Travel Laos

Strolling along in Luang Prabang

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While Rose got excited about orange robed monks in Vientiane – it was only a warm-up to her ecstatic adoration in Laos second major city, Luang Prabang (LOO-ONG – PRUH – BONG)

Every morning, the monks in this town, get up at the crack of dawn to participate in a ceremony called “Tak Bat”. Townspeople line the streets with alms in hand, usually a rice ball, and as monks pass by they drop it into their basket. In return, the giver hopes to improve their karma.

It’s had a long tradition, but people like us – tourists – unfortunately have steadily been interfering with the ceremony by stepping up to the monks with a camera in hand and flash turned ON, imagining themselves a National Geographic photographer on a self-appointed mission to capture ART or at very least a better photo than the next blog.

Sadly, the result is that it upsets the monks’ procession and the exchange they have with the residents of the town.

It’s even gotten to the point that tourists have started to participate in the ceremony, which fine enough if you’re Buddhist, but if you’re a backpacker passing through, to me it feels like you’re trivializing it, approaching it as if it’s an activity like ziplining.

It’s the notion that: I want to do that myself. I don’t want to watch people do it. In other words, it’s not worth it unless I can join in.

We saw plenty of examples from tourists sticking the snouts of their cameras into a Buddhist temple during a nighttime ceremony only to let their flash fly: once, twice: as long as it takes to ensure they got the picture they wanted while others walked into another temple at night to join a procession of monks who were carrying candles and circling their temple as part of a ceremony.

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Again, fair enough if you’re a Buddhist, but given two of the guys in the procession with the monks looked totally confused and apprehensive about every move they made, essentially giving the impression that they were in over their heads, I had my doubts.

In any case, it was only a small group doing it, and didn’t undermine everything. Ok, rant over. Back to Luang Prabang.

It was originally the capital of Laos, and the home of the royal family who lived in the palace until Communism took over in 1975:

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They also had their very own private temple, which, surprise, surprise was much more elaborate than other temples in the city:

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However, we visited another popular temple in the city – Xieng Thong – and it’s artwork, I felt, seemed a lot purtier than that there Royal guy’s – probably because we actually had access to walk inside them:

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As usual, the heat was intense.

One morning we made our way up these steps to a spot called – Mount Phusi:

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which, at the top, had a wicked lookout on the city with a view of the two rivers that run around Luang Prabang – the Mekong and Nam Khan:

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Plus, more temples, with our friend, ever present (yet impermanent) Siddartha:

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Despite getting up early to walk around in the morning to beat the heat. Already at 9am, it was clear we (I) were deluding ourselves:

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Similar to Vientiane, Luang Prabang had French influences from colonial restaurants:

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to croissant filled cafes:

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But, one of the best spots we found was across this bamboo bridge to a restaurant on the other side of the bridge, which we found out, coincidentally, was owned by a Canadian:

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Since the town juts out into a peninsula, we alternated between sitting on one side of the town to watch boats swing themselves around the Mekong:

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Then to the other side to watch people fish in the Nam Khan:

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It’s an incredibly calm, and slow-paced town with one of the most elaborate craft markets we’d seen until now, which happens every night, and is filled with hand woven quilts, pants, shirts made by Laotian craftspeople along with  trinkets of all stripes:

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Plus, during the day, a regular food market with all kinds of fruit and local spices:

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After four relaxing days, we moved on to a more active schedule in Vietnam where we met up with two friends from Toronto, who came out to visit. Next stop, dodging traffic in Hanoi.

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Buddha & Butterflies

 

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Laos is often referred to as the “Land of a million elephants”, because the majority of Laotians are obese.

I’m kidding. The complete opposite is true.

Laos is one of the most undeveloped countries in the world, and many Laotian children suffer from malnutrition. Excess calories and XXXL clothing remain our North American privilege.

However, in non-metaphoric terms, Laos wins out.

Elephants in Laos were abundant in the 11th Century, and were often bedecked with gold decorated saddles and used as modes of transport by the Royal family.

While there are tourist packages available to see and ride them today, their numbers are not what they were, largely a cause of human encroachment or industry (slight as it is) and while not cited as a direct cause, I can’t help but think that 2 million tons of dropped bombs had an effect on their habitat.

