INDOCHINA’S GLITTERING CITIES OF GOLD

A journey to three fascinating cities that were once the dazzling capitals of ancient kingdoms

Words by Pamela McCourt Francescone
Photos by  Pamela McCourt Francescone and Archivio

Luang Prabang, Hue, Phnom Penh.  Once glittering capitals of powerful kingdoms in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, they have a lot more in common than just their colourful dynastic pasts. They are all on rivers (Hue on the Perfume River and the other two on the mighty Mekong), all three have royal palaces, they are all in countries with strong Buddhist traditions, and they are three of Southeast Asia’s most unspoiled and charming destinations.On what does their charm depend? The first impression, and it is a lasting one, is that time seems to move at a delightful slow pace. Then you find yourself surrounded by the majesty, history and spirituality that is interwoven into their social fabric, and by the unparalleled beauty of their traditional architecture, palaces and temples. And by how, despite the intrusion of tourism, the people of these former kingdoms have resolutely held on to their age-old style of life and practices.  You find this anchoring to the past in their customs and rituals, their crafts and pursuits and in their gastronomic traditions.  Food is omnipresent. At all hours of the day steaming bowls of soup, grilled meats and fish, mounds of vegetables and the ubiquitous noodles can be found on every street corner.  Visiting local markets is another way to feel the heartbeat of these cities. In Luang Prabang’s downtown morning market fresh produce is artfully piled on the roadside with a liberal sprinkling of edibles that may not be for all tastes such as grilled frogs, serpents, bats, crickets and worms. Hue’s Dong Ba market spills over with food stalls and is a great place for picking up Vietnamese conical hats, pottery and artisan bamboo crafts and in the Russian market in Phnom Penh you can find anything from diamonds to chainsaws and the smiles that greet you along the narrow alleyways are worth more than any bargain! A good reason for rising at dawn in these cities is to see the alms processions of Buddhist monks who walk barefoot through the streets in their orange robes accepting offerings. This mystical moment gains further depth when seen through the swirling morning mists of Luang Prabang in the mountains of central Laos. Originally a series of small settlements built around temples, in 1867 the French arrived and introduced their own elegant brand of colonial architecture.   But the true soul of this former independent kingdom is to be found in its temples, the Xieng Thong being the most exquisite example of the characteristic architecture with its elegantly sweeping roofs and mosaic-decorated gables.  Journey up the Mekong to the Pak Ou caves to marvel at hundreds of Buddha statues.  Laos was once called the Kingdom of the Million Elephants, so an elephant ride through shady forests is an experience not to be missed.  And adopting Luang Prabang’s laid-back pace, relax at the small cafes and restaurants along the Mekong and enjoy the delicious local cuisine and excellent Lao Beer.

Hue, which was the capital of the Nguyen kings for over 250 years is, after Hanoi, Vietnam’s most culturally profound destination where poetry, not commerce, rules the day. The heritage left by the Nguyens include munificent temples, hundreds of pagodas and a royal compound within a moat within three walled cities.  Not to be missed are the tombs of the Nguyen kings, the most magnificent being the Tomb of Minh Mang. And the best way to visit the Forbidden Purple City, the former residence of the imperial family, is to  hop onto a cyclo, the local version of a taxi, and hold on tight as the driver  weaves in and out of traffic up to the looming walls of the Citadel.

 

Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, is a blend of influences from East and West and unlike many other Asian cities has not been flattened by globalization. The French built wide boulevards and handsome monuments like the Town Hall and the ochre-tinted Central Market with its huge domed roof.   The ancient Khmer era is reflected in the Independence Monument which echoes the temples at Angkor Wat, while many examples of “New Khmer” architecture date to the post-Independence 50s and 60s. But the secret of Phnom Penh’s unique charm is its people who have preserved their identity as the “Latins” of Asia. They like to joke and chat with visitors, always leading with a really genuine smile. The city is a big onion. Peel back one layer with a visit to Sisowath Quay’s restaurants and bars. And then more layers discovering narrow alleyways packed with shops and street vendors, the promenade along the Mekong and Bassac rivers, and the Phnom Hill which are all part of its remarkable heritage.

 

The Royal Palace, where King Norodom Sihamoni resides, attracts visitors who come to admire the Silver Pagoda, the floor of which is covered with 5,000 one-kilo tiles. The Tuol Sleng Prison, where prisoners were held for interrogation during the dark days of Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields cast a dark shadow over today’s cheerful city. Tragic though they are, they are fundamental for understanding Cambodia’s more recent history: pages the Cambodians can not forget and are a lesson to the world of how the tenacity and fortitude of a people can combine to create a new world.