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Laos – Part 1 (Luang Prabang) August 11, 2010

Posted by jorkat in Luang Prabang.
9 comments

One of the things I love about traveling is losing track of time. Sometimes we’ll go days without knowing what day it is and the only reason we have to keep track is to occasionally figure out when we’re leaving for our next destination. Neither of us have watches and of course, no cell phones. It’s a nice feeling getting lost in a foreign city or village without a care in the world, and no time commitments or responsibilities. You eat when you’re hungry and you sleep when you’re tired. That’s it. This lifestyle is especially welcome in a place like Luang Prabang.

Out of all the places we’ve planned on visiting over the past year or so, I knew by far the least about Laos. Nestled in between Thailand and Vietnam, it’s one of the poorest countries we’ve ever visited with someone making $100 US per month being considered “middle class”. It’s also the most heavily bombed country in the world as it was caught in the crossfire of the Vietnam War and was used as a testing ground for all sorts of weaponry and ordinance by the US Army.

War and poverty aside, it’s one of the most scenic and laid back places in Southeast Asia. The locals lead a very simple lifestyle and welcome tourists with open arms. It has become somewhat commercialized in the past 5-10 years to attract tourists, but it’s really only the 3 or 4 main streets in the heart of this small village that have become littered with guest houses, restaurants and other creature comforts that allow visitors to enjoy affordable accommodations in a serene atmosphere. Once you venture outside of this small concentrated area, the real Luang Prabang can be seen in its truest form. Families living in bamboo huts that double as small stores and their primary source of income. People trying to make ends meet by living off the land, and working together with friends and neighbors to survive. It might sound dire from an outside perspective, but the perceived mood of the local population seemed relatively upbeat.

Thanks to its geographic proximity, Thailand plays an influential role in its culture and cuisine. There are various markets that operate daily and cater to both tourists and locals. The night bazaar is set-up along the main street every single day from 6pm to 10pm and consists of locals setting up booths and laying out a variety of handicrafts, clothing, and souvenirs hoping to make any kind of sale. I’m sure there are times when they will spend over  an hour setting up for the evening and barely have someone stop to look at something, let alone make a purchase. Many of them will have babies and small children with them, mostly because they have nowhere else to go, but also as props to garner sympathy from deep-pocketed tourists. Regardless of their situation, one thing I will give them credit for is not being pushy. Out of all the markets we’ve visited in Asia so far, this one was the most relaxing and enjoyable. A far cry from the hassling, haggling and even physical abuse you can expect in places like China or Thailand. In Laos, they welcome you with a hello or “Sabaidee” and a smile, and wait for you to select an item and inquire about price. It’s the way every shopping experience should be everywhere in the world, including North America.

(Photos courtesy of Mulloskey’s Adventures Abroad)

Luang Prabang also has a distinctly European feel and not just because of the number of tourists. Laos used to be a French colony and the impact of their influence can be seen and felt in various aspects of their society including the architecture and food.

Our first meal shortly after arriving in the evening was a fresh baguette from a street vendor with grilled chicken, tomatoes, cucumber, onion and mayo. It was a dollar. It wouldn’t be the last baguette we’d enjoy over our 5 day stay. This was my first salami sandwich since leaving Canada and it was sublime.

Later on that evening, we wandered about the streets and watched the town close down in time for its nightly curfew. Everything closes at 11-11:30pm, with no exceptions. Dancing is only permitted in 2 night clubs which close at 11:30pm sharp. As a result, Luang Prabang does seem to attract a much older and less boisterous kind of tourist, which was fine by us given the fact that we felt like Senior Citizens in Thailand and were headed for the polar opposite party town of Vang Vieng.

Buddhism plays a very prominent role in Laos society as every male must be educated and serve as a Monk for a certain period of time, much like military service in other countries. Once your time is served you may continue to serve as a Monk or return to your life outside the monastery. As a result, there are Monk’s, monastery’s and wat’s (temple’s) everywhere you turn. In fact, I’m pleased to announce that Monk’s have now supplanted laundry as Katie’s newfound obsession and target of the most photo-ops.  Her head almost exploded when she saw Monk laundry.