So, given their declining numbers, I thought of tweaking Laos national motto to reflect a view, albeit limited from two cities: Vientiane and Luang Prabang, of the most common sights we saw: “Land of a million Buddhas and Butterflies”.

Both are ubiquitous. The majority of Laotians are Buddhist (60%) and it’s expected by many young men to spend time in a monastery before they enter the world or decide to stay on with the order.

The result is that on the streets of Vientiane (and in Luang Prabang – which I’ll get into in a later post), we passed tons and tons of monks, wearing their orange robes, who, after staring at them in awe, wondering what mystical journeys they were on, we later found out, were just on their way to school, the dentist or any other errand that you and I have. Even the path to enlightenment crosses banal street.

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Regardless, this didn’t dampen Rose’s love affair. Whenever we passed any of the many Wats (temples) in the city where there were crowds of the orange robed savants, Rose would almost squeal with excitement staring at them while extending her hand out to me, able only to say one word: “Camera. Camera. Camera” or “Look. Did you get it.” asking me to take a picture:

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Some of the most popular Wats were a couple near the national emblem; a stupa named: Pha That Luang – which also included a museum where we sweat in silence, next to a series of Buddhist statues, big, small and doll-size:

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Then, outside the stupa, a huge Buddha, sitting how Rose and I wished we could, given the heat and our diminished electrolytes:

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Still unsure what the dominant religion was? Hey, what’s on your left:

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Now, your right:

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Confused, still? Even this cat was happy to give us a big hint:

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Through the course of a day here, it felt like living inside a Buddhist kaleidoscope. Wherever you look, there he is:

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Now, that brings us to the other side of the new motto: butterflies. Also, along with Buddha, they are a majority, as it seemed, any vista or view of the middle distance contained a fleet of the erratic bunch of flyers in all colours: monarchs, white ones, brown ones.

While, I did look closely, I didn’t spot anyone painting butterflies with a hammer and sickle. They appear to fly naturally, free of outdated propaganda.

The effect of Buddhas and butterflies everywhere, kind of created this blissful worldview, where I wandered around in a semi-dream state, half-expecting to see a unicorn gallop across the road.

Unfortunately, it turns out, we came across something much different.

On our trip, I’ve learned that I have a talent to use my imagination to sabotage any peaceful scene: (i.e. while enjoying a quiet day in a cafe in Laos listening to birds chirp I said to Rose: “Ya know in the Vietnam War this would be the kind of cafe in Saigon where a guerilla fighter would run in and drop a few grenades”).

So, I was having one of these peace busting moments, walking down a stretch of road, and I thought to myself: “Ya know. In Borneo, there were vipers in trees. There must be snakes here”.

That moment, I heard a big clang across the road, turned and saw a guy throwing a rock at the wall.

At first, I thought he was a local nut, but then I looked, and in an insane coincidence, saw he was throwing the stone for a reason, (though a very unBuddhist-like reason) to kill a snake:

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Apparently, it had fallen out of a tree above, and the guy thought it better to kill than let it go free. After employing another burgeoning talent, miming, I asked him through hand gestures and acting if the snake was dangerous, and he nodded vigorously.

Okay. Shit. There’s snakes:

And, as Rose will agree, that pretty much set the tone afterward every time we sought shade under a tree, went to a public bathroom, or, in my paranoid case, got into bed in our hotel room.

Thankfully, this was the only appearance of a snake in the flesh, though versions of serpents appear all over Buddhist temples:

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I still preferred butterflies.

Next stop: Luang Prabang where Rose continues her crush on Buddhist monks, and we drift away the days between the cities two rivers: the Mekong and Nam Khan, and good coffee and croissants.

Talk soon

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La vie en Vientiane

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Is hot.

It’s a neverending resource. C’est chaud comme un chien. Comme un plat de spaghetti dans le microonde qui va s’exploser.

Il n’y a pas de reste. Il n’y a pas de souffle. Nous sommes deux humaines avec ames qui ont evapore.

Awright, ca suffit. That’s my best French existential noir to describe the steam bath that is Vientiane.

