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Laos After Dark

LAOS | Tuesday, 31 March 2015 | Views [385]

I’ve been mispronouncing Laos my entire life. It wasn’t until I started researching the country as a possible destination for this trip that I learned, it’s Laos like Cow, not Laos like Mouse. Turns out there were many things I didn’t know about Laos.

 

Sandwiched between Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Thailand and Myanmar, Laos is landlocked, poor, and compared to its neighbors, sparsely populated. It was once known as the “Land of a Million Elephants,” and although Lao’s wild elephants are now deeply threatened, as are the forests they occupy (thanks a lot China), elephants are still represented everywhere in Laotian culture. You can ride them, bathe them or take them home in the form of souvenir wood carvings. You can even buy paper made from bleached elephant dung. Having spent a few minutes riding one of these magnificent animals, I can tell you that such paper is an abundant natural resource. 

 

I spent my week in Laos in and around the old capital city, Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang sits on a peninsula sandwiched between the fast flowing Mekong river and one of its tributaries, the Khan river. Rickety bamboo foot bridges span the rivers, leading from town to small villages where you can purchase locally made handicrafts. The bridges are temporary. They need to be replaced each year after the rainy season floods the Mekong and washes them away.

 

Luang Prabang is quiet and very clean by southeast Asian standards. You don’t have to worry about falling into massive sidewalk potholes or getting run down by rampaging mopeds. The architecture and cuisine have a distinctly French influence. Baguettes are as common as bowls of rice. 

 

Gilded Temples and monasteries are everywhere in Luang Prabang. I’d guess that Buddhist monks make up a good ten percent of the city’s non-tourist population. Every day at sunrise, hundreds of orange robed monks (some as young as nine) process down the streets receiving alms consisting  of sticky rice and other simple foods donated by the local population. It’s fascinating to observe such an ancient ritual in our technology driven age. 

 

There is a strict 12 a.m. curfew in Luang Prabang. By midnight, shops need to be closed, locals need to be in their homes and tourists need to be in their hotels. I haven’t figured out whether this is done as a courtesy to sleep deprived tourists or whether it’s a sinister attempt to keep people from plotting an overthrow of the communist government.  

 

Despite it’s many charms, Luang Prabang has some major food service issues. I don’t know if it’s due to the town’s French colonial past or the current Marxist regime, but restaurant service in Luang Prabang is about the worst I have ever experienced.  With the notable exception of a few higher end eateries (kudos to L’Elephant and Tamarind), my dining experiences in Luang Prabang were universally disappointing. Incompetence, apathy and downright rudeness seem ingrained in much of the wait staff. At one place on the main street, our waitress spent the majority of her shift sitting glumly on a motor scooter out in front the the restaurant in full view of all the ignored diners. Almost every place I ate got the orders mixed up, and on more than one occasion, I saw stray dogs roaming freely into the kitchen.

 

Although my stomach left Laos frustrated, the rest of me was impressed by this small, little known nation. 

Tags: bridge, elephants, food, french, laos, luang prabang, mekong, monks, temples

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