Sabaidee from Laos!! Luang Prabang is a wonderful little city/town. We took our time in the city that goes to sleep around 10pm....how could we not? This town has a way of making its inhabitants mellow out. But we did a lot of fun activities as well. First of all, we went to all the city's great sights, including some Wats, the riversides, the shops...oh boy did we hit the shops, the museum, and we even went to a show put on by the Royal Ballet Company. It wasn't quite ballet, nor was it Royal, but it was a company.....discuss. But seriously, it wasn't a full-on ballet but instead a few dance numbers that showed/told traditional Lao stories. Begun with a Baci ceremony, which I read is the most basic of all animist rituals and which has been absorbed into most Lao Buddhist culture as well, we watched the traditional dances tell stories of a hero, of monkeys, and of a princess, or as Laurie likes to call the last one: "the pretty women dance." We didn't get any pictures of the show because photography wasn't allowed but the costumes and masks were the highlights for us. It was hard to interpret the dancing, but we had a little synopsis of the main story so we knew what was going on a bit. Otherwise, it would've been hopeless, as it was with some of the other dances, but it was still entertaining. And of course, we were happy to see something that we had never seen before. It was a nice evening and we got dinner afterward at some great restaurant. Actually, I don't think we had one bad meal in Luang Prabang and we were there for about a week and half, the longest we've spent in any one place for the last 2+ months. The food was very french but also Lao.
A fun meal we had was at our guesthouse. We happened to be going out for dinner when the keepers of the house were sitting down to dinner themselves. Lao people sit down at a low round table (or on the floor) sitting on low stools. They put the dishes of food in the middle and all have a big soup-kind-of-spoon and small plate in front of themselves. And they all share everything. You can reach across the table and get some food out of a dish or snag some sticky rice; it seems like a very communal way of eating. I think I tried the buffalo skin in the Lap (I've seen this kind of food spelled many ways here in Lao; this one's my best guess.), but Laurie definitely tried it. I didn't know what it was before eating it. Lap is one of the Lao dishes we see on the menu every time. Otherwise, it's general Asian food (fried rice, noodles, etc.) and European/American food. Luang Prabang, though, has had exceptional food compared to the places we've been in Asia.
As for the city's great sights, they consist mostly of Wats and other Buddhist monuments like the Buddha's footprint (not his footprint, unless he was 100 feet tall). But the city had great shops and plenty of activities to do. Lazing around the riverside, going on hikes (they call them treks out here but i think that's for the marketing.), heading out to some local waterfalls, getting a massage, late mornings, early nights (because of the curfew: Laos is socialist/communist.), and of course, the night market. We spent a long time in that market. It was a really nice, low pressure market, with really nice silks. Laurie was in heaven. The kind of stuff she likes was exactly what they had to offer, a dangerous match. :-) On some nights, the market won, and on others, Laurie did. I dont' even know what that means but it sounds right. I think we spent part of each evening in the market, well Laurie did, and I spent some time and then left to meet her later. That was the kind of city it was; we would run into people we had met all the time. We ran into the Australian family almost every day, if not more than once a day, along with the lawyer from Brooklyn, Scott. That's why it seems like a town to me, but Laotians call it a city.....tom[i]A[/i]to, tom[i]ah[/i]to.
Besides the city being an absolute joy to walk through and around, one of the highlights of our stay there (other than the elephants of course) was a trek we took around some surrounding areas. The trek involved us hiking around some non-touristy counryside an hour and a half outside Luang Prabang. We were to visit two villages and but we ended up at a third: the whiskey village.....mmmm, tastes like it sounds....The whiskey village wasn't part of the plan but it was on the way and they needed to pick up a kayak. Before going, I was very interested to see what the village would be like because we had been to one village before for a quick stop and it wasn't that great of a time. We stopped at the roadside village after our day trip to the touristic (am i just making words up?) Kuang-Si Waterfall. In the village, there was one paved pathway, just recenly poured, that went around the village center passing by the stalls set up to sell the same souvenirs all the tourists have seen while in Cambodia and Laos. Not many sales were made, but as always, there were a few. Sadly, the place felt a bit like Disney Land, as if it was a life-like representation of a village instead of a real village, but it was likely a deal set up by the tour agencies and the chief who needed the money for his village. I was saddened by the fact that this group had probably survived for decades, if not centuries, by farming, hunting, and gathering and now was being reduced to having the kids in the village selling the wares. One girl kept yelling, "You can buy 5000!!!" in her memorized English. What she meant was more like, "Do you want to buy? It costs 5000 kip." But she was 2 or 3 years old, so she gets a free pass. What struck me was that since she got the timing of the 5000 wrong (most adults would've paused to indicate that the price was 5000kip), but the way she was saying it, I had no choice but to think, "Yes, she's right. I can buy 5000 of these souvenirs." It was just kinda sad because she was taking it so seriously and I figured her family must've explained to her that it was very important. And she got really upset every time someone passed her by without stopping or making a purchase. So that was our first visit to a village and I took it pretty hard, so I wasn't expecting much of our planned visits on our trek.
