A beautiful country, a lucky man
Hope everyone is well, I'm relaxing and enjoying the 38 degree heat here in Luang Prabang at the moment.
This is a beautiful country.
My bus driving south towards Luang Prabang, the mountains and light green forests are indeed lovely. The three dimensionality of all these vistas reminds me a little of Guatemala, but while Guatemala's dark forests and brigh corn fields seemed almost familiarly European, Laos's scenery seems nearly jungle, would it were the trees could summon the energy. Or perhaps the slash and burn farming prevents it - there are huge tracts every so often of blackened earth and stumpy trees.
But the beauty I really have in mind is the people's. Lao people seem so happy, so good natured, it feels a privilege to be cheered up by them. Two small boys passed me on my Oudomxai hostel's stairs, I smiled at them and cried, "Sabadee!" (Hello), they looked up at me, replied in kind, "Sabadee!", with such happy expressions you'd think nothing could have pleased them more than meeting me on the stairs and exchanging greetings. As my bus to Luang Prabrang pulls to a halt outside one of the many roadside wooden houses villages, a young mother is holding a baby, standing in the shade of the porch of her shop. I smile at the baby and wave, the mother starts smiling, the baby starts smiling and soon works out how to wave back. The three of us are now smiling contentedly and waving back and forth - the bus picks up again, I call out a goodbye and relax in my seat feeling very good.
Laos isn't, as least so far, anywhere near as hot as I was afraid it would be. The rains have clearly begun recently, which has perhaps cooled the air down, yet there seem as yet almost no mosquitos.
Luang Prabang is indeed a lovely destination. Perhaps the weather is always like this, perhaps I have just been lucky, but the climate is perfection. Hot, slow baking sunshine, the low French colonial buildings shimmer, the palm trees and white flowering trees outside my window gleam. My room is wonderful, if a little expensive: white walls, a high ceiling, a soft double bed (with luscious pink sheets - this works better than it sounds), then dark wood shuttered windows and the dark wood door leading on to the white balcony. I don't know what the weather is like in England at the moment, but right now it is 5pm and I am lying on the bed naked, letting the ceiling fan cool me as some clothes dry in the sun. I have just finished showering and shaving - the delight of a shower with pressure and warmth and privacy was truly a deity to bow down to.
It is one of those moments of feeling very lucky to be a traveller. I'm sure Luang Prabrang will not be one of the highlights of the trip - it seems far too much a holiday destination with souvenir shops and global restaurants. But still, I am able to enjoy this wonder for so much less than the average holiday making Brit pays for their time in the sun. This double room does seem overly expensive to me - but it costs 2.2 pounds (40,000 kips) a night. The delicious mutton korma and garlic naan I ate for lunch was also too expensive, at about 1.4 pounds. I am indeed a prince, roaming the treasures of the world at my leisure.
As day yawns its end, Luang Prabang is quite lovely - but to say more becomes tricky. The street where I was dropped off in is that familiar tourist alphabet: restaurants, travel agencies, internet cafes and art shops. The street of my guest house runs parallel to it, needing a walk through a gild encrusted temple, it is a quiet street of tall trees and white buildings with dark shutters. The Mekong river is one small block away.
Walking on from these streets, Luang Prabrang seems lovely and calm-bringing. Buildings all low, many restored colonials, even the non art-piece homes seem captivating in some way. These simple houses, open to the sun, seem always worthy of staring, full of curios. I am reminded of my grandfather's old flat, with its odd smell and the polished chess board he taught us on - I don't know why. These buildings sit side by side with Buddhist temples, young orange robed monks hanging around the grounds or occasionally chanting inside.
It is a tourist town, a town with well off Lao friends playing badminton in their driveway, it isn't anything like the Luang Prabang of six years ago, when apparently there were only two cars around. I accept that, it's perhaps a big pity not to have seen that now lost city, but a traveller travels in time as much as space - I cannot visit the Luang Prabang of six years ago any more than I can visit the Venice of 1600, anymore than someone who wasn't there can visit the 2003 Nov 1st Todosantos fiesta... This isn't the same lovely that earlier travellers were privileged with, but it is certainly something to behold, no less.
But I do find I have to train my brain to enjoy this properly - it is a skill of the traveller that I think doesn't get much talked about. The central street, with its siren calls of comfort and fellow foreigners, always surprising how capturing that is, even though you've seen a dozen streets just like it in in a dozen tourist / backpacker towns. Firmly put it to one side: I will use you for writing emails and a scrambled egg breakfast, but beyond that, adieu. The expensive, gleaming Lexus that purrrs past me, suggestion that maybe all this beauty is the result of yuppies from elsewhere buying holiday homes - I acknowledge it, then let it fall from my mind. The four pasty backpackers riding howling scooters, tastefully naked except for their swimming trunks - more of an effort this time, but, forget them too. Even though you've walked off the main foreigner strip, you pass frequently other tourists - now this is a key step, yet very challenging: lose that revulsion for white skin, that pomposity that says, "Oh God, another tourist". What do you think you are, have you not knowingly come to the centre of Lao tourism - did you expect to be alone with nose ringed hill folk? Smile at your fellows, chat if they want to, pass on happy. There is enough of the orange-scarlet setting sun for everyone. Once those mental steps are surmounted, and regret at what's gone is quelled, see the beauty around you. See the reddish sky on the golden roofs of temples, see the whiteness and simplicity of the sun on the restored buildings, the happiness and calm. See these peole enjoying each other's company, making simple games and fun together, the first buttons on men's shirts now undone, sitting in small groups in street corners. Mothers hold their babies by the roadside in the hot evening, as if airing them out before bedtime. Time no longer seems a prison, time is certainly not money here - more important currencies prevail. There is a wedding taking place somewhere tonight, substantial women are preparing a long white table with fancy plates. Drink a somewhat forgettable "Lao regular coffee" in a cafe stolen from the south of France, while Norah Jones sings something. Yes, maybe it is a lot of tourism and rich people from elsewhere, but, while I'm here, the peace speaks to me.
