Luang Prabang, Laos
A push from Phonsavan to Luang Prabang; a pleasing reward at the end of a winding road.
The royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos until the communist takeover in 1975, tourism and gentrification have washed over Luang Prabang since Unesco placed Luang Prabang on its World Heritage list in 1995. And although the city of 25,000+ inhabitants has heavy development regulations in place because of it, the peninsula that comprises of the old quarter, bounded by the muddy Mekong and the Nam Kham rivers, still seems to be creeping towards a traveler ghetto.
The architecture of the homes and the layout (of the old quarter) of the city is some type of fusion that I've never seen before—like colonial Europe meets imperial Asia. Buddhist temples are the focus of Luang Prabang, and neighborhoods of multi-story homes seem to be clustered on these places of worship—some quite ancient, dating back to the 14th century or earlier.
China continues to be a strong contributor to Laos' tourism industry, as their government has recently relaxed its travel policy, allowing citizens to pass more freely into Laos. As a result, Chinese tourists are expected to account for 25% of the total number of visitors to Laos (up from only a few percent) in 2006.
The average tourist seems to be much older here—married couples pushing 50+ years of age are everywhere. Europeans dominate the scene, with the French easily taking first place for the nationality most commonly noticed. I personally find it rather displeasing to see a upscale wine bar in the middle of one of the most impoverished countries in this region of the world.
With all the noise from tourists and the infrastructure that supports them (a saturation of bars, restaurants, shops, craft markets, beggars, motorbikes, and propositioning tuk-tuk taxi drivers), it's amazing how quite the grounds of the Buddhist temples are—the ambient noise just seems to melt away. Although I don't hunger for spiritual satisfaction, I do constantly thirst for environments without mechanical noise and florescent lights.
Temple visits (and snapping photos of wandering monks) are a major pastime for visitors to Luang Prabang, and there are plenty of photo-ops to choose from. I've found the subtle differences between the Buddhist temples of Thailand and those of Laos to be quite interesting. Most notably, the temples in this country are totally crazy for nagas. These mythical serpent-beings look like they're straight out of a Greek nightmare, and add a very strange visual element to an otherwise traditional Buddhist environment.
I still find myself staring at the Buddhist monks; I'm enamored with the colors of their robes. I absolutely love the vibrant shade of orange many of opted to cloak themselves in (they get to select one of six shades of color), and find myself wondering if Christianity would be more appealing if the monks/clergy of that religion were wrapped in brilliant hues of gold and orange—instead of a drab, muddy brown or black. I believe you can be humble and still passively uplift with radiant colors.
Evenings in Luang Prabang are sociable, filled with travelers, food, and markets created on streets turned pedestrian-only after sundown. There's actually some neat antiquated items up for sale, and inexpensive textiles, handicrafts, and jewelery that's quite pleasing on the eye. Ornate opium pipes are a popular item up for sale.
Vegetarians must rejoice at the discovery of this city, as meat-free dishes are very inexpensive and as unquestionably available as a tuk-tuk. It's really interesting to see the meal contrast between land-locked Laos and the other countries of SE Asia I've visited. Absent are the skewers of shrimp and squid, replaced instead with veggies or land animals—the dried jerky is "expensive," but absolutely delicious. With so much agriculture in the country, I suppose it comes as no surprise how much the Lao diet revolves around vegetables.
Asian Current Tap
An item that I've been casually searching for since arriving in SE Asia has finally been discovered at a small hardware store here in town. A problem that I've been facing recently (in Thailand and Malaysia) has been the lack of electrical outlets in my room, in conjunction with an unconventional light bulb socket. This Asian push-twist variety is new to me, and has thwarted the use of my traditional current tap to create a pair of outlets from a conventional light fixture.
This little guy sports an independent on/off toggle for the light that would be plugged into the receiving end, as well as the standard dual-outlet creation—all for US$0.30. A great find.
Why I Love Laos
Laos feels like a mixture of Central and South America, with a wonderful Asian twist: Beautiful limestone mountains push out of the earth, reminding me of Machu Picchu in Peru; it's wonderfully cheap, like Guatemala and Bolivia; widespread subsistence agriculture living reminds me of Guatemala and Ecuador; the thick expanses of raw jungle looks like Costa Rica; the rich, red soil is reminiscent of Brazil; the prevalence of firearms reminds me of El Salvador; and the amazing saturation of green is like Belize—it's so green!—with every imaginable hue of the color filling your eyes.
The breadth of town types encountered has been absolutely fascinating, ranging from rural village, to war-torn town, to hippy outpost, to World Heritage site. The countryside is equally remarkable, making the slow overland travel by bus a joy (if you've procured a window seat).
I love how little children from rural villages come up and rub my beard with a fascinated look in their eyes and a smile across their face—it's something they're quite unaccustomed to seeing
…This country has certainly captured me.