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Published: November 15th 2017
Mount Phou Si
There were great views of Luang Prabang and its surroundings.
The slow boat arrived in Luang Prabang late Friday afternoon. A sawngthaew
took us from the boat pier to the center of town. From there, I found my way to my guesthouse, checked in, rested a bit, and then took a walk around the night market. At the night market, I found a crowded little alley with lots of cheap eats. I ordered a khao soy
, and I was surprised when I got a bowl that didn’t resemble khao soy
in Thailand. It was delicious nonethless. I then turned in early as I was tired from the boat ride.
Chasing Monks: Disgust and Loathing in Luang Prabang
I woke up at 3am from a bad dream and couldn’t sleep after. At 5.30am, I gave up trying to sleep and I ventured out into the early light of dawn to observe the daily alms giving ritual that Luang Prabang is famous for. I walked from my guesthouse to the main drag one block away, and I immediately sensed that something wasn’t right. There were hundreds of little stools lined up alongside the street, and scores of almsgivers sitting on the stools waiting for the monks to emerge from the temples. Based
The monks coming down to the Thais. Note that the almsgivers here are not seated on the stools, unlike most of the other foreign almsgivers.
on my limited knowledge of almsgiving, almsgivers - at least the women - usually kneel. I then heard some of the almsgivers shrieking at one another in Mandarin (it is a loud language). I realized then that most of the almsgivers were Chinese or Korean package tourists, with a few Europeans thrown in for good measure.
There were prominent signs telling people how to and how not to behave. The rules included: participate in almsgiving only if it is meaningful to you, no bare knees and shoulders, take photographs from a respectful distance, preferably from the other side of the street. I only saw a small handful of bare shoulders, but there were plenty of bare knees, including a European almsgiver. WTF? I also suspect the package tourists were doing this as a group activity and not because it was truly meaningful to them. While I was aware that almsgiving in Luang Prabang had lost some of its authenticity, I didn’t expect this zoo. I despaired as I walked towards the end of the line of stools. There, I saw a group of Thais who were not sitting on the stools. That’s more like it! If there is any
The scene along the street in front of my hotel. This was far more authentic and much less of a zoo.
one group that would perform almsgiving the correct way, it would be the Thais since they share the same branch of Thevarada Buddhism. I decided to stick around there. Beyond the end of the line, some little kids began to gather with baskets and plastic bags. I suspected they were there to beg from the monks. Should be an interesting sight.
Not long after, the monks emerged from several wats. They filed silently along the line of almsgivers. Not surprisingly, many tourists swarmed around them taking pictures. Some Chinese and Korean tourists were even posing as they gave out alms. Even more shocking was the fact that many of the almsgivers were giving out candies. This was not the dignified procession it was supposed to be. I was glad I hung around the Thais as they were doing it the right way, even if they, too, were giving out candies. After the monks filed past beyond the Thais, they dropped food in the bags and baskets of the kids waiting at the end of the line. Many of the monks dumped the sticky rice and kept the candies.
I walked away from this scene feeling disgusted and dejected.
Kuang Si Falls
Our homestay in Cienfuegos, Cuba had a poster of this scene on the living room wall. What a neat bit of serendipity. Jeff loved the poster at the homestay and he was so jealous that I got to see it in real life.
This is what mass tourism has done to what is supposed to be a dignified and solemn event. As I turned around the corner to return to my guesthouse, I saw that the lane my guesthouse was on was lined with locals giving alms, and there was nary a tourist in sight. Now, this was what I was looking to observe. I followed the last of the procession at a respectful distance and then retired to my room.
Chasing Waterfalls. And Bears. And Butterflies
Later that morning, I met up with four of my companions from the slow boat. We negotiated with a minivan driver to take us 30km away to Kuang Si Falls and to a butterfly park in the area. It took about 30 minutes to get to the falls. Once there, we started walking. The first sight we encountered was a sanctuary for sun bears who had been rescued from bile farming, a disgustingly cruel practice whereby bears are kept in tiny cages and their bile is siphoned out to make Chinese medicines. The bears were really cute, but the exhibits were really sobering.
Not long after, we got to the first of a
Sun Bear Sanctuary
This bear was in what we assume was the senior pen (there were separate pens for juveniles and what we thought were young adults). What bliss this bear must feel to know that (s)he is safe from harm.
series of small falls. The falls were very picturesque. The limestone made the water look as if they were flowing in ribbons. We walked to very big and spectacular waterfall, and then went up a very steep path alongside the big falls. At the top, we crossed over and came down the other side. After that, we had a refreshing swim in the clear blue waters.
After our swim, we headed to the nearby butterfly park where we had a very educational session with a volunteer who showed us the stages of a butterfly’s life cycle and helped us identify the species of butterflies we spotted. The biggest surprise for me was learning that some chrysalids looked metallic.
That evening, the five of us met for drinks. We closed down the bar - that’s not quite impressive as it seems, as bars close at 11pm. We then bought some more beers, found a table and chairs along the Mekong, and chatted some more. There was a lot of banter and I had a blast.
