Cultural Capital of Laos

Day 376 – 11 March, 2016

I didn’t know much about Luang Prabang before my arrival in Southeast Asia, although I had heard of it and had a preconceived notion that I would really enjoy it. I’m not sure where this expectation came from, but I think it is within the scope of human nature to subconsciously internalize the reactions of others and take them for your own. Almost everyone I met whom had been to Laos before me spoke highly of Luang Prabang, if for no other reason, because it was rich in culture, quiet and there wasn’t a ton to do there but relax.  The night market was one of the best I had seen in quite awhile (and there are loads of night markets in Asia!)

My first night back in the city, I reconnected with Melinda. Her short holiday was coming to a close and she would be leaving the following day to go back home. Together with Iris, a lovely Norwegian girl I met in my hostel, and a French guy that Melinda knew, the four of us decided to try a Lao barbecue restaurant. A metal pot, shaped like a bundt pan, was placed in the middle of the table and a large plate of raw meat, eggs and vegetables was artfully displayed along with it. First, using a chunk of pork fat to grease the hump in the middle and pouring a generous amount of water in the basin, we were able to grill the meat and boil the vegetables at the same time. It was a fun interactive way to enjoy a social meal. The eggs, being the trickiest item to master, were mostly poached or scrambled by the time they slid from the hump (for frying) into the water and then fished back out using a fork and chopsticks.

The viewpoint in the center of the historic part of the old city can be reached by climbing a few flights of stone stairs landscaped into the hill. To say this venture was soured by the number of Chinese tourists with selfie sticks would be an understatement. No matter where I travelled in this part of the world, the Chinese tourist was ubiquitous, always pushing and shoving, rarely without a selfie stick aggressively maneuvered into position. I truly hate to generalize this fact because I know there must be some socially-aware worldly Chinese tourists out there who realize they are surrounded by international citizens with different customs than their own; I just didn’t encounter any. The lookout was framed by the lovely Annamite Range, but the vantage point was unreasonably small for the number of people and I couldn’t stay for the sunset as originally planned. On my way back down, I fought the ascending traffic, selfie sticks and all.

The Kuang Si Waterfall and Asiatic black bear sanctuary was a short drive outside of town and while Luang Prabang is not considered an especially busy city by local standards, I always relish the opportunity to get out in nature. While not the only waterfall in close proximity to the city limits, Kuang Si was the only one with flowing water at the moment. It turns out when the dry season strikes, it really is the dry season. The waterfall is composed of three different tiers with pools and mineral rich water to bathe in. The water was cold and refreshing; I almost missed my return transport because I lost track of time in the peaceful scene. On the way back down, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the black bears, also known as moon bears, which are an endangered species in Asia. Their bile is used in Chinese medicine in a variety of cures and also in many standard bath products. Seeing these bears frolicking around in a playful manner was enough to melt anyone’s heart and hopefully reconsider the ingredients of their shower gel!

While I haven’t mentioned it much, I was sick almost the entire time I was in Laos. I blame it on the pollution; I had a sore throat, cough, and a headache and sometimes it was hard to drag myself out of bed. On my final full day in the city, I decided to get a Lao massage….you know, to make me feel better (wink). There are plenty of spas in the historic part of Luang Prabang, difficult to distinguish the good ones from the bad ones purely on sight. Because there are so many, almost all of these spas are completely empty of patrons for the majority of the day. When you enter, you’ll see 10-12 barefoot women sitting on the floor or in other awkward places, chatting or braiding each other’s hair. They will always make room for you so long as they don’t have to move from their chatting position. Even with all the other beds empty, they will position you right next to the toilet or on the one bed where the fan doesn’t work or next to the broken speaker where the music comes out gravelly. It’s to be expected. I had the one teenage boy as my masseuse; his mother was probably one of the hens sitting around who couldn’t be troubled to get up. I also had the massage table next to the toilet with the broken fan and gravelly speaker. It wasn’t a bad massage exactly, but the atmosphere wasn’t what I had in mind.

All of these activities had some element of cultural heritage, but one ritual in particular that Luang Prabang is most famous for is the procession of monks that winds through the city streets for alms-giving every morning. This is an age-old tradition for the centuries of monks who have always lived here, and while there were many tourists who participated and tried to follow local customs, there were many others who acted disrespectfully. The ritual is such that the faithful will sit quietly, without shoes on a mat, while offering donations of food to the monks. The monks, in turn, partake of the food for their one meal in the day. I saw a mob of Chinese tourists following the procession, with camera flashes blinding the monks at times. This made me feel sad for the loss of authenticity of what these monks were there to represent and I left feeling kind of sleazy for having been a witness to such blatant bad behavior as if all of us were complicit in some strange way.

When I left Luang Prabang, I still felt ill, but I was well-rested and unexpectedly fond of, not just this city, but the whole country.  While not quite done, I had so far been rewarded with magnificent views, kind and hospitable people, and a deeper understanding of the cultural values they hold dear.

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