Luang Prabang (a lazy week)
Feb 8, 2012
|Since coming back from the countryside last Wednesday, I've been in Luang Prabang, taking it easy. I'm essentially having a vacation from my trip!
Besides sitting in cafes and restaurants, admiring one of the two rivers, or just people watching, I've had a couple of massages, saw a movie, an ethnic fashion show, wandered through the Night Market some more, took a sunset cruise on the Mekong, and did a day trip to the Kuang Si waterfall.
After a total of two weeks here, Luang Prabang is starting to feel like a home away from home. I have my favourite breakfast place, L'Etranger, owned as it so happens, by a Quebecois woman and her daugthers. It also doubles as a book exchange shop, and screens a movie every night. The tables at the front are a great people watching spot, being right in front of an intersection. In the morning, police officers lay in wait to catch people (tourists and locals alike) riding in the wrong direction on the one-way street (which of course is not clearly indicated). Great fun! All kinds of people go through this intersection: orange-clad monks with sun umbrellas, under-dressed tourists, local ladies carrying baskets of goods at both ends of a bambo pole across their shoulders, guys on small pink bicycles. ha ha ha. I can sit there for hours, reading and watching.
Another great breakfast place is Cafe Ban Vat Sene, a peaceful and classy space where you can get great lattes and croissants and read international newspapers.
For a fruit shake or lunch, the riverside (both the Nam Kham and the Mekong) are great spots. At night, many restaurants are very atmospheric with strings of lights, paper lanterns, and cushions. The Lao Lao restaurant (where I'm going tonight for my last Lao dinner) even has a fire pit.
I don't know where the days went. The sun shines every single day so by mid-day it is very hot and I often spend a few hours in my room reading/writing on my computer, hand-washing some clothes, etc. I haven't really fraternized with people at my guesthouse (they all seem to smoke) but earlier in the week I ran a couple of times into a British couple that I had first met in Muang Ngoi: Anne and Andy. Had some good chats with those two. I also met a couple of German girls while out and about, one of whom recounted being intercepted by a young local pervert while walking on an isolated track across the river, who touched her then proceeded to whack off in front of her. She said she yelled at him in German and he ran away, but still she seemed quite shaken. Note to self: avoid isolated paths. Kind of a no brainer really. Of course there can be perverts anywhere, even though as a whole, the Lao people seem very kind and mild-mannered although reserved. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them speak very little English (if any); I have had only two real conversations with locals so far, and even then, they were not very deep conversations. What I have learned of Laos and the Lao has been through reading and observation.
I've listed below, in no particular order, some characteristics of the culture:
* Everybody must take off their shoes before entering a home, a wat (bhuddist temple) and even some public buildings.
* Lao people like to live close to the ground, sitting on cushions or thin mattresses on the floor to watch TV, and eating on low serving tables while again sitting on the ground. Tourists also can enjoy this in many relaxing bars and restaurants, although tourist restaurants have tables and chairs as well.
* Most families cannot afford a car, only a motorcyle, and you often see families of 3 or 4 riding on a single motorcyle. This was actually the case in Cambodia as well.
* Like most Asians, they enjoy karaoke. The local music often features very high pitched female singers that sound like chipmunks. I'm serious. :)
* Lots of typical Lao food is completely weird and foreign to us, including various insect snacks (butterfly pupaes, stink bugs), buffalo and pig skin, and various condiments and fruits/vegetables. It is actually quite different from Thai food, with many typical dishes consisting of meat and herbs without any trace of curry or coconut sauce. Of course you can find those as well. Sticky rice is the real staple food (eaten with the fingers) even though steam rice is widely available.
The highlights of the last few days were the sunset Mekong cruise and the Kuang Si waterfall. The sunset cruise took place on a large boat and there were only four of us, which really surprised me given how the Lao like to fill up vehicles and crowd us to death. And it was only 50000 kips (about $6). It lasted an hour and I really enjoyed it, shatting with a German lady part of the way. The engine was quiet, which was a happy contrast to the eardrum-busting engine of the long boats I took to/from Muang Ngoi last week.
The waterfall was also a nice surprise. Although I had read and heard about it, I didn't expect the setting to be so lovely. The main fall itslef is very thin and only about 25 m tall. What makes it special are the many scalloped pools of light turquoise water that spread for half a kilometer at its foot, through the forest. It is possible to swim in some of them. I didn't swim but was told the water is very cold. See pictures.
Tomorrow afternoon I fly to Bangkok, and from there take an overnight flight to Manila, Philippines, where my friend Randy has offered to pick me up despite the insanely early hour (I land at 4:50 am). And from there, the last leg of my trip begins: 19 days in the Philippines!