I spent a day and a half walking around Luang Prabang and admiring the monuments around the town. The absolute
Wat Xieng Thong
What made this at unique was the external detail on some of the buildings. This one seemed to detail daily life, which is a departure from most wats. Also, they used glass rather than tiny mirrors.
must sees are:
• Wat Xieng Thong, which had some very unusual motifs on some of its walls showing scenes from everyday life. I’ve never seen this on a wat.
• The Royal Palace. The palace itself was very well curated with explanatory signs throughout. Easily missed on the palace grounds is a collection of vintage cars once used by the royalty there - look for those behind the palace building. The wat on the palace grounds was also unusual as it was painted in green and gold.
• Sunset at Mount Phou Si. Mount Phou Si has spectacular views of the city, and there is a collection of wats on the hill too.
• Wat Hosian Voravihane for a very unusual naga and lion guarding its entrance.
• The Arts and Ethnology Museum. Okay, not technically a temple, but this small but well curated museum was very educational. The biggest snippet I learned there was that the things that look like beads on many traditional costumes aren’t actually beads; they are a seed called Job’s Tears.
A full 60+ hours after stepping off the slow boat, I was finally ready to step into a boat again. I
Wat Hosian Voravihane
Seven-headed naga - note that all the heads come out of a mouth - at the entrance of the temple. This is one impressive naga.
signed up for a boat tour to Pak Ou Caves upstream on the Mekong. The Pak Ou Caves are famous for having thousands of Buddha figures. The people who signed up for this tour were bundled off into several boats that were much smaller than our slow boat. It took almost two hours to go upstream. I greatly underestimated the time it would take because the slow boat passed those caves about 45 minutes before arriving in Luang Prabang. Granted, we were going upstream, but for reasons I can’t fathom, our boats kept very close to shore and wove around instead of going straight up the river. Along the way, the boats stopped at Ban Xang Hai, also known as whiskey village as a local whiskey is brewed there. I wasn’t interested in the whiskey or the handicrafts on sale, but the village did at least have a decent wat.
After this pitstop, we proceeded on to Pak Ou Caves. After docking, I climbed the 200+ steps to the upper cave which turned out to be a dark cave (I had a flashlight with me) wth a whole lot of Buddha figurines and not much else. There weren’t even
Pak Ou Cave
Some of the many Buddha statues in the upper cave.
visible stalactites and stalagmites. Not a terribly spectacular sight, but at least this cave wasn‘t crowded as the steps deterred quite a few people. The lower cave was a zoo. I got to the first landing inside the cave but there were so many clueless people just standing there that no one could get past them. I gave up and turned around. Besides that, I swear, so many tourists seem to be so paranoid of insect bites that they douse themselves in insect repellent. The smell at the lower cave was nauseating.
Overall, this was an underwhelming excursion.
And Then There Was The Masseuse Who Bodyshamed Me
Indulge me in a little rant here. Bodyshaming is somewhat common in some Asian societies. Most of the time, the intent isn’t malicious. Rather, it is borne from a misguided cultural notion that thin=healthy. This in turn explains why faddish weight loss and beauty products are such big sellers in Asia. Having spent a fair bit of time in Singapore these past few months, the ongoing bodyshaming, which admittedly was a trickle but was still enough to annoy, was really grating on me. I left my school reunion in July
It goes over the Nam Khan River.
early partly because of the amount of bodyshaming going on. Even my mother bodyshames me. The fact that I am still active and I can do many activities that most other 48 year olds can’t do doesn’t seem to count. I am simply not acceptably thin enough.
Anyway, back to the story. I got bodyshamed by a masseuse (I won’t dignify her by calling her a massage therapist). That represented a new low. I went for a massage when I realized the the Royal Palace was closed at lunchtime and I needed to pass some time before it reopened. I wanted to try Laotian massage. An hour cost around US$6. I was assigned a female masseur and the interaction was extremely awkward. Her hands came dangerously close to my nether regions several times (I was clothed), and several times she mumbled words that I couldn't understand. She was barely putting in effort. She walked off and returned twice, saying she has stomach pains. She then patted my abdomen and mumbled something. I told her I didn’t understand what she was saying. She then patted my stomach again and said: “big”.
What.The.F@#k. You cannot possibly be serious. A masseuse
bodyshaming her own client?!?
I rolled my eyes and gave her an icy stare. Things went quickly downhill from there. When it was time for me to turn over, she disappeared again. Thankfully, another masseur - a male this time - took over. He put in a good effort and I felt really good at the end. I wish I could attribute this incident to cultural misunderstanding, but she pressed all the wrong buttons.
I’ve enjoyed myself in Luang Prabang. I am surprised at the amount of tourist infrastructure given the fact that Luang Prabang doesn’t have that many flights and it is a little difficult to get to. It was telling that there were hardly any tourists with children in tow. It is clear that, like other parts of Southeast Asia, the trail that was first established by independent budget travelers is now in the process of being expanded to accommodate mass tourism. I worry about that. The degeneration of the almsgiving ceremony into a human zoo is only the first step. I want to be optimistic about Luang Prabang’s prospects and I hope that time will prove me wrong.
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