The Town of Luang Prabang

Sunday, April 18, 2010

That’s how UNESCO lists this place in its roster of World Heritage Sites: “Town of Luang Prabang”. Most places on the list are things like “The Great Wall, China” or “Canterbury Cathedral”, so you’d think they might have singled out one or another of the lovely spots in the town: “That Chomsi, Luang Prabang” or “Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang”. But nope, its just the town. The whole town. And I can understand why, it’s really a gem. The sad thing is that you can tell that the tourism that is the town’s livelihood is also part of what’s causing the death of the things that make the place so lovely. There’s no McDonald’s on Sisavangvong Street yet, but you get the sense that Starbucks may not be far off. And I’m painfully aware that my visit contributed to the problem, but what’s the alternative?

These young monks were watching the Pi Mai water fight in the street below, not without a bit of envy, I think.

One of the most evocative things to see in Luang Prabang is the morning procession of the Buddhist monks through the town. Every day, starting at about 6:00 am, all the monks from the different wats walk through the town collecting alms from the local people. They walk in single file, robed in the various shades of orange that make them so photogenic, each with a large vessel slung over their shoulder. The local people sit at the side of the road and give each monk that passes a small ball of sticky rice from a container they’ve prepared. My understanding is that the food the monks collect each day is all they have to eat – they are completely dependant on the local people.

Some of the monks, collecting their alms. The procession passed right in front of my hotel. And it looked like some local people were being extra generous for Pi Mai, because some monks were carrying plastic bags with other kinds of food and drink in them.

There were little notices up around the town asking tourists to please be respectful of the monks during their walk. It’s a real, living thing this daily event, not a show for the tourists, and there are rules to be followed. Chief among these rules is that you must position yourself lower than the monks, as a sign of respect. You must not talk – the ritual is a silent one. You are also discouraged from buying rice to give the monks from street vendors, because the quality is often poor. And of course if you want to take photos you must not get in the way of the monks or the local people. It was all kind of common sense, so it was a bit sad to see that it had to be spelled out. (Then again, I suppose I was technically breaking the rules by being up on the balcony of the hotel to take photos, that being much higher than the monks. But I think there must be a range beyond which the rules do not apply, and I was being quiet and respectful.)

It’s hard to believe how young some of the monks are. Apparently many are sent to the monasteries because it’s prestigious to have a monk in the family, and while there the boy gets an education and is fed and clothed, so it’s a popular option for a family that might be struggling.

After watching the monks on my first morning in Luang Prabang it was still only about 7:30 am, so I had a leisurely breakfast and then trooped off to see Wat Xieng Thong, what the LP claimed was Luang Prabang’s most magnificent temple. By this time in my trip I’m definitely suffering from Temple Fatigue, but I did have a nice wander around and ended up chatting a bit with a French tourist who was trying to talk to one of the monks in French, with little success. I actually ended up speaking more French in Luang Prabang than I have anywhere outside of France, though it was all to other tourists.

A monk, working on the restoration of some part of the “sim” at Wat Xieng Thong.

It was a nice enough temple, and pleasingly full of photogenic monks in their orange robes. I wandered around the various buildings for as long as I could stand, but it was still only about 10:00 am when I left and started walking through the town some more. It was hot, and though there were many more wats I could have visited, I started to get the sense that an entire day of wat-hopping in the tropical heat might make me insane. On a whim I ducked into an LP-recommended travel agency on the main street and a few minutes later I walked out having booked a half-day trip to see the Kuang Si waterfall. Leaving at 1:30 pm in an air-conditioned minivan, we’d drive about an hour to see the famous waterfall, go for a dip, and then drive back. It seemed a nice way to spend a steamy afternoon, and for 50,000 Kip ($6.00) it was a bargain, too.

And it turned out to be a very lucky decision because in that mini van were Rob and Linda, a very fun and friendly Dutch couple that I ended up hanging out with all afternoon and evening. Being Dutch, they spoke flawless English. “Why do the Dutch speak such good English?” I asked. Their answer? “Because nobody else speaks Dutch.” Fair enough. It’s also because English television is shown in the Netherlands with the original English sound track and Dutch subtitles. And many companies do business in English. And Rob told me that anyone doing post-graduate work will write his or her thesis in English. So yeah, the Dutch speak good English.

