No longer the sleepy provincial capital it was just a few years ago, this small city has come of age with expresso bars, upscale restaurants and lodging. Despite that, it retains much of its charm with quaint alleys and somewhat dilapidated old French mansions. There are many wats, and young monks, as Luang Prabang is the center of Buddhist training for all of Laos. They are often eager to engage in conversation to practice their limited English.
Daily ritual of monks with begging bowls
Every evening the monks chant in the wats and you can hear them all over town as you walk by. It sounds vaguely familiar to us, maybe because of the time we have spent at other Buddhist monasteries. Sometimes we would join them for 20 minutes or so.
And then go off to a Mekong riverside cafe to enjoy a Beer Lao, while watching the sun go down.
The food is simply incredible. For about $10 US the two of us can eat like royalty. My cooking class. which I took at our favorite restaurant, Three Elephants, was a gastronomic delight. We spent the better part of a day making several Lao curries and salads from scratch, and then we got to invite our spouses or traveling companions to join us for the feast.
While I took my class Nanette had what she called her hair adventure. . She decided it was time to get her hair colored and figured it would be easy to just repeat her natural brown color without speaking any Lao. At the hair salon she pointed to one of the hairdressers and tried to tell her that she wanted the same color. Midway through the process she realized the color was going to be a cross between red, pink and orange. She started to feel scared that she would come out looking like a clown, just in time to teach English in China in two weeks. She tried to explain that there was a serious problem. Although they didn't understand her words , they could see from her body language and the hair color that something was amiss. After washing and drying another attempt was made to change the color to a dark brown. The process took two hours. Now the roots look bright red in the sun and dark brown on the surface.
As Nanette says, " It's a little psychedelic." A few days later it didn't look too shabby, but it was whole lot straighter.
On a rather different note, we have met a number of interesting people here, including some Americans. Yesterday, we ran into a woman who runs a hotel in Granada, Nicaragua, who invited us and about 100 other people to have Thanksgiving with her when we were there two years ago. See the entry on Granada, Nicaragua for more details. How incredible to just run into her in the street here. She has been all over the world, including Iraq and Afganistan, working on various aid missions for different NGO's. Then there's Basil, who's having a foot message next to me, a doc and a philanthropist with his brothers money, working in a hospital in Siem Reap . Ilene, an Irish woman close to 70, has worked for 20 years with US soldiers who have AIDS. She comes to Thailand and Laos every year for 3 or 4 months on her own, speaks some Thai, and has also volunteered in some of the hill tribe villages north of Chang Mei.
Not everyone is helping others. Last night we had dinner with Jim, who we also just met on the street.
He's about our age, and although he is relatively sedentary now, for 23 years he constantly traveled throughout the States, Mexico and Canada in his van. At some point he reconciled with his estranged, but wealthy mother, and when she died she left him some money. He bought land in Santa Fe and converted his van into a permanent home. Hardly a hippie, he is a Cornell and RISD dropout, who now gives talks on the radio about the stock market and the devaluation of the US dollar. A very bright, if eccentric misfit.
Another place to meet people is the outdoor vegetarian buffet near the nightly craft market.
Setting Up for the Market
You load up your plate with noodles and veggies for about 75 cents and sit on benches at a long table. Next to you might be someone local, a young euro-traveler, or someone with a doctorate in anthropology or physics. It's quite a social scene.
I can't say enough about the Lao people and their extraordinary grace, joy in living and generosity. As I was typing this, one of the women who works in our guest house was sitting down to eat fish soup with her daughter. She asked me if I wanted to share her meal with her. I can't think of too many other places where this might happen. The Lao feel that to eat with others is always a happy occasion. They are very social and are often laughing, cracking jokes, and teasing each other in a good natured way. They remind me very much of the Sherpas in Nepal and the Ladakis in India. I can't help thinking that Buddhism, which is so much a part of daily life here, has infused the culture with its values of acceptance and serenity.
The contrast between the government and the people is extreme. We talked with a well known Laotian artist who divides his time between Canada, where he is now a citizen, and Luang Prabang. He told us about the massive corruption, and how, in the past, the Pathet Lao would often confiscate property, especially of Laotians who lived abroad. There have also been many disappearances of anyone who has challenged the ruling junta. Right now things are modestly better, but the government does little to help the average person, and there is still, as he puts it, a climate of fear. We knew most of this, but to hear it from someone who has lived through it is something else. The interesting thing is, you don't really get a sense of heavy police or military presence.
It's also hard to imagine that Nixon dropped more ordinance on Laos then was used in all of WW2 on a per capita basis. Most of this was not around Luang Prabang, but near the Cambodian and Thai borders.