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Published: November 16th 2007
SABAI DEE! (Hello), from the Land of now only 2000 elephants left.
I chose LUANG PRABANG, the World Heritage City in Laos, as the last destination of my trip for having heard it was the quietest, most peaceful destination in S.E. Asia. What a paradox: I aimed to find peace in the MOST BOMBED COUNTRY IN HISTORY, where abundant UXO (unexploded ordinance = bombs) still claims many lives today.
My flight from Hanoi to LP on Lao Airways was comic: the whole flight consisted of 5 very funning looking short men wearing suits, hats, briefcases, rotten teeth (but with big smiles), and me. They were very curious about me, and the one who spoke a little English asked about where I was from, where I was going, and than added: "You are fashion", whatever he meant, it was funny and they spent the 55 minute flight checking to see what I was doing. Despite suspicion about the safety of Laor Air, since records aren't released, the empty flight was actually very smooth, service was great, and it cost $40 less than Vietnam Air.
The 6 of us were the only ones at the airport, where I got my visa
and headed out to look for my name. This time it was spelled "PATRICA CILI". It was "PATIKIA KALI" in Cambodia, and my name was upside down in China. With a smile I haeaded to the Lao version of a tuk-tuk, more like a small pick-up pulled by a motorcycle.
The town is small, and to capture it's spirit, I chose to explore it by foot, gracefully declining the offering of $1 tuk-tuk rides. I found serenity in many of its 32 Pagodas (Buddhist Wats) in the morning or early afternoon, when most travellers are out ecotouring. Buddhism also co-exists with Animism in Lao, and my fascination for the little spirit houses continued. The French left the colonial atmosphere, and many of the crumbling down villas are turning into new guesthouses everywhere ($8-15/room: shop around). I stayed at the expensive ($20) Lane Xang and than moved to a GH by the Soma Cafe. There are many GHs on the neat narrow street.
The tranquil Luang Prabang = YOUNG MONKS galore. Their burnt sienna robes dot the streets, often hiding from the sun under an umbrella. Many novice monks "take robe and bowl" to have a chance to be
educated, coming from very poor village families where they're only 10 years old.
TEACHING ENGLISH TO MONKS: That's what I ended up doing after talking to some monks at Wat Mai Wat. (Yes, women can talk to monks. Just do not touch or get too close to them, and dress appropriately). One was the English teacher and he invited me I to help with the evening class. And so I did, and the teenager monks were very glad. They used their feeling of appreciation in every sentence they formed. I gave each a pen and books from a local publisher to distrubute to the village schools. If in Luang Prabang, you can contact novice monk Dee, on Si Savong Road.
Another GASTRONOMIC PARADISE, the best in SE Asia, according to my taste buds. The cuisine is rustic, fresh, tasty. It Sticky rice is the staple, added to vegetables, fish, meats flavored with a blend of fresh basil, mint, lemongrass, coriander, lime, and exotic leaves. After a few days of superb restaurant food for $2, I ventured into the al-fresco street food stall. My favorite was the Vegetarian stall where an all-you-can-fit plate of the delicious food buffet cost
It was a quiet morning...
just me and the young monk, him working,me admiring the small beautiful temple.
50 cents!!! And to wash it all down, who needs Starbucks when you can have strong Lao coffee for 20 cents, delicious fruit shakes, or for the drinkers, BeerLao, locally produced and dirt cheap?
ELEPHANT PARK PROJECT: It rescues elephants no longer used on the logging of the disappearing forests. I met up with Aaron and Anne, whom I travelled with on the train in Vietnam, and the 3 of us arranged the tour with TIGER TRAIL, one of the ecotour agencies in town. A truly fully packed whole day tour ($40), including unforgetable elephant riding, swimming at the gorgeous Tat Sea waterfall, trekking, boat riding, lunch and the unexpected kayaking adventure.
This is how the KAYAKING adventure unfolded: At first, it was nice and relaxing, flowing slowly down the river as we passed by people fishing, bathing or farming on its banks. Plenty of time to chat with my guide, who told me about working for 9 months to pay his bride's father the dowry before they could get married, after the "long" relationship of 4 months! He shared that people from the villages don't really like tourists because "they eat too much". I asked him to
expand on that, and he added: "the few chickens and pigs they have go to feed the tourists, and are left with none". That was a concept I am sure nobody stops to thinks about. At that moment, I felt even better about embrassing vegetarianism.
Time continue to pass and the river was so slow that after 2 hours of rowing we were dead, arms about to fall out, hallucinating about a massage. Panic stroke when informed thatt we had 3 more hours of kayaking to go. Desperate, we stopped at a village where our "clever" guide improvised a "crazy-tourist vehicle". A pickup truck with 3 loose house chairs on to of it. It was hillarious: the 3 of us, afraid we'd fly off the truck, chairs and all, at the next pot hole, holding on for our lives. We nevoursly laughed the whole way, making it to town hardly on time to watch the sunset. We finished the fun-packed day with Lao Barbecue at Lao Lao restaurant (highly recommended) and a 1 hour foot and shoulder massage for $3. Crushed at the cold room to be awaken by the loudest rooster ever at 4:30am, one hour before the wake-up
time to see the locals giving alms (sticky rice and fruit) to the monks on the streets of LP.
