Dec 12, 2006

First Trip North

Another Abandoned Village

I’ve been gone for a couple weeks taking a brief meander through the northwest where Laos bumps up against China, Burma, and Thailand.

I kind of got off to a slow start. When I went to register for a hotel my first night in Vang Vien I realized I’d taken my wife’s passport instead of my own. Back to Vientiane I went, and then back up to Vang Vien for a second night.

Both nights I took the very first room I looked at, a pattern that was to repeat itself throughout my trip. At Luang Namtha and also Luang Prabang I paid five dollars. All the rest of the rooms were cheaper. All with private bath, many with hot water.

Old Airstrip out by the highway Vang Vien

Vang Vien has changed quite a bit since I first went with my wife and her mom to hide out for a while in 1996 and not all of the changes for the better, but most of them I believe are. The centre of town seems unrecognizable but in general the whole surrounding area is much more prosperous. For once there are choices besides becoming a subsistence farmer or immigrating to the city.

I have yet to figure out just what the heck sustainable tourism is supposed to mean. Of course tourism is sustainable, just look at Koh Samui. Eco-tourism? Tourism with vegetarian menus at the English speaking cafes?


It was with just that sort of sour attitude that I headed for Luang Prabang, a hotbed of trendy South East Asian tourism. Already “done” Angkor Wat? Then you simply must see the monks on their morning alms rounds in LPB. Make way backpackers, Conde Nast is coming through.
I’ve been to Luang Prabang twice before, once while my wife and I were on our way to China in 01 when we stayed a couple of days looking at the wats and again in 03 when I stayed long enough to sleep and grab the bus in the morning. Even in 01 the centre of Luang Prabang was primarily a tourist town.

My preconceived expectations seemed to be fulfilling themselves the next morning when I left my guest house at about 6:30, no sooner had I passed the front gate than I was approached by a hawker selling bits of food for me to give to the monks. “Buy food, give monk” Wrapped up in banana leaves who knows what it was.

I usually get up early and go for a walk around a little after six. Lao towns are cool in temperature then and it’s a nice time for walking. The streets aren’t busy and the markets seem to reach a peak at around six thirty or a quarter to seven. In general people are quiet at this time of day, still sleepy and most of them headed to the market for that days supply of food. On this day I was headed for the northern bus station.

Luang Prabang Early Morning

Every day in every town middle aged women wait at the edge of the road to give food and even money to the monks. I don’t know much about the whole thing not being a Buddhist but I do know that it provides some kind of a connection between the general population and the monks. Buddhism survives and even thrives with the support of the whole society. I have no idea why it seems to be mostly middle aged and older women who give the food.

Foisted upon this ageless procession is modern twenty first century tourism complete with high tech digital cameras, and the competitive one upsmanship that seems to permeate our society even in observing what is for us a foreign religion.

With relief I crossed the main street with all of it’s tour groups complete with guide to shepard them to the right spot to get the obligatory saffron robed monk photo. Four blocks away I stopped at a restaurant, the same kind you see everywhere up and down the Mekong Valley. Kow piak and anything else made with hot water. Cofee two of them, and yes I’ll have some of the Kow piak. I heard her talking to her friend, “so does he want rice or noodles?”, “noodles” I answered. Smiles all around, “chicken or pork” she asks. While in the back cooking she asks me with her back turned, “so you have a Lao wife don’t you” Middle aged women, they don’t miss much.

Two Tats and a Wat

Luckily as I walked a few more blocks I noticed I only had ten dollars in Lao Kip on me, wanting to have plenty of small money on me for a long series of bus and sawngthaew rides I headed back to find a money change booth. I took a secondary road along the Khan River.

As I walked along I noticed that many of the houses were actually fairly old and well preserved. Once you look past the plate glass windows of the trendy cafes and look beyond the herbal massage signs there is still an old Mekong River town. I resolved then and there to give Luang Prabang a second look, and I’m glad I did. More on Luang Prabang on the way back.

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