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.

The Backcountry

Day 373 – 8 March, 2016

Most travelers to Laos stick to the obvious places – Vientiane, Vang Vieng, and Luang Prabang. Unknowingly at the time, I took a minibus on a route between Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang that had seen sniper activity directed against the Chinese in retaliation for a Chinese business venture to build multiple dams on the Ou River only one week earlier. On March 9, I received a notification from the US State Department to avoid this area after a shooting had happened on March 1 and others in November, December, January, and February. Considering I made the journey on March 6, I was a bit alarmed to learn that it took 9 full days to be notified.

Aside from that, I arrived in Luang Prabang on the same day as Melinda; Darcey beat us by one day and already had the lay of the land. My guesthouse was adorable and cozy. I had a shared room with just one other person, but I had only booked one night just in case it was not acceptable when I arrived. Unfortunately, they were booked out the following night. When you’re traveling with 30kg of stuff (to be clear, I’m not proud of my excessive luggage) and for lack of a better term, it really sucks to move when it’s not my own idea. If I have to move, I might as well leave entirely although leaving Luang Prabang after only one night just wasn’t going to be enough time to do it justice. Nong Khiaw, was only a few hours further north, supposedly worth a visit, and would require my return to Luang Prabang anyway so I decided to make the detour, while also booking myself back into my guesthouse in Luang Prabang a few days in the future.

While I wasn’t expecting to leave so soon, I said goodbye to Darcey at this time before she made the slow boat journey to Thailand and beyond. We met one last time for the traditional Luang Prabang buffet line. In a back alley, there are loads of vendors displaying their dishes of noodles and rice and vegetables and unidentifiable meat. For only $3, you are provided a large bowl that you can fill as much as you are able with loads of different delicacies. We chose the vegetarian buffet because….well you know. The meat buffets, while not highly desirable for me anyway, usually included at least one staff member that would fan away the flies. So…vegetarian it is! Delicious and good value, I highly recommend at least one visit if you ever find yourself in Luang Prabang.

The next morning I was on another minibus to Nong Khiaw. No fluent English speakers accompanied me, although there was a group of friendly French travelers who took an interest in me when I developed a bit of motion sickness on the windy road. Deposited at the bus station 4 hours later, I was relegated to a tuktuk to get me to my guesthouse. The motion sickness had yet to subside so once I had checked into my private room, I collapsed into my bed to sleep it off. I woke up after dark with a ravenous appetite, but I was fresh out of cash as I had spent it all on my room. Luckily, there was an ATM only about 100m up the road. A visit to the ATM revealed a machine that was out of cash and it happened to be the day before a holiday. Fantastic.  

Nong Khiaw is a beautiful country town that sits on two sides of the Nam Ou River, separated by a modern bridge. I assumed there must be another machine on the other side of the bridge so I started walking. The bridge was approximately 200m in length, if my memory serves. While the side I started walking from was completely illuminated with street lights, the other side was dark as ink. Nevertheless, I continued walking as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could start to see the shapes of local teenagers who were intentionally sitting in the dark. Well, this was….not ideal. If I made it to the other side, I would be coming back across with a wad of cash. Yeah, no. The problem being that I didn’t really realize this until I was almost on the other side. Once across, I waited patiently for my opportunity to go back. A group of 10 female German tourists began to noisily cross the bridge so I surreptitiously joined their group so I wouldn’t have to make the return route in the dark by myself. Back at my hostel, I was still hungry and still had no money. I was prepared to settle for anything so I hungrily eyed the Pringles and Snickers that were displayed outside my guesthouse, an obvious side business. I explained to the owner what had happened, that I was hungry, but didn’t have any money. She looked sympathetic, but not enough to float me some credit. Instead, she beckoned her daughter in the local tongue. The 15-year-old disappeared for a few minutes and reappeared with a motorbike on the street, motioning for me to join her. I climbed on the back, she drove me across the bridge to an ATM, waited while I secured my funds, and then drove me back safe and sound. Because it was now nearing 10:00 and most of the restaurants were shut down for the night, I still had to settle for a dinner of Pringles.

In the following 2 days I did a hike in the blistering heat up to a viewpoint, not encountering any other hikers on the way, and also walked to some caves a mile or so down the road. The viewpoint was worth the effort, but it served as a punishing reminder that I was back at altitude and severely out of shape. The caves were rather disappointing, but the walk to get to the caves was nice and worthwhile.

Meanwhile, back in town, I received the notification from the US State Department about the travel advisory.   I happened to be sitting in an Australian-owned cafe at the time and asked the owner what he knew about the incident. His first response? “Oh, so the US finally found out about that, huh?” Apparently, the Lao government had tried to keep the shooting under wraps so as not to interfere with tourism on a popular tourist route. This is when I learned that the targets were not tourists – the violence was targeted at Chinese dam workers, although sometimes Chinese tourists, or as collateral damage, other tourists were sometimes caught in the crosshairs. The dams are major impediments to the local fishing and farming economy and the locals were not taking kindly to these foreigners disrupting their way of life. I sympathized with their plight and I was sorry they felt that violence was their only repercussion against the consequences of the dam.

My time in Nong Khiaw was characterized by friendly locals, stunning scenery, and peaceful vibes. As I write this, I’m still haunted by the little known environmental drama that was playing out around me (and still is right now). I still get notifications that the situation is not secure and yet the dam building continues. My memories of Laos are not punctuated by violence or snipers. My memories are of poor people that are just trying to survive the only way they can and sadly, they feel the need to make a big statement that will get the attention of theirs or foreign governments.