Hitting the SE Asia Backpacker Trail in Luang Prabang

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November 24th 2008
Published: December 13th 2008
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Traveler ChicTraveler ChicTraveler Chic

The man on the left is the perfect example of travelers chic. I apologise for the poor photography not only is it out of focus, but i missed his arms covered in the necessary accessories!
Doran Update:(Doran writes his entries as he travels, but only dishes them out every four days so if he is traveling quickly and seeing interesting stuff, the blog falls behind his progress.)I'm now currently in Pattaya, south of Bangkok getting in some long overdue windsurfing (it had been like 5 years!) This town has definitely earned itself a blog entry! But first, let's go back to Luang Prabang in Laos, this entry digresses quite a bit, I do apologise!

From the little village of Muang Ngoi where we had gone fishing (see previous entry) it took altogether about 8 hours to get down river to Luang Prabang by long boat. When we (I was still traveling with Chris and Tommy) arrived, I was in shock.

WHERE THE HELL DID ALL THESE WHITE. PEOPLE COME FROM!!!!!! In all seriousness, it was extremely overwhelming, I hadn't seen this many lawai, falang, haole, whities (whatever you want to call 'em) since the previous Christmas when I was on the west coast of the US of A!

We had finally hit the main backpacker trail of SE Asia.

Throngs of them, thousands of them! From cute 18 year old girls
Rich NeighbourhoodRich NeighbourhoodRich Neighbourhood

The amount of money that has poured into Luang Prabang in the past 5 years is unprecedented their are some very expensive guesthouse hotel owners getting very very rich off of very very rich people!
traveling for the first time, to the English and Irish lads out on the piss, to couples in their mid twenties, to old timers who had just hopped off of the tour bus with their over-sized cameras clicking away, to the hippie types that have taken "traveler chic" one level to far... EVERYONE was here! We (because yes, I am one of them too...) greatly outnumbered and overpowered the Lao in town.

A short digression on "Traveler Chic":

I cannot remember the first time I heard the term "traveler chic". Traveler chic refers to the fashion that has become quite popular in Europe and especially the UK which advertises: LOOK AT ME! I TRAVEL!!! When you try to picture traveler chic in your head think of all of the following: (written with a heavy dose of sarcasm)

Shoes: Flip-Flops, brown or green in colour is a plus,
Trousers: Those light weight pajama pant types from India. Ripped off at calf level is a plus. Extremely faded and worn out jeans are also acceptable here. Crazy holes somewhere, especially big ones at the knee, are a bonus.
Belt: Only if you are wearing jeans, but the belt needs to be woven, not leather. More than one colour is a plus.
Shirt: The key here is lightweight: T-shirt type, long or short-sleeved, maybe a button or two up by the neck (but NEVER buttoned) for the long sleeve. Faded is good. The real seller is the design. Tie-dyed apparently is still in and souvenir shirts are great but the more random the better. Beer shirts are over done, as are all the "same same... but different" shirts (don't worry you'll be cool AFTER you go home). If there is lettering on the shirt it really should be either in a foreign language (as in, a script other than roman) or the lettering should be so faded that you can't quite make out what it says.
Hat: If you don't have the hair (see hair) then you need a head covering of some sort other than a baseball cap. For guys, my type of hat or similar is common and acceptable. Earthy colours are a plus.
Hair: Dreds or braids or mohawk or even some forms of the mullet are required to be really cool. Ponytails now actually suggest you are a bit of an intellect (only for guys) and not necessarily a stoner. In general though the longer the better.
Accessories: THESE ARE KEY!
Bracelets: you need about twenty of these... on both arms. Ropey ones with little stones or beads on them are essential, hemp rope is a great material, jangly metal bracelets are good too. The main rule of thumb here is that they have to be cheap and slowly falling apart, picked up whilst traveling, and the more that you have... the better!
Rings: not essential but recommended
Necklace: Essential. Something either delightfully tacky or something meaningful. You get extra points if it was a gift from mother before leaving. All the following types are recommended: a tooth, a fishhook, seashells, ankle bones, tight collars, St. Christopher, jade or other precious stone (fake is just as good), etc. The sign of the cross is not highly recommended as in some countries it could be taken as offensive.
Tattoos: always a bonus.
Other accessories: Toe rings, anklets, nose rings, other piercings, ear rings, etc... are all good.
Bag: We aren't talking your massive backpack here. This is essentially your purse or murse that you carry around town with you etc... Small backpacks here just will not cut
Still a rivertown...Still a rivertown...Still a rivertown...

No matter how much tourism has changed Luang Prabang, it still serves as an important hub and port for the surrounded small villages and towns up and down the rivers.
it. If you want to be cool it can only have one strap. Messenger style bags are what we are after. Earthy colours, maybe a marijuana leaf embroidered in. Patches from really obscure countries that you have actually been to are great, otherwise you want to have LOADS of patches all over it... but they all have to be dirty and faded!

That pretty much wraps up "traveler chic". At times I can be quite arrogant when it comes to traveling and traveling kudos, so when I see these guys (and girls) swaggering down the street I can't help but be quick to make an assumption and think that most likely they "Have all the gear but no idear!" Don't get me wrong though, I'm all for a bit of traveler chic. I have and wear a souvenir t-shirt from time to time, I always wear sandals (who wouldn't???), I got my hat (very important, never travel without a cap), I have a shark's tooth hanging around my neck (but I do, and it does, actually come from a pacific island), and I will confess that, during my stay in Luang Prabang, I bought a random little bracelet from
Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing...Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing...Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing...

I love this photograph: Old meets new as the young monks learn how to type. And yes, the were using Mavis Beacon! I didn't realise it was still around!
a young boy who looked like he was having a rotten day. No, seriously, there is nothing wrong with dressing the part a bit, I just appreciate or see the need to go all out trying to look like you've been traveling for 5 years straight when your on a 2 month break from Uni. That is all I'm saying!

