Run the equator: Luang Prabang, a Kingdom afar

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Luang Prabang, a Kingdom afar

Luang Prabang is ready for business!
Click photo to see slideshow
or here for all Luang Prabang photos

Laos is a communist state, and therefore the official propaganda is still reviling all the social evils that the Pathet Lao party has triumphed upon with its seizure of power in 1975: capitalism, imperialism, and monarchy. But the voices of the official party line are more likely to be muffled these days; the tune is a different one, in sync with the political realities of China and other nominally-communist states that have abandoned the economic doctrine of collectivization: “get rich if you can, but do not dare defy the party”. And the Lao are very busy trying to make money; every day of the week is business as usual in Luang Prabang for night market sellers, for tuk-tuk drivers, for tourism agencies, restaurants and guesthouses.

Dark clouds over the Royal Palace wat

Even the tough stance on monarchy - a staple of propaganda literature of all communist regimes - has softened in recent times: there are amulets for sale at the market with carvings and pictures of the late kings of Laos, and the neatly preserved Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang is the main tourist attraction in town. It’s a rather austere royal residence, more of a large country mansion than a sumptuous palace. As a museum, it provides a good insight in the simple lives of the royal family of a poor, mountainous kingdom, squeezed between more powerful neighbors. In the room reserved for diplomatic gifts to Laos from other states, there’s a noteworthy token of appreciation sent by US President Nixon (hence still addressed to the Royal government, since Nixon’s presidency ended before the communists took power): a scale model of the Apollo 11 lunar module and some tiny bits of lunar rock cast in a glass bubble supported by a plaque which bears a miniature flag of the Kingdom of Laos and an inscription in English saying that the flag has been flown to the moon and back. A strange and cynical gift to the people of Laos, considering that at the time the United States was busy bombing their country to bits.

Reclining Buddha on Phu Si hill

Stay another day!” – the words of this unofficial tourist mantra of Luang Prabang lure you from street banners, advertising windows and tourist brochures all over town. We stayed four days, defying the crushing heat, surviving a sudden storm that nearly flooded our room, patrolling the courtyards of many slumbering temples and drinking a lot of Beerlao (the one and only locally-produced beer, and quite a good one) with extra ice, to prevent it from growing warm too soon in the hellish outside temperatures. We slept at the Oudomphone Guest House, whose owner, an older, very effusive Lao lady, calls herself mama, feeds you bananas whether you want them or not, and stays awake late at night to make sure every one of her guests returns to the nest. On a whiteboard in the ground-floor corridor she makes annotations about the rooms of the house - the current prices, which rooms are empty, and a check sign for the tenants who have returned at night. I wonder what she would do if one doesn’t show up until the next morning… She also gave us a thick comforter to cover ourselves with at night, although there was no need for such radical care…

Inside Wat Xieng Thong

Every morning we started the day with breakfast at the Scandinavian Bakery (who knew the Swedes had a reputation for things cooked in the oven?), which serves great pastries, delicious sandwiches and all-you-can-drink fresh brewed coffee. Every evening Angela finished the day with a few hours of hunting for bargains at the Night Market on the main street; luckily she had Rahel to keep her company among the mountains of cuteness set for display on the pavement, and I was able to spend this time online, keeping up with the blog and uploading photos. The nights weren’t much to talk about; we’d celebrate our trip with a few more bottles of Beerlao or glasses of wine - there’s a swanky, well-stacked wine bar on the main street in Luang Prabang - but the whole town shuts down around 11PM and the only place to hang out was mama’s terrace at the guesthouse.

Wet and happy!

Between morning coffee and evening-time Beerlao, the days in Luang Prabang can be packed with activities. There are only so many temples that one can visit before they all start looking “same same”; the Phu Si hill, located smack in the middle of town offers great views, but after climbing the few hundred steps to the top, baking slowly under the unforgiving sun, anyone would be beset by doubts that the photo opportunities were not worth the effort and sweat. For the rest of the time, short of spending money in the scores of good-looking cafes and restaurants meant for the tourist dollar it’s better to head outside of town for a river trip, to visit caves or to swim at the waterfalls. On our third day, we took a half-day trip to Tat Kuang Si, a scenic waterfall a half-hour drive away from town. We were supposed to get wet swimming in the natural pools at the base of the falls, but we ended up getting dunked and drenched on our way back by the kids who ambushed every car, truck and motorcycle and doused them with buckets of water. They were getting a bit of advance practice for the water festivities of the Lao New Year, and it seemed that the season for splashing farang was already open. They had no mercy.

Published from Chaing Mai, Thailand.

No comments: