens.
Temple-hopping is the best activity in Luang Prabang. All of the temples are very atmospheric at sunset when the monks are chanting.
There are many excellent restaurants all over town too — le Elephant being the most celebrated — and small noodle shops are everywhere.
There is fabulous shopping in Luang Prabang, for traditional textiles (the ikats of the hill tribes are among the most intricate and artistic in Southeast Asia), for handcrafts (the baskets and woven mats, likewise, amongst the best to be found anywhere) and funky fashion.

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Rik Gadella is my host this trip. He was a widely-respected publisher of cultural books and an organizer of Tribal Art Fairs in Paris. For the last seven years he has put all his energy into horticultural studies — creating, as he went, a truly amazing botanical garden called Pha Tad Kew which will be open to the public by the end of 2016. I stayed at his friend Swiss interior designer Jean-Pierre Doval’s studio home within the charming Mekong Estate hotel he created on the banks of the river, quite near town. His home is like a museum of Laotian arts and crafts and I tip-toe around like a bull in a china shop.
It is freezing cold (5 degrees Celsius) due to a sudden cold snap that has brought snow to the North Laotian mountains. Rugged up in layers Jean-Pierre’s coral-pink cashmere cardigans I hop into a cigar boat for a ten minute trip up stream. Eventually,  visitors to the gardens will travel up the Mekong from a private downtown jetty in a comfortable boat — for the time being Rick is roughing it, putting every penny into the gardens.
The botanical garden already has a library, a propagation nursery, botanical artists and staff of 30 workers kept busy realizing Rick’s dream.
It is such a noble endeavour in a country with no other botanical garden in a town short on diversity, so it sure to succeed.
I have my first Laotian meal in the garden’s visitor centre — it is delicious. The fried river grass tossed in sesame seed particularly good.
Back home I indulge in a Laotian traditional message which is like a Thai traditional message except the masseur is grumpier. As people the Laotians seem more like the Communist Chinese and Vietnamese than the free-wheeling Thais.

Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden, Luang Prabang, Laos: Dutchman Rik Gadella is working wonders on 10 hectares on the banks of the Mekong with the help of 20 local and international botanists, gardeners, artists and architects, interns and horticulturalists. And publishing great books. Bravo. Opening 2016 we hope

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Still freezing I go to the main temple in town and find the monks huddled around bonfires.
Vat Visounnarath Temple opposite the Red Cross is called the Museum Temple because it houses relics from the Khmer era, many over 500 years old. The carvings on the main vihara’s doors are remarkably like Balinese classical carving: I am not surprised to discover that Bali and Laos have shared ancestry dating back to the 10th century when the Javanese Sailendra dynasty controlled much of Northern Laos!

Hotel-hopping: (left to right) The Amantaka hotel; The Santi hotel; The Mekong Estates

Temple-hopping: Assorted images from Vat Visounnarath, the museum temple in the middle of town

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More temple-hoping with my guide Paat Tong, the artist from the Botanical Garden. He apprenticed at my office in Bali late last year. We visit the stunning Vat Xieng Thong, the only temple to survive the purge lead by the conquering Thai military 300 years ago. Across the road I visit Vat Souvannakhiri which is almost residential in its scale and has a beautiful courtyard garden and some fine mosaic decorations.
We have a very good lunch at the classy Hotel de la Paix, now run by Sofitel.

More temple-hopping (clockwise from top left); images of the famous Vat That Luang Rasamalia-vihate and Vat Xieng Thong temple, near the royal palace in Luang Prabang. The main wantilan style worshiping All the only temple to survive the Thai purge 3 centuries ago – it survives as a masterpiece of medieval Laotian temple architecture, with some spry modern touches

Khmer statues at Vat Visounnarath

My guide, Paat Thong, in very pretty small temple Vat Souvannakhiri opposite Vat Xieng Thong

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It is sad visiting the former Royal Palace Museum and seeing former pre-revolutionary photos of the elegant royals, once the chicest in all of South Asia.
One royal family member — one who escaped the purge — is back from Paris with a Ph.D. in Psychology from the Sorbonne and is advising the Amantaka on cultural matters. I visit Dr. Nithakong Somsomth’s house and find a dynamic artist in a house full of treasures. He tells me the sad history of his family’s decline and his mission to the old royal textile traditions.

Photo of beauty warrior prince Dr. Nithakhong Somsonith with a photo of his late parents. And photos of his amazing embroidery art. His has a Mekong-side studio home in Luang Prabang and is cultural and spiritual ambassador for the Amantaka

Photographs from Grant Evans extraordinary book ‘The Last Century of Lao Royalty’

Photographs of the garden of the former Royal Palace

See my Video: LUANG PRABANG, LAOS, 27 January 2016:   

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I flast year belonged to any Cambodian artist, 42-year-old Anida Yoeu Ali would surely have taken the crown.
Widely known as one of the country’s most internationally successful contemporary artists, in 2015 Ali won the Sovereign Asian Art Prize for emerging artists. She was invited to exhibit in numerous shows around the world, but earned even more exposure in December when she became the “face” of the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial (APT8) of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, Australia, with her work adorning most of the event’s promotional material. Running until April, it’s arguably
the country’s most important art exhibition

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