So back to the streets of Luang Prabang. Besides all the white people walking around there were other signs that we had gotten onto the backpacker trail. First, weed was suddenly falling out of the skies. Secondly, suddenly it was difficult to find Lao food! Indian food? Easy. Banana Pancakes? Anywhere. Oreo coffee shakes? OH YEAH!!! It was all a little bit too much for me at first but you can't just bitch and moan... you got to get into it or go home. Because this is the way things are, and sadly this is the way the world is going.

In the few days that we spent there we did manage to find a bit of soul in the place though. There was the photography studio for young Lao photographers, the Centre that taught young monks how to type, the temples themselves were pretty fantastic (even for the three of us who have seen a lot of temples). We stopped to watch two girls weaving beautifully ornate shawls using an extremely complicated loom set-up, and then we joined all the other tourists to climb up the hill at the top of the village where there is a golden stupa and watched the sun set. We even got up at 530am to watching the monks collecting alms! After that we went a bit less cultural by helping ourselves to coffee oreo shakes, wandering through the night market bargaining over cheap hoodies, skyping the girlfriends from an internet place, and then for dinner having a (actually really good) hamburger off the streets (CRIMINAL!).

In general though, tourism has taken over, from the massive night market each night selling all of the same stuff, to the overcrowded waterfall that we visited. Even the monks collecting alms was corrupted by us tourists, not where we were sitting, but down the street there was a huge crowd of tourists clicking away as the monks did their morning walk to collect food from the devout villagers. There were locals (that should
Night marketNight marketNight market

night market is setting up and selling early!
be ashamed of themselves) selling bananas and sticky rice for way too much money to foreigners so that the foreigners could join in with handing out food to the orange robed spiritualists. Almost all locals agree that unless you are a devout buddhist, you should not participate as a foreigner, and so these locals were going against tradition and customs so that they could make a substantial profit from a daily and spiritual procession meant to benefit the lives of the pious monks.

We are all arrogant travelers

As we sat on the side of the road munching on our burgers, three young travelers walked by. The girl in the group spoke loudly to her friends with the intention that we would hear and said with a "tut tut" tone, "Come all the way to Luang Prabang and you eat a burger?!" To which Tommy replied as the walked away, "HEY! It was a good burger!" getting laughs from her male companions. I don't know what bothers me more, the fact that she was so quick to hop on her high horse and judge us, or the fact that her doing this bothered me at all. It
Oreo MilkshakesOreo MilkshakesOreo Milkshakes

If you can't beat 'em... Join 'em! Tommy is excited.
does bring up a good point though. When traveling you do have to be quick to make assumptions, simply because you do not have enough time and you do not have enough input to make a well rounded and informed consideration of all your experiences. You have to make conclusions based on a very limited perspective. I do it, we all do it. Lao serves as a perfect example, its one of the most visited countries in SE Asia (I heard it was actually number one, but I'm not sure if I believe that it beats Thailand). So, you meet a lot of people how have been there or who are going there and you meet a lot of people who say that they have "done" Laos.

They spent a week or two there and they say they have "done" Laos???!!! What they mean is that they've hit the main spots/sights, and entered and exited the country. They got their taste. But it's that pompous use of the term "done" that clearly points out the arrogance of the traveling community (myself included) as a whole. If you wanted to "do" Laos, I would say you need to spend 6
Same same... but not so differentSame same... but not so differentSame same... but not so different

Every other shop seemed to sell the same collection of tshirts!
months there (more or less 3 months in the south and 3 months in the north) and you would need to be able to speak the language by the time that you left. (As language is the key to any culture.) But no, they got their taste, and they felt that their experiences in the country were enough for them to make some assumptions and move on.

The box has been ticked.

But this quick-to-make-assumptions reflex is applied to far more than just your views of the countries you've visited. You also use it with the people you meet. Relationships are on crack when you travel. You meet loads of people and everyone is going somewhere else the next day, so you got to make friends there and then and if-I-don't-like-you-I-am-not-going-to-be-bothered-with-you-etc... When you meet someone for the first time, in about 30 seconds you've sized them up. You have an idea of who they are, where they are from, how much they've traveled, how much money they have, what kind of experiences they are after, etc... Quite often, you are way off the mark. But the more you practice this, the better you tend to get at it, such that it becomes almost like a game. HOWEVER, you never never never never NEVER voice your judgments, especially if they are negative. Instead, you hold them in reserve, keep an open mind, and see if you were right or if you were wrong.

Going back to the girl on the street, she saw us eating our burgers and made dozens of assumptions based on our choice for dinner one night. She could have assumed we were "doing" SE Asia, 4 countries in 2 months, that we never ate Lao food, that we don't like rice, that we might be drunk and were just after the party and hitting on Asian girls and teasing prostitutes. For all she knew, we could have been living in Luang Prabang, speaking fluent Lao, and eating the burgers because our friends owned the shop. Again, she had to make assumptions based on limited input, but where she went wrong was voicing that assumption. Because as soon as you open your mouth, that assumption becomes a judgment, and that judgment might offend someone.

So as a traveler, a tourist, a foreigner, a guest in a foreign country, you are an observer and no more. If you want to be a conscientious and responsible tourist, keep your judgments to yourself, keep an open mind, and try to get as much input as you can!

After about 3 days in Luang Prabang it was time to move on. Tommy caught a flight to Vientiane the same evening that Chris and I got on a bus to Vang Vieng. This was to prove even more shocking...

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25th December 2008

Merry Christmas, Zack
and a joyous New Year. In due course, may your travels bring you full circle.

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