A propos (I’ll stop after this, I promise) because along with all the heat, there’s plenty of French in Laos’ capital from obvious city signs

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to well dressed men wandering around town in pants, dress shirts, fragrant colognes, acting oblivious that they’re soaking wet from 35degreesCelsius + humidity.

It also stands to reason then, that the city is filled with French restaurants and wine:

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Some restaurants’ wine is stewing outdoors in the air’s volcanic convection, which, like the restaurant owner whose shirt is soaked through in sweat but carries on between tables as if all is well, seems a mere detail, as the steady flow of French classics like soufflé, crepes and creme brulee flies uninterrupted out of the kitchen at an 80% discounted price from what you’d pay at a table in France.

Sound like a Franco-wonderland? In part, sure. But there’s more to the story – like these guys:

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Laos has been waving the red flag for 35+ years. But, North Korea they are not. Like most Communist states since the fall of the Soviets, it’s become more of a pastiche of free enterprise with some state control, which makes things like this possible:

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While, at the same time, boasting a national museum with a survey of modern history that includes a section devoted to commissioned oil paintings of Laotians being exploited and physically beaten by the French, with labels underneath saying: “Laotians bravely toil while being savagely beaten by French barbarian, colonials”.

Or another objective homily underneath a photograph of two Laotians standing over an indiscernible fiery wreck: “Mr. Yamphou celebrates shooting down an American Imperialist”. I would have shared the propaganda but, unfortunately, Laos’ single state party hasn’t warmed to social media yet or I would have tweeted that Facebook to YouTube.

And, that bring us to another major superpower in Laos, the U.S. On paper they had no voice there during the war in Vietnam. But as classified documents later revealed, they spoke volumes:

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These are unexploded ordinance (UXO) – cluster bombs- which were part of what’s been dubbed America’s “Secret War” during their fighting in Vietnam. The CIA had set up a base in Northern Laos as a liftoff point to dissuade the Viet Minh from making their way up the border of Laos, and inciting any internal revolutions.

But they didn’t make it a subtle gesture. The Americans dropped 2 million tons of explosives on Laos, making it the most bombed country per capita in the world.

As we learned, the tragedy of the bombing, aside from the obvious people killed and wounded during the the initial drops, are the numbers of Laotians who continue to be accidentally wounded by bombs that are being found 30+ years later.

Some of the stories are brutal.

A woman heating up her dinner pot, unaware that a cluster bomb is under the sand where the flames are quickly heating it up. Young boys imagining themselves archaeologists, start digging up something interesting in the earth.

Awful stuff. The place we visited, which laid out the facts, is a rehabilitation spot making prosthetics for victims of mines – it was an interesting place to see.

And, definitely made us think twice before wandering off on our own into the countryside outside Vientiane.

Regardless, that wasn’t a factor anyway, since we found plenty of things to do in Vientiane to go along with our sweating. Main highlights are definitely the Patuxai (the photo at the very top of the page) – a gesture of grandeur by the then Royal family who, after being given a massive amount of concrete from the Americans in the 1960s to build an airport, decided instead to use it to build this:

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Which, from a distance, looks a lot like the Arc de Triomphe, and up close, probably the best place for shade in the city. It’s funny, because most locals, and people have tossed it off as an ugly piece of concrete when you get near it. And, it’s even alluded to that way in the official blurb on the wall. But, I thought it was neat. Not least of which is for the many intricate designs on the ceiling:

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We also gorged on tons of Lao food – not French food in Lao (though there was a bit of that too, including an amazing cafe for croissants) – but Lao cusine.

We’d alternate between visiting cobbled together shacks serving one dish: noodle soup – where Rose and I would almost dare one another to drink the cups of water given to us, clearly not sure where the source came from (so far, water roulette has worked out okay)

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to night markets where locals bought their nightly meals to take home:

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to sit down meals, occasionally with an extra dinner companion:

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to cafe style eating on the edge of the Mekong on which the city bordered. That’s where a lot of people congregate at night, touring around the outdoor restaurants and night market, while staring at Thailand across the river, which is as close as Ottawa/Hull.

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But above all else, Rose has found a new crush:

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Lao monks. In the city, they roam between temples and other chores, spending days wearing distinct orange robes. Since it’s a special topic, more monk details will come in a separate post.

Till then, hope everyone’s well.