Thursday, 22 November 2012

Second Impression of Luang Prabang, Laos

(Makes me crazy that I can not put as many pictures in and position them as I would like using this VPN connection!!)

At first glance, when we passed through Luang Prabang a few months back en route to Vietnam, our expectations differed drastically from the reality.  Knowing Laos to be the poorest of the SE Asian peninsula, coming into Luang Prabang felt very surreal with its french colonial architecture, beautifully lit high street (by the shops and restaurants rather than street lighting), vibrant night market and considerably higher prices for meals than we had been used to in Thailand. Having now travelled the length of Laos from south to north we were looking forward to returning to a city we both knew our way around and we were wondering how our perspectives may have changed since our last visit.

We arrived late (which we expected, now being well accustomed to 'Laos time') and after getting suitably ripped off by the tuk tuk drivers from the bus station we returned to Sok Dee Residences where we were offered the same room we had last time.  As we unpacked, we heard familiar dutch voices from above and were pleased to find our two friends, Simone and Dieuwka had taken our recommendation and were residing in the room above us.  We spent the evening with them and an American traveller engaged in fabulous conversation over dinner and Beer Laos (which is cheaper than a cup of tea) at a roadside restaurant on the Mekong. 

The following morning as we walked around old town with a new sense of perspective we realized that Luang Prabang is indeed an accurate part of Laos identity, or at least the side effected by the French. Laos falls into two distinct halves; that that the French built on and that where they did not. Apart from the introduction of the coffee plantations that litter the Bolaven plateau, the influence of the colonists (read protectors) has to our eyes been minimal. What architecture there was, was flattened by the US carpet bombing of the region during the 'secret war' (where the Ho Chi Minh trail never ran through Laos and which America never bombed) and as with other rural areas we visited, in the villages the houses are still of traditional stilted design and bamboo construction. Within the larger towns, especially the important centres of Pakse, Vientiane and Luang Prabang, the buildings of course reflect the presence of the westerners in ornate, multi-story construction with balconies and rooflines in keeping with the period and a decidedly more delicate appearance than the contemporary work of the British elsewhere upon the peninsula.  Despite the lovely vibe I still felt impartial and not overly fond of the place.  These days Luang Prabang feels entirely devoted to tourism with not much 'local feel' in the Old Quarter and not much advertised to see outside of that.  The only people seen eating in the restaurants or shopping at the night market were the tourists; local residents were hardly around other than the shop keepers and market vendors.  Of course it's the high prices which keep them away and it took delving a little deeper to get a better sense of the place.  

We climbed up a set of stairs to a hill top temple offering a panoramic view, where a golden stupa overlooks the city.  From this birds eye view I found the city was much larger than I expected, residential areas stretching for miles nestled in amongst the trees in a basin that stretches for some distance to the north and east of the Old Town before steep, towering, green slopes reach up to ridge lines and mountain tops in the middle distance. From here we picked a route over a bridge spanning the muddy waters of the Nam Kahn river. It is at Luang Prabang that the Nam Kahn joins the mighty Mekong and the junction in the waterways the purpose behind the towns presence, wealth and strategic importance as junctions in trade routes tend to be.  

Leaving the Old Town we found the local families going about their lives and were greeted with the usual smiles.  As we wandered, enjoying the local feel of Luang Prabang 'proper' and finding much lower prices for necessary toiletries (tampons were a shocking US$10 for eight in the old town!) my heart warmed towards this place.  Local fruit and vegetable markets were swarming and live music pulsated through the air from a wedding ceremony in full swing.  The stunning, formal silk sarongs the women wore took my breath away and I couldn't help but wonder how I could pursued Julian into agreeing that adding a few more to my collection was a good idea.  Simone and Dieuwka passed by at the perfect moment, breathless from cycling in the heat. They had just returned from a ride out to a neighbouring village, home to the local weavers.  They were all smiles with satisfying purchases at considerably lower prices than those offered at the Old Town night market and Julian and I were soon convinced to hire out bicycles the next day. 

The heat was suffocating as we pushed our rickety, single speed city touring bikes across the hilly terrain.  6km down the road we came to the village and it took some careful examination of the buildings to find the weavers market in a whitewashed concrete block resembling a community hall.  About 25 women were sprawled out across tables snoozing away the afternoon heat but our arrival in the otherwise empty hall quickly brought them to life as they began arranging their handicraft for our perusal or sewing works in progress, all the while calling to us in turn to come and admire their wares, to buy a scarf, sarong or shirt.  Julian sat down and purloined himself a cup of tea from the ladies and left me to it for a while as I wandered from stall to stall, admiring their work and pleased with their prices, starting at less than half those quoted in the night market back in town.  Looms were set up in the back room with a few women working on exquisite silk pieces with intricate patterns they seemed to know by memory.  Luckily for me, Julian found all this just as interesting as I and was happy to spend a few dollars.  He pointed out some particularly beautiful cotton sarongs though much to his amusement he did nothing to help me with the bargaining (Her purchase: Her problem…… Ed)  I find it rather uncomfortable, haggling with women who have far less than I, over just a few dollars, but its all part of the game and in the end, I ended up with two beautiful cotton sarongs for US$17.  The Laos sarongs are absolutely my favourite articles of clothing that I have come across in my travels and am pleased with my varied collection of four.  One particularly stunning green silk one (at US$50), two comfortable cotton ones (at US$8.50 each) and one exceptionally cheap polyester one (at US$1.75) which have been sent home to be properly cared for and await our return to Canada. 

Our final evening was spent with Simone and Dieuwka at a restaurant of their choice, a nearby Indian place, before they caught they night bus to Vientiane.  Julian was less than eager but I was impressed when he went for an Indian dish over the Laos selection, knowing full well that India is in our near future and exploring their culinary delights perhaps a wise call.  We have become quite fond of the dutch girls by now and sincerely enjoyed their company one last time over a meal which the three of us enjoyed throughly and Julian survived.  

After a few weeks back on the main tourist track, spending time in Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, we were more than eager to get away from it and into more remote reaches of the country once again. A slight deviation from our northward course would take us to to small village of Nong Khiaw where we would relax a while and enjoy all the finest we find in Laos before entering the cultural chaos of China and testing everything we have learnt over the last few years to our very limits and beyond.

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