Luang Prabang, a World Heritage Site
Mon 7 Jan 2008
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This post deals with our trip to Laos, where we spent about 10 days. We needed to get out of Thailand to renew our visa and decided to really see something instead of doing a quick trip to walk into Myanmar for lunch as we had the last time.
Right away we enjoyed the slow pace of a town that is a World Heritage Site. Strolling along the Nam Khan river front, we noticed a bamboo bridge crossing over a side channel and decided to wander over and investigate. It turned out to be a restaurant that served great food and we seemed to be almost the only farang http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farang there.
After a couple of days of getting the lay of the land at the Chitlatda guest house we found a prettier and quiet place, the Som Khoun Meung Guest House, run by a dignified gentleman who spoke to us in French. The only things we had to say to him were Bon jour, Bon soir, Bonne nuit and Au revoir. But a young man there could speak some English and we were well taken care of.
There was an unadvertized feature of construction noise at 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning as a crew next door proceded with their work of sawing and carrying materials to the site. It was the men who did the sawing and the women who did the carrying.
Looking for an internet cafe near our place, we found a gallery showing "Laos Through Our Own Eyes". This is a wonderful place started and run by an American, Carol, that provides digital cameras and computers to young Lao people. The students are free to follow their interests and can take instruction in English or other languages; PhotoShop, Flash, Dreamweaver and other imaging programs; or wherever their interest lies. Many of the gallery/library users are monks but there are only a few girls.
The photos by these young Lao people are remarkable.
Anyone with a memory card that isn't used, like the 16MB ones that come with a camera, would do well to slip it in a protected envelope and send it to
The Language Project
PO Box 13201
Tallahassee, FL 32317
The Language Project
PO Box 905
Luang Prabang, LAO PDR
Besides the Luang Prabang gallery and library, the project http://www.thelanguageproject.dreamhosters.com/langprojdev/ has other projects in Laos. They could also make use of floppy disks and flash drives.
We often went to the river front on the Nam Khan to visit one of the restaurants that has outdoor tables on the river side with a kitchen on the other side of the street and waiters who cross the street to bring your order.
Though we were sometimes approached by craft-selling kids, we also met other friendly travelers, such as a couple of Malaysian ladies.
We enjoyed a long, fascinating conversation with Ben Wright, who has been a professor, Navy combat instructor for the Seals before they were called the Seals, a volunteer in prisons, an author and film writer. Without sounding like he was name dropping but just telling some of his stories, we found he had met Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, Allen Ginsberg, 'Larry' Ferlinghetti, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Elton John, Faye Emerson and seemingly many of the famous personages of the 20th century.
There are plenty of bookstores with new and used English language books. We picked up Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and were both greatly impressed. It could be a good idea to read it before the movie with Johnny Depp comes out next year. But check it out first http://www.amazon.com/Shantaram-Novel-Gregory-David-Roberts/dp/0312330529 ; http://www.shantaram.com/ as it's very dark but ultimately uplifting. There's a collection of Dave's favorite quotes from the book at http://www.dianeanddave.net/files/ShantaramQuotes.html. Whether or not these quotes or the book itself reflect truths about India and Bombay, it's powerful fiction with interesting discussions on good and evil, power, poverty and the underworld.
After seeing a banner announcing a puppet and dance show at the Childrens Cultural Center, we went the next evening. The Center works with ages 6-18 and the show was put on by 15- to 18-year-olds. First there was a narration about the new year, then prayers and rice cakes and tea. We tied string around each other's wrist, then had them tied again many times by Lao people coming around. This has spiritual and protective meaning.
The puppet show was filled with an array of characters. It told the story of a king who challenged a scholar with a riddle and bet his head on it. The riddle: "Where does the human grace dwell in the morning, noon, and evening?" The story is called Nang Sangkaan http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Lao/LaoFolkLiterature/chapter7/chapter_7_text.htm (look for Sangkaan nearly half way down).
The dancers wore wonderful costumes and were very fresh and enthusiastic. A little toddler at the front did some great dancing until his mother pulled him off.
Visit http://dianeanddave.net/albums/Puppet%20and%20Dance%20Show/index.html for more photos of the puppet show and dances.
One of the coffee houses shows movies every evening, where Dave saw Breaking and Entering, with Jude Law.
We climbed the many steps required to get to the top of a hill where a famous wat stands. The view of the countryside was as good as the wat.
Most things seem to be a little more expensive than Thailand, but not massages. We were paying $8-$12/hour in Thailand for an 'oil massage' but here Dave paid $5/hour. The country is so undeveloped that providing modern features costs about four times the traditional. The vendors cannot charge a lot yet so their profit margin is small.
During the week-long Hmong New Year we went to the grounds where they were celebrating. A whole area under the trees was set up with stalls and places where there were many people in bright costumes and the boys and girls could toss a ball to each other in a traditional courtship ritual. The atmosphere is of a county fair with booths and games.
Dave got to do a little participation with a Hmong girl. Diane had a bunch of Hmong women encourage her to dress up in costume to be photographed against a backdrop like the Hmong kids do.
Visit http://www.dianeanddave.net/albums/Hmong%20New%20Year/index.html for more photos of the Hmong celebration.
Diane went out early for a day-long Lao weaving class at a beautiful location along the Mekong with various open buildings for displays, silk dying, eating, weaving. Good teachers, good people. Diane is proud of the work she did. Guess what. She was slow and they said expert. Tit (means thief) was our teacher and was part Hmong and Khmu.
We saw a flyer for Cinema Tuk-Tuk, a free show including work by the Young Lao Photographers Gallery of Luang Prabang. To get there we took a boat across the Mekong. The boat guy brought along four kids from his family so it was an adventurous outing for us all. Besides the 'Laos Through Our Own Eyes' photos there were Bustor Keaton and other silent comedies that made the children laugh delightedly. A pie in the face is funny in any language.
We went on a tour of an elephant camp and a waterfall. The people in our group were two German fellows and four Sydneysider girls, all interesting people. We took a boat on the Nam Khan to the elephant camp where we got to meet many of the elephants and buy bananas to feed them. Then we climbed aboard an elephant and with our mahout [ url=http://www.thefreedictionary.com/mahout ] leading the way we joined a procession of elephants for an hour's walk through the forest.
After our ride we walked across to where the 3-year-old 'baby' elephant is kept and petted him and fed him bananas. We had a fine lunch that was part of the tour and then left on another boat for a trip to the Tad Sae waterfall. This was a series of cascades rather than a high drop. There were pools to swim in and rocks to wade over. On the return boat we passed many kayakers enjoying the Nam Khan.
Visit http://www.dianeanddave.net/albums/Elephant%20Camp%20&%20Waterfall/index.html for more photos of the elephant camp and a waterfal.
Leaving Luang Prabang we walked across the tarmac again to our plane and in the air were treated to a view of the winding Mekong.
Visit http://dianeanddave.net/albums/Luang%20Prabang,%20Laos/index.html for more Laos photos.
We really enjoy hearing from you, whether by a comment in the blog or by email (diane [at] dianeanddave.net or dave [at] dianeanddave.net).
Listen; there's a hell of a good universe next door: let's go. -- e. e. cummings