Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Luang Prabang, Laos

Thai and Lao buses always leave five minutes early! But we caught the eight-hour "VIP bus" from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. A VIP bus is one with air conditioning and free bottled water, but the VIP status ends there! At one point we pulled over on the side of the road and everyone got out and wandered into the bushes. A Lao bathroom stop!

We stopped for lunch and fruit, and a Lao passenger bought a couple of tuber-shaped vegetables for me and Allison, and showed us how to peel and eat them. They tasted like jicama. In Laos we enjoyed many delicious tropical fruits such as mangosteen, lychee and dragon fruit, and others we can't name.

Luang Prabang, a Unesco World Heritage city, is the former royal capital of the Kingdom of Laos, and home to many beautiful Buddhist temples as well as French architecture.

In Luang Prabang we visited a small Lao library, where we bought a couple of books for local children. Surprisingly, in this communist country, the library displayed a framed quote by Milton Friedman about the importance of the private market economy.

The library has two computers with free internet, and an eclectic little selection of books in English, no doubt donated by an NGO. Allison and I, both geeks for information, skipped the books called "Condi," "We Are Americans" and "Thanksgiving" (not sure why anyone would want to read those in Laos), and magazines such as "Seventeen" and "Good Housekeeping" and instead perused the "Socio-Economic Atlas of the Lao PDR."

While as backpackers we considered ourselves budget travelers, we were sobered to realize that on a typical day we spent much more than many Lao citizens earn in a month. That particular day, since we had booked a bicycle tour costing a whopping $32 (including bicycle rental, a full day guided tour, museum entrance fees, a meal, water and snacks), we had spent more than even the richest category of Lao citizens spends in a month.

During our 32 kilometer bicycle tour we visited villages where the local people make paper, silk and whiskey, and then we bicycled to a cave that contains many images of the Buddha.

Above, a woman weaves silk behind two spinning wheels. Below, a woman harvests silk from the silk worm.

Above, a woman makes paper. Below, a girl makes lao lao, or Lao whiskey, distilled from sticky rice until it is nearly 100 percent proof.

I am always happy when I am on a bicycle. But in Laos, we were careful to go with a guide and to stay on the well-traveled road, because of the unexploded ordnance (UXO) which the U.S. placed there during the American Vietnam war.

Per capita Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world. More than 1.3 million tons of ordnance were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973, mostly cluster bombs of which 30% did not detonate. Each cluster bomb contained hundreds of bomblets, called "bombies," which are especially attractive to unexpecting children. UXO continues to affect a quarter of all villages.

At least 50,000 people were killed by UXO in Laos between 1964 and mid-2008, and the number continues to rise. UXO contamination also prevents farmers from using land, causing poverty and limiting long-term development. More information is available at http://www.maginternational.org/laopdr/.

Ten of the 18 Lao provinces are severely contaminated with land mines and many other types of UXOs. The U.S., responsible for this contamination, has still not signed the Ottawa Treaty, which bans landmines.

Allison and I took a Lao cooking class in which, together with five Australians, we learned to cook some delicious Lao food.

Here, our teacher steams sticky rice, also known as glutinous rice. Sticky rice is the staple food in Laos, but the Lao also eat long grain rice.

Essential ingredients in Lao cuisine include greens from the local mountains, ginger, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lime, cilantro, lemon grass, tamarind, basil, oyster sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce, padak, shrimp paste, chillies and large chilli peppers, coconut milk, rice noodles, vermicelli noodles, rice, bamboo shoots, woodear fungus and choko. Traditionally the Lao eat with their hands, and they only use chopsticks when eating noodles, which were imported from China.

The class included a trip to the local market, where we saw local food. There is no supermarket in Luang Prabang, and people do their daily shopping here.

We even saw the infamous durian fruit.

The durian is called the king of fruits, but is said to have a disagreeable stench which will stay with you long after you eat it. People have described the durian's stench as like a bathroom, or rotten mushy onions, pig feces, stale vomit or "turpentine and onions garnished with a gym sock." Due to the stench, the consumption of durian is prohibited in most public places, and I have not yet had an opportunity to taste it. Maybe next time.

On my last morning in Luang Prabang I got up at 5:30 a.m. to see 300 monks and novices receiving their alms. The monastic men who reside in the temples are not allowed to grow or prepare their own food, so every morning they walk the alms route through Luang Prabang.

For 45 minutes before dawn groups of orange-clad monks walked silently through Luang Prabang carrying metal bowls and receiving handfuls of sticky rice and other foods from kneeling townspeople who give alms in order to accrue merit for themselves, their ancestors and their families. As I watched, all I could hear was the swishing of the monks' bare feet on the street.

In recent years the monks' morning alms collection has become a tourist attraction, and some street vendors got into the business of selling rice to tourists who wanted to give alms to the monks. Unfortunately, some of the rice was not fresh, and the monks got food poisoning. So now, tourists are invited to participate only if their heart is really in it.

A local woman who was giving alms saw me and invited me to give some of her rice to the monks, but I communicated through gestures that I would rather take pictures. I did so without a flash, because I had read that flashing cameras are distracting to the monks.

In Thailand and Laos, nearly all boys and men serve a period as monks, many for three months or even more, and all of the men who I asked told me that they had, at some point, been monks.

My experience in Laos was so relaxing, and I met so many laid back and kind people. But it was time to board a plane back to bustling Bangkok.

1 comment:

Hey said...

Dearest K,

Your photographs are increasingly beautiful. Wow!

Thank you for sharing a glimpse of Luang Prabang with us. Much appreciated.