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Asia 2008

Asia travel log 3

LAOS | Sunday, 24 February 2008 | Views [518]

Hello from Luang Prabang:)
Parker and I are relaxing in the old capitol of Laos, Luang Prabang, a world heritage sight full of ancient Buddhist temples. We arrived here several days ago after our stint in the mountains. This town is a little touristy. It has a strong European feel due to the large number of French colonial buildings. Walking down the streets, vendors are selling crepes and baguettes alongside the more traditional stands selling dried fish and steamed rice wrapped in banana leaves. Given that it is located near several beautiful and quite stunning caves, waterfalls, and traditional Laos villages, tourists are arriving here in droves. Its like a little bit of Europe in the middle of Asia. Still, it is a beautiful town and one can escape the masses by staying on the town's outskirts. The wats in town are absolutely beautiful and many of the monks (typically under the age of 20) are studying English and like to practice by talking to the tourists. It is enjoyable to sit on a bench by an ancient Buddhist wat and talk with the Buddhist apprentices (the young ones are not fully fledged monks and most will return to lay life after finishing school). Yesterday we visited a cave full of Buddhist statues (and lots of tourists!) in the morning and a beautiful waterfall in the afternoon. Unfortunately, it was too cold to swim because the turquoise colored pools along with rope swing looked very inviting. The tourists who did take a dip were shivering. After exploring the various swimming pools, we continued up a small dirt path to the main waterfall as smaller waterfalls cascaded around us. We walked to a bridge which gave us an ideal view of the main falls, Kong Si. It was a many tiered fall, the largest section being closest to the bottom. We crossed the bridge and climbed a hill to the top of the bottom tier where we could watch the upper falls, which were equally stunning. It was a very relaxing spot to sit and take in the surroundings.

Our time in Luang Prabang has been slow paced as I have been getting over a stomach bug I picked up somewhere in the north. I am feeling much better and am much more capable of typing email messages:) Our trip in Laos began with a visit to the northern province, Lang Nam Tha. After a very long bus ride during which our bus had two flat tires (spaced apart by about an hour), we arrived in the village of Vieng Phuka. From there, we decided to go on a two day trek. The price was a little high, but we signed up through a well regarded ecotourism agency, so part of the cost of the trek went directly to the villages and part went to conserve the natural protected area we were trekking near. Parker and I set out on a hike through the forest with our two English speaking guides in the morning and walked until midday when we stopped to have a picnic by a nice waterfall. After taking a dip in the water, we sat down to a lunch of rice, steamed greens, and beef spread out on large banana leaves. We set off again after lunch and arrived in a Lahu village late afternoon. Many of the women were wearing traditional dress of light blue shirts and dark skirts embroidered around the end. They wore their hair in a bun just above their foreheads decorated with flowers and beads. The Lahu people have spread south from China and share similar cultural traditions and since it was the Chinese New Year, they were in full swing celebrating. The children were playing a game where they lined up across from one another and swung a bag attached to a long tail back and forth. The adults in the meanwhile were filling cups of Lao Lao (distilled rice whiskey) and passing them around. We played toss with the children for awhile and spent some time socializing with the adults, politing refusing the potent lao loa after a few unpleasant tastes. While the village was unhindered by excess tourist traffic, it wasn't exactely remote. Its not the best feeling to arrive someplace in the middle of the woods after a long days hike only to discover that a road exists! We were a little disappointed, but we still enjoyed ourselves.

After arriving back from our trek we began our journey south to Luang Prabang. Travel in Laos isn't easy and we we made our way along a swervy and bumpy road aboard both bus and minivan. The minivan had extra fold out seats so that it could hold a maximum of 15 small passengers, but we managed to squeeze on another five or six (not to mention two small children and a chicken). The Laos people seem to take this in stride, as they seem to do everything in life. Today we were watching three men attempt to carry a large heavy coil of tubing/piping? across the road. The coil started unfurling in the middle of the road, blocking traffic. Rather then get short with one another, the men all started laughing as they did their best to gather it all up and  finish carrying it across. The Laos people come across as very easy going and friendly people.

A few words from Parker:

Surreal Concrete Sidewalk
we took a trip to a waterfall outside luang prabang.  one of the selling points according to the tour company was a visit on the way back to a real traditional village.  the waterfall was beautiful but when we pulled up behind 3 other minibuses at the village i had a feeling it would be a bad scene.  I almost stayed in the car but everybody else went and i thought it would be nice to stretch my legs.  It was a normal little dirty village with dogs running around and chickens pecking around but there was a concrete sidewalk leading into it.  as we started walking in we were met with a chorus of 'you buy now"  "you buy one now"  coming from little kids sitting on either side of the sidewalk and holding out little fiber wrapped braclets, cloth bags and other knickknacks.  the kids had it down to a chant.  almost a mantra as we walked along this unreal sidewalk that wound its way quite far back and forth through the village and back to the road.  the kids were mechanically saying "you buy"  "you buy"  and we were clearly seperated from the villagers.  it was like an amusement ride, like going through the tunnel at disney world and being surrounded by mechanical dolls singing "its a small world" but in a sad terrible way instead of just annoying.  you felt terrible but what could you do?  buying something just encourages this insane behaviour.  it is like when women and kids run up to you with birds in little bamboo cages that you are supposed to buy and set free.  buying the birds freedom just encourages more birds to be caught.  buying a little crappy bracelet just encourages more desperate cries of "you buy" 

we couldn't take it and left the sidewalk and headed back to the road.  How would you feel if rich strangers came and paraded through your town on some crazy fancy road aiming cameras at you?  just insane.  it is also self defeating.  when the sales cry grows too frantic that tourists can't take it anymore the minibuses will just go a little farther down the road to a new village.  what the tourists want is to visit a real authentic village to see how the people live.  vourism sure, but a genuine interest in another culture.  what the village wants is money for schools and running water and all the basic neccessities of modern life.  it seems a good compromise would be for the village to charge a modest entrance fee, say 20- to 50 cents each person and let them come through and look around and take pictures but be able to ignore them and get on with normal life.  the tourists would get to see a real village (more or less)  certainly more than just a sidewalk lined with grubby kids selling trinkets (which needless to say very few people buy)  and the villagers would get the money they want to improve their lives.  it would seem like a win win.  the other way is a lose lose.  and wandering out of there we certainly felt lost.

Tomorrow we head to Ponsovan, or Plain of Jars. It is an ancient archaeological site scattered with large cement jars. It should be another long and bumpy bus ride, so we won't get out to the Plains until the day after. It should prove to be an adventure!

We hope you are all doing well back home. We miss you all!

Andrea and Parker

Tags: Mountains


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