And the point of disabling that "yuck, tourists!" urge is that there is reality everywhere, of course, sometimes it's just a little hard to see. A shabby Lao man slumps upright, life defeated, as all around him people chew in the night market's stalls. Although there are no disabled Lao people on the streets, it is easy to see them just inside these shop - houses, among family, navigating with hands. And sometimes a splash of strange reality appears out of nowhere: I walk post-shower and in a clean shirt past a white open door, and a small face is peering at me. The tiny boy cries something at my face, his equally tiny brother joins him in the frame shouting too. I roar at them and bound up the stairs - they scream and tear back inside. They have an even smaller brother and I chase the three of them around the living room, the mother nodding smiliing when I silently ask if this is ok. An elderly man in his orange monk's robes, a picture of old, he reclines in the sofa watching the television. He doesn't look as those he has chosen his position, it is as though this is the only set of angles his body is capable of fitting into now. He moves his head vaguely as the boys run around his legs, muttering commands too weak to have a hope of registering. The youngest brother is clearly too young to play the chase game properly, he keeps falling over, hurting himself temporarily and leaking loud tears. Their names, their mother explains, are Ding, Diu and, oh, I've forgotten the third. Eventually, I leave, they follow me, I try to take a photo of them, they delight in leaping out of the frame before I can snap anything. I finally bid them all goodbye, loosely planning to come back this way again tomorrow and I walk on, my clean shirt and forehead now drenched in sweat from this exhertion in the hot, close Lao air.
Sighs are all but pulled out of me, relaxing here in Laos.
I arrived in Luang Prabang with a French couple and we found this guesthouse together. Later in the evening, we met by chance and compared notes. We both had heard about the wedding happening today, someone had invited them to come along, but they weren't sure. I decided I would go and have a look - well, it was that or just another session on the internet before bedtime. I wandered over to where I had seen the preparations earlier - now the night was huge. A row of joined up tables more than 50 metres long held bowls and bowls of food, with hundreds of guests spooning it on to their plates. I looked about uncertainly, not sure what to do. I decided to just stand around looking curious, in the hope that someone would either tell me to piss off or come in. Quickly a woman came up to me and offered me a shot of Lao whisky, an older one then told me, "Come in, come in, take pictures, it's a Lao wedding party"! I walked around, the same woman started following me and filling my plate. Looking for somewhere to sit, I noticed a middle aged man with fading hair and round glasses. I guessed (correctly) he would speak some English and sat down next to him. He worked for an NGO in Luang Prabang, educating people on safe sex and HIV. "Is that a big problem here?", I asked. "No, not yet, but many people are going off to work in Thailand, so they need to be educated now". I asked him if this was a larger than usual wedding party - no, this was normal in Laos. After a bit more chat, he complained of the hotter than usual weather, I got up and walked around, the party was arranged in a long corridor between some colonial era looking wall and the smart guesthouses to the right. I kept expecting someone to spot me and shout, "What the hell are you doing here?" - but instead people were always spotting me and shouting, "Why the hell is your glass empty"? After the food, some drinking, then the dancing began. At first the half-hearted disco steps were truly awful - I mentally prepared a few funny sentences on how bad the Lao are at wedding dancing. But then suddenly, they must have got warmed up, and it was funky. I smiled to see how people started swivelling their wrists around in different directions, as though this vestige of traditional Lao dance had been transplanted into disco. Then everyone began what I can only describe as Lao line dancing. The women, and a few of the younger men, got in two groups and stepped, turned, stepped. Almost all the women wore the same combo - a sleeveless top of one colour and an ankle length skirt of another; almost all the men wore far less interesting smart shirts and trousers.
Now, it was a big event, so I may have missed a few people, but what was bemusing and rather sad was that in this town containing maybe one hundred Western visitors, I only saw four of us at the wedding: myself, a middle aged French woman who was already there when I arrived, and a tall blonde couple who appeared to walk straight through and head on to their guest house. So really, two people. It said something about how wrong it is to think travelling is already cliched, that there is nothing left to see for yourself.
The beer was just not settling well that night, so after half eleven I got up and left, wandering around of search of a street I recognised in the dark. It was surreal to have continental style wooden houses to my right, as though I maybe was visiting some town near Nice, and to my left, palm trees flanking the Mekong river, slothfully pouring its way towards Vietnam. A door opened and three musclebound local youths in their swimming trunks wandered out, smiling, "Sabadee!", off for some midnight dip in the river.
I shook my head to think this had all happened in one day. Truly, I feel a lucky man.
Daniel, 29 April 2004, Luang Prabang
Posted by Daniel
on May 1, 2004 08:04 PM