Our visit to any Asian city wouldn’t be complete without our token temple visit. Unlike most of our other visits this one happened somewhat by accident and we were quite pleased with the results. I’d like to recount this story using a photo-essay of pictures taken in sequence as we explored some of the backstreets of Luang Prabang.

“Hey, look at that wat (temple) at the top of that mountain. Wanna check it out?”

“We’re getting closer. Maybe we should get some water as I have a feeling there’s going to be some stairs involved.”

“Yup, there’s stairs alright.”

“Lots of stairs.”

“138 stairs down and only 190 to go. Oh, and we get to pay an admission fee after already walking up this far. Brilliant bastards. There’s no way I was shelling out a whopping $2 for exercise if they’d been selling tickets at street level.”

“We made it.”

“It’s too bad that it’s so smokey out, all I can smell is campfire in the air. I wonder what this view would look like on a clear day outside of dry season.”

(courtesy of Google Images)

“Here’s a rooster.”

The End.

One aspect of this leg of the trip that we’d been looking forward to in particular, was the treasure hunt that our friends the Mulloskey’s had prepared for us when they visited Laos back in January. Having known that we would be visiting within a couple months, they stashed a secret note for us to find somewhere in the city. They then provided a video which they posted on YouTube and sent to us along with some simple instructions to point us in the right direction. Here’s the video they provided us with from back in January 2010.

Fast forward to our trip to Laos in March 2010 where we intentionally stayed at the same guest house as them on our first night, and set out the next morning to find the secret message. It didn’t take too long.

As a big fan of Sean Mullin and The Shawshank Redemption, the message couldn’t have been more appropriate. Here’s what it said.

“Sometimes it makes me sad, though… Andy being gone. I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone. I guess I just miss my friend.” Thanks Mullin.

The other obvious highlight of this trip was another elephant trek. The one we had done in Thailand only lasted about an hour or so and was intended to be part of a tour package that included 8 other people. This experience was dedicated strictly to riding elephants, learning how they are trained, feeding and bathing them. Believe it or not, elephants eat a lot. Like non-stop. I’ve learned that one of the basic tenets of Buddhism is cause and effect. You can’t have one without the other. As for elephants, if eating is the cause, guess what the effect was? I’ll give you a hint. It’s greenish-brown, weighs more than a newborn and made its first of several appearances without warning less than 15 feet away. I don’t know what child birth looks like, but this had to be pretty close.

Here’s a monkey who likes to play with himself and doesn’t like women.

Some of our best experiences while traveling occur when we’re simply wandering around the town with no particular destination in mind. After discovering this small monument completely at the far end of town, which designates the area as a joint co-operative between France and Laos as a Unesco Heritage site.

This is was what initially caught our attention and lead us further into the bush where we came upon what we refer to as Bamboo Bridge. See if you can guess why.

We had to pay $0.50 to put our lives in danger and risk crossing this rickety bamboo bridge. Katie was reluctant at first but I had already paid admission for 2 and was halfway across before her protest could be acknowledged. Being the trooper that she is, she wasn’t far behind.

On our way home from Bamboo Bridge we purchased some local artwork to adorn the walls of our new home in Toronto. The irony is that the framing of these fine authentic pieces will cost 10x more than the actual art itself.

My favorite Southeast Asian beer thus far. No official rankings have been prepared. Stay tuned.

I can’t believe I’m saying this but I actually miss the Trans-Canada highway and 401. I wrote this entire post on our laptop on the bus ride from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. We actually splurged and paid an extra $1.50 to take the VIP bus which made the ride slightly more tolerable, but there was rarely a straight away of more than a couple hundred yards. The extremely narrow two-way road wound its way endlessly up and down around very tight turns with no barriers separating ourselves from the steep cliffs only meters away. The trip lasted for 5 hours. I couldn’t decide what was more likely; a head-on collision with an oncoming vehicle coming around a tight corner, or driver error leading to our bus doing somersaults down a cliff. Both were definetly in play. I’m in no position to criticize as I have often been known to make record time when driving, but this guy was clearly trying to break his previous best. The hard turns and squeaky brakes were nerve-wracking to say the least.

If you’re reading this, I’m pleased to inform you that we did in fact survive and arrived safely in Vang Vieng for the second leg of our trip across Laos.

For some additional insight, stories and some spectacular pictures from Luang Prabang, check out the Mulloskey posts here and here.

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