The waterfall itself turned out to be fairly small and unimpressive, but we all went in the water anyways, wearing all our clothes. That seemed to be the done thing – all the locals were hanging around soaking wet, in jeans and t-shirts. Even though I’d brought clothes to swim in, there was really no where to change into them, so I just dove in with my shorts and shirt on.

Linda and me, in an artfully off-kilter shot by Rob

It was incredibly refreshing, and sitting around in wet clothes is a really good way to keep cool in hot weather. The water evaporating off the clothing actually has a cooling effect, so I was happy and comfortable for the first time in days.

After the drive back into town I stuck with Rob and Linda to go see the sand stupas and the beach party you’ve already heard about, and then we decamped to one of the many many many bars along the main street to have a beer and watch the Pi Mai mayhem. Even though we were right alongside the action, there seemed to be an unwritten rule that anyone who was actually sitting at at bar or restaurant was safe from the water fight, though I did notice that the restaurant had taken the precaution of covering the seat cushions in plastic.

While we were sitting we struck up a conversation with the couple at the table next to us. It turns out they were Thai, though both spoke really excellent English. That’s how we met them – Linda heard them speaking English and said something back. They said they always tried to make an effort to speak English for the sake of their small son, who was also with them. They wanted him to learn it from as young an age as possible. We talked with Nil and Rachel and played with baby Keith for quite a while, and learned about all kinds of things. Nil even gave us some interesting opinions on the current unrest in Bangkok. But the most interesting part of the conversation for me was when he talked about the Buddhist monks.

It turns out that being a Buddhist monk is not an all-or-nothing thing. Many young men will try it out for a short time – as little as two or three weeks. Sometimes, as I mentioned before, families will send young boys to live in a monastery so they can get an education or so that they can be fed and clothed if the family is in trouble. And all men are encouraged to do a stint in a monastery some time before they marry. Nil told us he’d gone to be a monk for two weeks and found it really helpful. He’d had to shave his head and eyebrows, and wear the saffron-coloured robes, and live off alms and everything. Apparently there are 300 rules a Buddhist monk must follow (though the very young ones are required to adhere to fewer than that). The oddest rule that Nil mentioned? Buddhist monks are not allowed to pee standing up. This has something to do with modesty, and peeing in rice paddies where if you stood up you would be noticed, but if you squatted you would not. It was a really interesting conversation. As I was sitting there with Rob and Linda, chatting away with this couple from Thailand I couldn’t help but think, “This is what the trip is about. It’s not the things you see, it’s the people you meet and the connections you make.” It was a great night. (And no, Rob H, I do not have any good photos or Rob and Linda or Nil and Rachel and baby Keith, so just get over it.)

The next day was the day of the first big parade, which you’ve heard about. What you didn’t hear about is that I actually ran into Rob and Linda again, after the parade was over and I was good and wet. That afternoon the three of us walked up the 100m high hill in the centre of Luang Prabang, Phu Si, to check out the temple and wat at the top. The climb was nothing for one who had scaled the lofty peaks of Emei San, but in the afternoon heat we all thought it would be much nicer to get sprayed with water at the top of the hill than at the bottom. The view was pleasant enough, though the air was hazy from smoke and dust. Linda had heard that the next big rain would clear the air nicely and let us see the mountains in the distance, but it was the end of the dry season, so all we got was haze.

A view of Luang Prabang, looking sort of east. You can’t see it in this picture, but from the top of the hill we could spot the areas where the Pi Mai celebrations were most festive because the streets were all wet.

The other fun and unavoidable thing to do in Luang Prabang is to wander in the market. It springs up on the sidewalks of the main street during the day and expands to fill the whole road, which gets closed to traffic, at night. It was mostly touristy stuff like Beerlao t-shirts and local handicrafts. I was particularly taken with the patchwork stuffed toys on offer – my favourite was a crocodile; I think I liked it so much because it reminded me of Alligator Al from Mr. Dressup. If they’d been a bit smaller, and my suitcase had been a bit less overstuffed, I might have bought one.

