Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Backpacker's Delight

Luang Prabang, Laos, is a backpacker’s dream town. With a population of about 25,000, Luang Prabang is big enough to offer religion, architecture, culture, cuisine and natural beauty, yet small enough to allow for unscripted exploration around gilded Buddhist temples, through narrow, leafy lanes, and on the banks of the muddy Mekong River. It is one of the premiere tourist destinations in Laos, but somehow the outside world hasn’t had time to spoil the local culture. Unlike the popular islands I visited in Southern Thailand, Luang Prabang feels real. It’s the kind of place that takes hold of your imagination, where you can walk down the street and believe you are somewhere special.

Luang Prabang is situated at the confluence of the Nam Khan and the Mekong River in Northern Laos, about 400 kilometers north of Vientiane. The town is 700 meters above sea level and surrounded by lush mountains. Twentieth-century war and revolution decimated the ancient town, but since the collapse of communism tourism and regional trade have combined to inject new life into the region.

Luang Prabang and the Mekong

Wat Saen

In the 18 years since Laos opened itself to tourism, much has changed, but to my eyes it feels like there is still more Lao culture than anything else. There are no Western franchises in Luang Prabang, no Starbucks, McDonald’s or KFC. There are no shopping centers or mini-malls. The selection of commodities is limited to food and the bare necessities. It is a quiet place; perhaps one of the last of it’s kind in Asia.

I spent three full days in Luang Prabang with my feet on the ground and my eyes wide open. I saw groups of European tourists buying crafts from women in traditional tribal clothing while orange-clad monks strolled by on their way to one of the town’s historic temples. These scenes occurred amid a stunning array of Buddhist temples, faded French colonial facades and ramshackle wooden houses. In the historic district at the north end of town, I strolled though narrow leafy lanes, the foliage shielding ornate guesthouses and modern bistros. At night, some streets were transformed into bustling marketplaces offering clothing, handicrafts, and jewelry. Other streets were devoted to food, with tables set up with heaping piles of spring rolls, bowls of spicy papaya salad, and skewered and grilled meats.



Night Market

Luang Prabang is home to many temples, and therefore many monks. I had seen monks in Thailand and had tried to smile or make eye contact, but was never able to elicit a response. However, there are novice monks in Luang Prabang who spend their free time relaxing at some of the popular tourist spots. These novices are students who spend a year or two as a monk and then move on. From what I understand it’s a way to get an education and open up future possibilities. Part of that education is learning English, and what better way to learn a language than talk to tourists?

I met the first group of novice monks near the top of Phu Si, a large hill in the center of Luang Prabang. Three boys, Ken, Si and Fan, ages 15 and 16, had the afternoon off and had come to a small temple of the north slope of the hill to hang out. Conversation was limited by their skills to simple topics – where we are from, what do we do, etc. I learned they were from small villages and were in Luang Prabang to learn. They didn’t know what they wanted to do in the future, but seemed to be leaning toward teaching. I don’t think there is a lot of opportunity for these kids and hope they will find something engaging to do with their lives.

Novice Monks at Phu Si

The next day I was walking by Wat Sirimungkhun. The hour was nearing 11 a.m. and the sun was strong. I’d already sweat through my shirt and was hoping to find a shady spot to get some rest. I heard a monk call out “Hello” in very clear English and decided to engage him in conversation. Somlith was a 17-year-old novice monk from a nearby village. He was passionate about learning English and was excited when I sat down to chat. We covered the usual subjects and then I ask him for a tour of the temple. It was Sunday so the schoolroom was closed, but he did show me the novice monks’ living quarters.

The novices live in small, spartan rooms – a bed, a window, a small desk and a rod to hang their robes. There was stack of books on Somlith’s desk, a small language dictionary at the top of the pile. His walls were covered in pencil drawings of Buddhas, a white board, lists of English words with the Lao translations and, most surprisingly, two large calendar posters featuring beauty queens. Somlith said a European visitor had given him the posters. He seemed embarrassed by their presence, but not because he was a monk, but because he was shy 17-year-old boy.

I took pictures of the boys at Phu Si and of Somlith in his room. I was surprised, again, when I was asked to send them the photos in email. Laos may be a poor country, with most of the population surviving on subsistence farming, but it’s also a company that is looking ahead. That these monks would even have email was beyond my expectations. That they want to maintain a correspondence with me is incredible. I’m sometimes asked about the friends I make on the road. I never expected those friends to include a couple of teenage monks in Northern Laos.

Novice Somlith

Somlith's Room

Luang Prabang wasn’t all about the monks, however. I’d made some good friends on the ride down the Mekong and spent a lot of time hanging out with them. The best friendship turned out to be with Guillaume and Emmanuelle, the young French couple from Amiens. In Pak Beng, Guillaume and I spoke briefly about pastis, a French aperitif that I adore. We agreed to get together in Luang Prabang at a pub owned by a French ex-pat and throw back a few glasses of the cloudy, anise-flavored elixir.

We met at the Maylek Pub at the appointed time and spent the evening at a small table on the sidewalk. The pub is outside of the main tourist area and it felt to me like one of those true travelers’ meetings, where people from different countries just enjoy the short time they have together. Perhaps I was romanticizing the situation, adding significance to the fact that I was in a former French colony enjoying French liquor with a French couple.

Guillaume and Emmanuelle had been to Tat Kkuang Si, a series of waterfalls and swimming holes 32 kilometers south of the city, that afternoon and wanted to return the next day. We met outside the post office (La Poste) and hired a tuk-tuk to take us to the falls. Once again, Luang Prabang surprised me. I imagined the falls would be overrun with tourists, but it was Saturday and we spent our time hanging out by a turquoise swimming hole (complete with rope swing) where Lao families were gathering for weekend picnics. It was another moment of Laos just being itself.

Girl on Rope Swing

Guillaume Takes Off

Flickr Photoset: Luang Prabang to Vientiane

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Blogger Renee said...

Your photos of Luang Prabang are just beautiful!

4:02 AM  

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