That last post was a bit high on the whine about obnoxious tourists, but I’m not going to spend any more time on that for the rest of these posts. It’s out of my system and there’s too many other things to mention.
We arrived in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site as the sun set, and bolted from the crowd lingering for their luggage at the boat. There was a road that paralleled the river, and we decided to follow the string of hotels lining it.
The charm was immediately obvious. Laos had once been colonized by the French, and as a result, their architecture was largely in the French colonial style of the early 20th Century. Even now, where there was much new construction underway throughout the hotel district (ensuring an early rise every day,) all new buildings maintained the style of the old, giving the city a distinctively Asian-European feel.
Wood buildings, slatted window shutters, patio cafes, and a view of the river as it rolled on by gave the first impression of a place where we were going to get cozy very fast. There had been plenty of development for tourism, but it wasn’t overt and in your face like it had been in Chiang Mai. There was definitely a different feel here.
We hadn’t made reservations so we checked in with a few of the hotels further down the strip, but they were booked. We found one that offered us a special rate, but would only be available for that night. The room was elegant, and we took it. It was completely dark due to the wood walls, with a desk, vanity, tv, fridge, closet, safe, and a modern bathroom with a shower stall instead of just a bathroom with a showerhead inside it, as most of Asia seems to use. It was really a nice room.
We cleaned up and went on a wander for dinner, and found a place nearby that was clearly on the upper end for Luang Prabang. After the last few days we’d decided to treat ourselves a bit between the room and the meal. I tried the local pineapple whisky. Not bad. A bit sweeter than I usually like, but still good.
We wandered around after dinner and found the night market. While similar in style to the Thai night markets, this one was markedly different. There were many more handmade goods such as blankets, scarves, duvet covers, pillow cases, and anything else that could be sewn by hand. A lot of these things were not just rammed together in a factory somewhere else. These vendors had been making blankets etc. for a long time, and you could see the workmanship just by examining it closely. Before we left a few days later, we had bought a blanket from this market. My grandmother and my mother have been making quilts and blankets for years, and I have grown up seeing the kind of work that goes into them. I recognized the worth of what I was seeing and made sure we got one before we left.
We also found a lot of silver shops in Luang Prabang. Really beautiful and ornate work, made locally in Hmong villages and elsewhere. Maria finally convinced herself to get a silver dragon bracelet that caught her eye. She never caves to purchases on our travels like I do. It was nice to see her finally get herself something that she really liked.
Our first night in Luang Prabang showed us that we really had happened on something quite different and somehow authentic that I hadn’t felt yet on the trip. Other than perhaps the weekend market in Bangkok (which I will come to in the last post.)
The next day we rented bicycles and toured the outer ring of the city, having a look at where the people of the city lived beyond the tourist area where we had located ourselves. Lumber yards, roadside food stands, a scooter loaded with a chicken on one side, a live goose on the other. A dusty stadium where two young girls combed the grounds, collecting garbage with scrunched faces under the mid-day sun. As we circled back around and re-approached the city centre, we spotted a temple on a nearby hill that caught our attention.
I met a young monk here who had told me of his interest in studying English. I took the opportunity to ask him questions I’d had about the young monks you see everywhere in Thailand and especially in Laos. He explained how there were junior monks and senior monks, and how the junior monks are assigned all of the general chores for the grounds. The monks his age had been doing some construction on the site, pouring new concrete for the past couple of months. The job was half finished.
“I’ve been thinking about leaving to go study.”
“So how does that work?”
“Well, you just tell them you want to leave, then you leave.”
So being a monk was completely voluntary, and though not all young men did it, it was considered highly esteemed to have done it. Similar to Thailand, where I had heard that most young men spend some time studying as a monk. It can’t be a bad thing to spend time as a student of spirituality, as opposed to a mandatory term in the military. Maybe that’s what lends to the generally laid-back attitude in both countries.
We had intended to stay for at least a day, but considering how much effort we had made to get there and what we had found, we stayed for three days. I would have stayed for longer had we the time. Luang Prabang really did feel like a Shangri-La deep in the heart of the country, a city in a forest and holding true to a laid-back river lifestyle.
On one of our days there, we were walking by a temple complex and saw a series of black cars pulling up and a lot of security getting out quickly. Something was up. A guy was headed into one of the temples, flanked by serious people, so we waited to see who it was. The Laotians had gathered and were all waiting for glimpse of him. When he emerged a few minutes later, he stopped for photos and a bit of glad-handing before disappearing with his entourage again. I got a few photos of him before he was gone. Turns out it was Thaksin Shinawatra, a highly controversial ex-Prime Minister from Thailand who was ousted by military coup a few years back.
Here are some larger panoramas (click for larger.)
From Phu Si hill facing south-west with the Mekong River.
If you are in the region of Thailand and Laos, go to Luang Prabang. Especially before “things change,” as I keep hearing they will due to the continual choking of the river upstream in China for damming projects. Or before Laos is further developed and spoiled by tourism as Thailand might be.