Sitting here on my balcony at the Auberge Calao listening to the sounds of the morning– my overhead fan whipping the already muggy air; a rooster crows nearby; water splashing on a concrete floor as someone takes a bath; a metal spatula scraping furiously over the surface of a wok. The sun is slowly rising to a cloudy day. One can begin to see the muddy Mekong waters churning on their southern journey to the sea. I hear the sputtering of a long tail boat making its way down river to some unknown destination. Various insects sing their chorus, lights popping on here and there as Luang Prabang stirs to life.
The trip up here from Vientiane was incredible. We quickly passed through the Mekong River plains to the foothills of the mountains. We went through Vang Viang, an astoundingly beautiful place with large limestone outcroppings and verdant gorges. Unfortunately, I was on the right side of the bus, so I didn’t get many pictures. With the exception of a 30 minute stop for lunch, we spent 5+ hours weaving our way through the mountains. Route 13 is a fairly good sealed road, but the absence of guard rails and traveling a hair’s breath away from certain doom is both thrilling and heart-stopping scary! We passed through villages of lowland Lao, Hmong, stands of bamboo bending toward the road as if waving to us, teakwood, slash-and-burn farms, mountain corn and terraced fields of rice. The terrain all decked out in its tropical rain forest splendor. We arrived just in time as the brakes were so over-used going through the mountains that they were squeaking wildly by the time we entered Luang Prabang.
The hotel is everything promised. Right on the Mekong River, with terrific private balconies overlooking the street and river. The room oozing colonial charm. It is a Sino-Portugese style building built in the 1930’s. It was the home of a French merchant up to 1968. The more interesting part of the city exists along three main roads and each has its distinct flavor. SouvannaKamphong Road runs along the river. It is quiet with small hotels and Lao restaurants lining the bank of the river. Sakkarine Road is filled with tourists and restaurants that serve Western food. Kingkitsarath Road is along the Nam Khan River and boasts beautiful views of the river and the mountains beyond plus a few residences and restaurants.
The city is full of temples and also filled with boys serving as novice monks so that they can get some sort of continuing education. I have spent a lot of time at the temples talking to the monks and getting an interesting perspective on their way of life. Most of the novices are doing it to make merit for their parents as well. Many, it seems, would rather be studying in a regular school. I can’t tell you how many aspire to go to college to learn English and get a degree. Last night I went to hear the monks doing their 6 PM praying. I quietly passed into the temple as they were chanting. I was so concerned about being discrete and respectful about videotaping as unnoticed as possible not wanting to disturb them…. Well, there were 5 novices in the back throwing spit balls at each other most of the time! Reminded me of my experiences at Infant Jesus School!
There are two wonderful temples that give awe-inspiring views of the city. I took a boat across the river to Wat Chom Phet. It was quite a climb up the steep stairway in the high humidity. Along the way I somehow acquired a bunch of little tour guides from the village that is at the base of the stairs. I give them 5000 kip (about 50 cents) for a floral arrangement to leave in front of the Buddha in the old, abandoned temple. I know fully well that they will think nothing of taking these flowers and offering them to the next tourist who happens by. I spend about 25 minutes taking in the magnificant view of the city. I then make my descent to the boat, with my guides on tow asking for money the entire way. I meet an wizen old man toting a basket full of overripened jack-fruit. I offer him a ride over to the city in the boat. Along the way he wants to know if I am French. He fought in the French colonial army when he was young, but that is all he will say on the matter. People like him were sent to “reeducation camps” in the mid-70’s. I also climbed Phousey, the large hill that dominates the middle of the city. From the temple up top, Wat Chomsi, you can see in every direction. There is a wonderful museum at the foot of the hill that once served as the royal palace. Laos has its own Romanoff story…. The king, the queen and the crown prince were arrested after the 1975 revolution. They haven’t been heard from since. People say that they all perished from neglect in a remote part of the country. The rooms of the palace are left the way they were the day fo the revolution. I am surprised at how spartanly furnished the rooms are considering. The throne room is spectacular. The walls covered with scenes of everyday life in Laos, all done in Japanese colored glass. Some of this glass can also be seen on the walls of one of the outter buildings at the main temple in the city.
There is so much here in this city. Images of village folk, the evening market sellers, the people I’ve met, the waterfalls, the old French colonial buildings, the restaurants along the river…. This city has truly become in just a few days one of my favorite spots on earth. Tomorrow I take the ferry for the two-day trip to Houei Xai and eventually back to Thailand.
Walking through the drizzly streets of Luang Prabang tonight. The smell of ripe saparote (pineapple) rinds– decaying. The tip and tap of the rain on my umbrella; the rustle of the heavy plastic tarps; the hollow sound of the metal poles falling on concrete– the 9:30 sounds of the night market beginning to close. Old Hmong ladies cackle in complaint that the rain is getting their “bandaw” (embroidery) wet. Some of the ladies wait by candle light for the last of the tourists to leave— their quiet, desperate, pleading stares hoping you’ll be just one more sale before they pack to go home. One last T-shirt, scarf, wall hanging or trinket, sir? Their desperation is mirrored in the soulful sound of Billie Holidae coming from some unknown place as I leave the market area and make my way up Sisavangvong Road still full of foreigners– lingering— one last slice of pizza, cup of coffee, email home, a word to a friend in a cafe. Passing Nazim’s Restaurant sounds are unmistakenly Lao– a song playing, laughter of some children, the sputtering of a tuk-tuk (three-wheeled taxi). As I continue to make my way to the Calao, my eyes adjust to alternating harsh glows of bare florescent lights; the soft, colorful cheery paper lamps of the restaurants along the quai on Ounkham Road. Here and there a stately, almost colonial, look of the lamp posts.
I hear a screech of brakes behind me that brings me back to reality. One last call, “Tuk, tuk, sir?” I simply say, “Boh ow, khop jai” (I don’t want one, thank you.) I think I’m not ready to reach any particular destination in a hurry. As I walk, Luang Prabang slowly drifts to sleep.