Of course there were also food stalls set up at the market. A lot of them sold baguette sandwiches with meat and veggies, though they also had ones with peanut butter (!) and Nutella (!!) and I even saw one being made with a good helping of sweetened condensed milk (!!!). Looking back on this, I wonder how I could possibly NOT have tried a peanut butter, Nutella and sweetened condensed milk sandwich. And for a mere 15,000 Kip ($1.75)? What was I thinking?

I guess I was probably thinking that I wanted to save room for another fruit shake. The vendors for these were everywhere. They’d display plastic cups full of various local fruits and you’d just pick the one you liked the looks of and it would get blended up with ice, sugar syrup and coconut milk. They were fantastic. I’m sure I had at least one a day while I was in Luang Prabang. Mango and pineapple, apple and lime, mango and watermelon… yum. And only 5,000 Kip ($0.60). Fruit shakes and sandwiches made out of Nutella… why did I ever leave?

The many flavours of fruit shake. Choose from the ones on display or request your own special combo.

On my last night in Luang Prabang the rains finally came. I was happily relaxing in my hotel room when the skies grew dark and the winds picked up and we had a positively biblical downpour. It put a stop to the Pi Mai festivities pretty quickly, and not too much later it also put a stop to the power supply in much of the town, including my hotel. I’d been planning a return trip to the Night Market because I had my eye on an Alligator Al and a Beerlao t-shirt, but it really didn’t seem to be the kind of weather one went out in. Instead I made it to the end of the block where there was an excellent French restaurant with a generator, and where I was seated at a table with a couple of other “orphan” diners. One was a young American guy who left after a short time, and one was a Frenchman who I ended up chatting with for the rest of the evening. I sensed that his English was better than my French, but he seemed happy to listen to me blunder along, so blunder I did. It was a nice last night in Luang Prabang, except that near the end of the evening I started to feel the unmistakable signs of a nasty head cold coming on: a pounding headache and an increasingly sore throat.

My plan was to fly to Houay Xai (“Hway Sigh”) the next day and then take off for “The Gibbon Experience” the following morning. But by time I made it to the guesthouse in Houay Xai after a rough night, two delayed flights and short tuk tuk ride, I felt like I’d been run over by an elephant. I checked in with the incredibly friendly woman at the gibbon office and she said it would be no problem for me to postpone for a couple of days, and even went next door to the pharmacy to help me buy some cold meds. (They look exactly like yellow M&Ms without the Ms, and seem to be about as effective.)

And that’s how I come to be sitting in the boring little border town of Houay Xai, relaxing, napping a lot, watching Dr. Who videos and getting over whatever dreaded lurgy befell me in Luang Prabang. It’s a shame to lose two days out of the schedule, but I think I made the right choice. The gibbon thingy is supposed to be an incredible experience, but it involves trekking and other strenuous activities, and I think I wouldn’t have enjoyed it if I’d been sniffling and snoozing the whole time. So having lost a bit of time in the schedule, something has to go, and it’s going to be Bangkok. I just figure there are a lot of places I can go in this part of the world where there aren’t people being killed in the streets. Yes, I know the areas where the trouble is are isolated, and it’s unlikely that anything would happen to me, but I need to skip something so Bangkok is it.

The view from the balcony at the guest house in Houay Xai. That’s Thailand across the river!

I’ll be offline for a few days while I live in the treetops with the gibbons. After that I’m off to Chiang Mai, where I hope to hash and see the sights before proceeding to Phnom Pen, Siem Riep, Angkor Wat, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Japan. It hardly seems believable that there are only six weeks left in my fifty week adventure. But at the same time I’m starting to think about going home more and more, so maybe it’s time.


Kathryn said...

Glad you are feeling better - and happy to hear that you will avoid the areas of 'strife'. Can't wait to hear about life in the treetops and look forward to some great photos.

Unknown said...

Glad you are on the mend. I predict many photos of the Gibbons.

Even though you only have a few weeks left, you should still build in some days off in your schedule.

Perhaps you got a cold from being run down?

Take care of yourself. (and take pics of everyone)


Rob H.

Unknown said...

And no doubt you will have seen a paper, or heard news... good idea to avoid Bangkok. Enjoy the last weeks! Whatever will I read now with my morning coffee?!

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