Imagine having a great ONE HOUR MASSAGE for $3 and while you are melting away on the hands of the skilled masseur, you are alos helping the Lao people. That's what you get at the LAO RED CROSS in LP. It also offers steam bath, and all proceeds go towards helping villagers with first-aid, water filters, latrines, and recruiting blood donors. For $1 you can feed a patient for a day, for $20 you buy a latrine in a village... (firstname.lastname@example.org). Massages in spa like settings are also available elsewhere in town, but I recommend dropping by the Red Cross at least once. It's worth!
NIGHT MARKETS: All over the streets, considered the best. Prices super low and vendors are not pushy at all, unlike other countries. Great textiles, scarves and art on Mulberry tree paper for those with room in their bags.
BIG BROTHER MOUSE. It's an amazing little place founded by a retired American publisher. It publishes books in Lao-English, teaches publishing and computer skills, and employes 8 Laotians aged 15 to 23 who are learning
Boy in a box on a cart...
It was 5:00am, his Dad working and him tagging along.
to draw, write, and to run a business. I bought books and gave to my friend monks to take to a village school. I planned to read to the kids during their morning program. To help from abroad, visit www.bigbrothermouse.com
BREAKFAST BY THE MEKONG RIVER: It was my last experience in Laos. While sipping coffee and discussing "karma" and the like, I watched Lao life unfold: the long boats came and went, people bathed in the river, monkey played with a local. Under a stupenduos tree, I started to say goodbye.
I don't think it will be long before the "Laos' Jewel" wakes up from it's "Sleeping Beauty stage". But for now, Luang Prabang is a superb destination (Oppss!!!! That comment must just contribute to ruining it! But not being selfish, I hope it will somehow contribute positively to it's people poverty).
SOME FACTS ABOUT LAOS: (I find it essential, but If not interested, just jump to last paragraph)
- It has been a French colony, it has endured Japanese occupation, and it had a CIA "secret US army" in it's north soil to combat communism for years. The US had a "secret war" going
Loving it, but...
but I was almost falling off the chair.
So to the neck of the elephant I went.
on in Laos while the Vietnam War was going on. The US army made contract with the Hmong minorities, told them "the Vietnamese were coming to get them", and trained them to fight for the next 12 years. "The US dropped 2,093,100 tons of bombs in Laos, costing many lives and $7.2 billion dollars (US$ 2 million/day for 9 years)". In the process, the Lao culture got "corrupted by decadent American lifestyle", bringing the bars with sexually explit shows and prostitution to the spiritual land. ( Can this partially explain the tile with the picture of a naked Asian woman that's on the wall of my guesthouse's bathroom?)
- Early 80's: After the Soviet Union bailed out and when Vietnam got busy with it's own affairs, Laos looked up to China's openning up to the market forces and did okay for a while. However, it remained heavily dependent on foreing aid and when the late 90's Asian economic crisis happened, it moved backwards again.
- The 2000's: The Marxist-Leninist dictatorship in power is communist only in name, although in local guides I read about "The Popular Democratic Republic". No mention of the lack of freedom of expression and
On the neck of the elephant ...
I felt like a "manhou", and actually loved the ride.
press and corruption, which are a reality not obvious to us passing by travellers. Obvious is the ncreasing disparities between urban and rural standard of living, extremely low education standards. There is no public health care. Malaria is endemic, and so is HIV. "Some NGO's and foreign aid programs are trying to help but human resources are still innadequate". If a Lao get pretty sick, there is good chance it will die. Smuggling of timber and wildlife also still prevails.
Lao economy is seeing hydropower dams being constructed (I saw one about to devastate the valley I trekked on in Vietnam) and it has the dream to become "The Battery" of SE Asia. Tourism industries is growing since it opened in 1989 after the fall of the USSR.
WHAT WE CAN DO: Volunteer time teaching English and sharing your experties at a health care facility, donating money to NGOs (Here in Luang Prabang, the RED CROSS or Big Brother Mouse great places to donate to), spreading the words to other tourists or potential humanitarians comfortably at home somewhere in this planet of ours.
So, now I leave SE Asia agreeing with the many who said "Ah! You travel
like Americans: in a hurry". I envy the Europeans taking 3 or more months to truly explore this amazing region, but again, I can't complaint. I had a great opportunity, saw and learned so much (although still wondering about karma...) and after eating the best, I'm leaving without having experienced the dreaded "tourist gut".
I don't know when my next time travelling will be, but until than, I hope that YOU, old or new friend, will keep in touch.
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