The internet sure is a useful tool. Not only can I stay in touch even from the smallest villages, but its a wealth of information. I can see on the satellites that this morning’s rain should soon pass and I’ll have some clear weather for the afternoon. So now is a good time to tell you a little more about Lao before I get some breakfast.
Speaking of breakfast, I have been eating really well on this trip. From the $50 room-service cheeseburger at the Mira in HK, to authentic Chinese food in HK with my friend Abel, to the little thatched hut establishment I had lunch in yesterday, its all been really good. Well, maybe not quite all – the food in Manila and Marivelles was a bit lacking but it was acceptable for a work trip and it didn’t make me sick like its done to some other Arcteryx people. I’ve even made the mistake of swallowing tapwater occasionally (ie ice cubes in drinks, brushing teeth etc…) but I’ve been sick from water-born bacteria before and I think my intestines are a bit stronger now for it. I do avoid it whenever possible but like I said, sometimes some slips through. There are no mosquitos so malaria is really unlikely, and I won’t know until I get home anyway.
Yesterday was my introduction to Prabang and I happily spent the day just walking around town very slowly. I could probably stop at any point in this town, aim my camera in any direction, and take a photo that would be enthralling to any westerner. But I’m not the only person moving slowly here – Lao PDR stands for ‘Peoples Democratic Republic’ but the well-worn joke is that it stands for ‘Please Don’t Rush’. Some people claim they conquer ailments here just through the pace of Lao life. From the Buddhist monks who seem to just hang out all day, to the kids lazily tossing nets into the Mekong, to the tuk-tuk drivers who nap in their vehicles until a customer wakes them, its all pretty relaxed.
But not everyone shares this attitude and some westerners really stand out with their rushed attitude toward tourism – wanting to max out and see every possible thing while they’re here. I can relate – its a long way to come and there is no use wasting time sitting around but they often seem to forget the old mantra of quality over quantity. They hire a tuk-tuk (a motor-trike with a covered seating area in back) and they do the Wat (temple) tour. They get out their Lonely Planet guidebook and figure out the most efficient way to see all the most famous wats in one day. Good work mate, but you forgot one thing: they’re kinda all the same. Now I know each has its subtle differences, some have reclining Buddhas, some have rain Buddhas, and some genuinely are must-see wats, but unless you’re a Buddhist and you understand all these differences, they really are quite similar. Its not until they get home that they realize that they can’t tell their photographs apart.
Its still worth walking around and seeing the wats but its not about ticking them off the list, its about getting the whole picture of Prabang and seeing how all these little parts fit together in the greater mosaic. Sure, I went to Xiang Thong wat and I saw the famed Golden Prabang after which the town is named at the Royal Palace, and I even lined up with the other tourists to take the same generic photos at these places. Like I said, its a long way to come to not do that. But you can broaden the experience so much more by not rushing, walking instead of tuk-tuking, and going down some of the mysterious little walkways that are almost unnoticeable. Here is where you find the real Prabang. Orange-draped monks playing checkers with bottle caps and smoking cigarettes. Naked children playing in the river. Or even just a beautiful wat thats completely devoid of people where you can sit for a while in silence just enjoying the colorful flowers, or even thinking about your own existence much in the way that the Buddhists do. Off-the-beaten path is such a cliche and yet so many people never really get there, and they never really get to see the undisturbed life of the Lao.
I’ve always thought that traveling solo had perks that not many people understand. What it really boils down to is this: people in groups, even two, tend to have a shared experience. They may be immersed in the environment, but their focus remains on each other “what do you want to do? Did you see that? Where should we eat?” etc etc… They often focus on each other, on their shared social experience. Its like a group of people standing in a circle looking inward at each other. But when you travel solo, there is nowhere to look but outward at your surroundings, and even if you’re an outsider to what you’re seeing, you’re still seeing it more fully. I know this has been true of my experiences traveling solo or with a group.The Lao people notice it too. Small groups of backpackers walk the main streets eagerly chatting with each other, often relating stories from back home or some other place they’ve traveled to, and they don’t even look at the shops, the streets, or the people they are passing by. As a result, locals don’t smile and don’t try to talk to them and don’t invite them in for tea.
Yesterday I walked into the courtyard of a small wat that was well out of the way, and it really was fairly ordinary. But what made it extraordinary was when one of the young monks said ‘Sabaidee! Where are you from?” I doubt he would’ve said that if I were chatting with my travel partners. I told him “Canada, you know Canada?” and he said “Yes, I know Canada, my English teacher is from Quebec.” And so started the conversation. I ended up sitting there for an hour or so with a small group of teenage monks-in-training, with each side asking questions that they’d had in the back of their mind for some time. “What does snow feel like?”, “How long do you meditate?”, “Is a Canadian bear a friendly animal?”, “Do you get hungry in the evening if you’re forbidden from eating after noon?” and so on. It was a deeply rewarding exchange, for everyone I hope, and when I get home and sort through hundreds of scenic photos, the group photo from this wat will probably be the one that brings back the best memories.
Umm, its kinda hard to follow that since the description of the rest of my day kinda pales in comparison. I walked around, I’m not too sure where, not does it matter. Its Lao – please don’t rush. People said ‘sabaidee’ and I said ‘sabaidee’ back, some dogs barked at me, and I sweated profusely, probably much to the amusement of some of the locals who are used to this heat. At one point I saw a rickety bamboo bridge across the Nam Khan river and I went across it because, well, why not?
