Croissants in Luang Prabang
It’s not too surprising that Luang Prabang gets billed first and foremost as a spiritual center. The old town is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, largely because of its more than 30 temples with gleaming gold facades, multi-tiered roofs and glittering mosaics. As the sun rises every morning, tourists pour out onto the main drag to give alms to the city’s 200 monks, who take their tokens of rice while being blinded by a million camera flashes.
What’s more surprising is that guidebooks don’t emphasize how much Luang Prabang, the main tourist destination in Laos, feels like France. I contemplate this while walking to breakfast, passing French café after French café, their patios blurring with the sidewalks.
The French first built a consulate in Luang Prabang in 1885. After battles with Siam (modern-day Thailand), France added Laos to its roster of Southeast Asian territories, along with Cambodia and Vietnam. The Lao people had mixed feelings about its French overlords: better than the Siamese, certainly, but the French didn’t make many improvements in Laos. Most resources went to Vietnam during that nearly 50-year period.
I arrive at my destination, Le Banneton, the most lauded bakery in Laos. It’s a simple-looking place, with white walls, wood beams and a ceiling of arabesques. But the pastry case beckons with its golden hue of viennoiserie, delicate layered cakes and crusty baguettes.
I order one croissant aux beurre. A quick tear and the surface erupts into countless flakes, its stretchy center an excellent sign of its properly buttery lamination process. It isn’t the best croissant I’ve ever had, but after traveling through Southeast Asia for weeks, it tastes positively luxurious. I had nearly forgotten what wonders butter can do.
I close my eyes, enveloped in the hum of French tourists deep in conversation. Across the street, monks stroll into one of Luang Prabang’s many temple complexes, their robes saffron flashes in my peripheral vision. Next to me, a stack of old French fashion magazines easily outnumbers Lao reading material. On the other side, a French family of four battles over the last bite of opera cake. The kids whine for more dessert, which sounds remarkably the same in every language.
Articles abound that claim tourists are ruining Luang Prabang; they disrespect the town’s Buddhist traditions while indirectly forcing longtime residents out of their homes so they can be turned into hotels.
But on this morning at Le Banneton, on a quieter end of Luang Prabang’s main street, with the neighboring temple only hosting a couple of tourists at a time, and the monks drying out their orange laundry as usual, we coexist peacefully.