To my surprise there was a little Lao restaurant on the far side nestled in the trees with thatched bamboo huts, each containing low tables and cushions to sit on. I kicked back, put my feet up, enjoyed the view of the Nam Khan, and sipped on a deliciously cold banana-cinnamon smoothy while I waited for my main course to arrive. I had a real hankering for meat and meat is what I got. Skewered pork, marinated spicy lamb, some kind of chicken curry, with a side of sticky rice. Every bite hit the spot – so much so that I am tempted to go back today. The funny thing is that in Lao they eat all this with their hands, yes, even the curry. It was fun. And when I was finished I sat there for a while since the place was virtually empty, just feeling content on many levels.
As funny as it sounds its still nice sometimes to have western comforts. At midday when the heat reaches its peak, its really nice to head back to my room across the street from the Royal Palace and just lay on the bed with the air-con blasting. I did this yesterday and I even watched the 2nd half of Cannonball Run 2. Not a stellar movie by most standards but it hit the spot for some reason.
By 3pm or so, it had cooled down to only 35 degrees and I loped across the street to the Royal Palace. Their opening hours run until 4pm, but as I learned, they leave the last 45 minutes or so to clear out the people already inside. Hilariously Lao. So I wandered the free-of-charge grounds outside instead which were still quite magnificent. They have the kings car collection on display, which amounts to 4 dilapidated and really very unimpressive cars. Also hilariously Lao. More interesting were the lush gardens and coy ponds with their beautiful yet simple symmetry – a great place it seems for just sitting and reading a book in the shade, which a few Lao were doing. As tourists made their way out I asked if it it was worth coming back tomorrow and paying to see the inside. “Not really,” they said. Again, another example of how sometimes people can’t see the forest for the trees, or maybe in this case they can’t see the garden for the exotic flowers. And even the Lao maybe miss these things – not really knowing that the free garden is the real gem of the palace and not the random French-colonial “valuables’ inside.
Then it was time to sweat. I made the journey up to the small wats on top of Phousi Hill. Its by no means a Grouse Grind with only a couple hundred feet of vertical rise but needless to say I was drenched at the halfway point. It was nice I suppose, and the 360 view of the Prabang valley gave me a better sense of what was around, but it was fairly forgettable, except for the mandatory tourist photos that I snapped. Digital camera – why not?
But coming back down the backside I saw something that gave me a little insight into Lao culture: the local police had set up a roadside sting operation. The crime: illegal moped riding. Policemen in communist looking get-ups were hailing over mopeds for what initially appeared to be helmetless riding. And quite a racket it was with lots of mopeds lined up for tickets. But the longer I watched, the less clear it became. Some helmetless people rode past with a wave, while others with helmets were pulled over for ‘other’ crimes. They even tried to pull over a tourist on a bike but he ignorantly pedaled on and was lucky to escape. It was then that I realized it was an entirely corrupt operation, just pulling over people who they could get money from one way or another. ‘Friends’ could do no wrong. Nevertheless, the fines must be insignificant since most people still laughed and joked with the officers and happily accepted their ticket. Maybe they have no intention of paying the ticket. Hilariously Lao.
After another quick air-con session I watched the sunset over the Mekong and in my relaxed state, I completely forgot to take photos. Oh well, there will be more, so please don’t rush. Then I hit the night market where dozens of locals line up stalls all selling the exact same textiles, jewelery, and clothing. I had hoped to pick up some gifts, or at least some ideas for gifts, but it was all textiles, jewelery, and clothing.
The funny thing, and only funny in a kind of nauseating way, was hearing westerners bargaining with the locals. I know this is common across Asia, and even here there are some locals who gouge, but for the most part the prices are set and they are pretty fair, as long as you know basics of markets (ie don’t buy from the first stalls at either end, don’t buy from the loudest hawkers, etc…). But you’d hear someone pick up a beautiful bag and balk at the $5 price tag, not because they can’t afford $5, but because they think they can get a better deal. And maybe they can. Maybe they can talk the price down to $3.50. But they spent $1800 on airfare to get here and $1.50 somehow matters? It shouldn’t, at least not to a westerner, but maybe it does to the Lao.
I wished I could’ve gotten on a loudspeaker to say “stop being such cheap selfish bastards and pay these people the price they are asking because its fair.” You see, the innocent simplicity of Prabang is its true charm, and it costs nothing. People don’t gouge and they don’t push and they’re not out to screw the tourists. China is nothing like this and, from what people say, neither is Thailand. But every dejected look on a local’s face, every perceived ‘insult’ from some rich westerner devaluing their handmade goods, erodes this simple priceless beauty and Prabang takes one small step toward being a China or a Thailand. So it makes me sad and it makes me a little angry and it I guess it also makes me glad that I am here now when people still smile genuinely when you pass on the street and exchange ‘sabaidees’. Shame on all the people trying to save a $1.50. I was quite happy to see the following exchange at a corner store:
“How much for a large bottle of water?”
“6000 kip” (~$.75)
“Its only 5000 kip across the street”
“OK you sell it for 5000?”
“No, OK you go across street and buy there! Shoo.”
And the shopkeep lady literally shoo’d the girl out the door. I hope more Lao figure this out. In fact, the local tourism authority should teach this kind of solidarity to the locals so that people can make money off tourists. They’re probably going to make it anyway but its just so much nicer to not have to haggle, and to just have a friendly cooperative exchange rather than adversarial. Had the shopkeep sold it for 5000, I would’ve gladly given her a 1000 kip tip on my stuff. And she probably would’ve given me back a huge ear-to-ear smile.
I had a pizza for dinner and brownies for dessert. Consider it the air-conditioning of food – simple western comforts that are sometimes well worth it. The local Beer Lao is also pretty good, and haggle-free cheap.
I think I’ll ride elephants tomorrow, and maybe rent a bike today. Whatever. Its Lao – please don’t rush.