First, we had to drive about 1.5 hours north out of the city. then we had to walk about 45 minutes crossing some small rivers as we got more into the forest. Then, it was another hour up the mountain and it was pretty steep at some points. In the meantime, we kept crossing paths with villagers walking down to that town's market. I was amazed not only at how they carried the grasses, bamboo, firewood, and some other items, but also at the weight each person carried. They used a strap to secure the load to their back and then it was strapped to their forehead or the top of their head. The weight had to be nearly equal to their bodyweight; it had to be killer on the neck and back. And we only really saw kids up to age 17 or so or much older women carrying the items. No men. And they had to carry it up and down the mountain. Very tough work.
We finally made it to the village sweaty and hungry for lunch. There was a little store our guide, Nahm, brought us to and he cooked a quick lunch up for us. Buffalo meatballs, fried noodles, sticky rice, bamboo soup (very tasty and light), and 1 or 2 other dishes too spicy for me to eat or remember. This village was nothing like the first one. Most of the villagers were at work in one way or another. Kids were either helping or at play. The first village was Khmu which we learned a bit about at the Museum in Chiang Mai. Most of the villagers didn't pay us much mind, but we were surely noticed by all in eyesight. A few small children started watching us while we ate and we took a few pics of them with their approval. We gave them food and finished up to go to the school, which was shared with the neighboring Hmong village.
The school had 3 rooms, 3 teachers, and [i]5[/i] grades. First grade had a room to itself and 2nd & 3rd were combined as were 4th & 5th. The teacher had a big chalkboard in front of the class and half of it was for one class and the other half was for the other class. The teacher had to teach two lessons at one time!! Talk about having to make due with a lack of resources. We bought some books from an organization called Big Brother Mouse (a great place and idea!) to give to the school, as we did to give to a learning center in the Luang Prabang. Quickly, Big Brother Mouse was set up to help increase the literacy rate in Laos. They bring books, donated/bought by people who stop into their storefronts, to surrounding villages at events they call book parties. They have some artists and writers who collaborate on creating the children's books and they also have a place in the back of the storefront for travellers to come and help kids or monks learn or practice their English. It's very accessible for travelers and it seemed like a great place. The key is that they have a publisher who just wants to do this and isn't doing it for a profit. We bought a couple of Lao coloring books, with the Lao and English names for the animals on the pages, for some family too.
The students in the villages we visited, though, go to school from age 8-9ish through 5th grade. If the student's family has enough money to send them to another school, most likely in the cities, and then even fewer go on to University. That's one reason why I think becoming a novice (monk) is so popular. The kids get a good and cheap education.
After leaving the school, we walked another 10 minutes across a ridge on a path wide enough for one person at a time and through some forest. We were lucky: they were celebrating their new year! Many villagers were in the central field just hanging out. That's the party for them. Simple, with music and some games and some friends. The kids were tossing a ball and spinning tops with a string. Again, the villagers saw, paid us little attention and continued whatever they were doing. Some villagers were working though, and we saw a few people chopping fresh bamboo stalks to flatten them out so they could be used as walls or flooring in their houses. It's amazing how strong bamboo is, but they have to change their grass ceilings every year.
The villages were 20 minutes apart and very accessible to each other. They spoke different languages, did not intermarry, shared a school, and both spoke Lao as well. Our guide could distinguish them on the trail by the clothes they wore. Honestly though, to the untrained eye, they looked very much the same. The villages we visited looked strong and fairly well-adjusted to modern life. Basically, they seemed happy enough, that is to say that they seemed as happy as you or I. We read that 80% of the Lao population resides in the countryside. We saw two villages that live in the mountains and there are many more that live in the plains or along the different rivers and what not. Farming sticky rice and other crops, keeping lots of chickens and pigs and goats, the people on the mountains are able to survive -- they could use a dental plan though ;). Sticky rice is their staple cash crop though it wasn't in the past; they didn't really have a cash crop in the past. Incidentally, we walked through sticky rice fields that had recently been harvested and we got to see the dried up stalks and some remaining grains and the geometric arrangement of the plots. Next year's farm is clearly marked for slashing and burning at the appropriate time. We didn't get to learn about the village power structure but I think we did get to see something authentic and it was so interesting to see the differences and a real village, not some made for TV set.
Luang Prabang was our introduction into Lao life and culture. The people are immensely friendly; I know I've said that about most everyone so far, but it's been true. Part of why I think the people are so friendly here is that when you say Sabaidee!, you always end up in a smile because of the "-dee" part and they are always saying it to each other and, consequently, always smiling. Well, that's my theory. And I'm stickin' to it! It's been my favorite way of saying hello that we've learned in Asia, coming to close to call with "Bula!" from Fiji. The city has been great and it even had a little Hamptons feel to it because of the stores and the nice cafes, but the prices are a bit better. :) $10 for a meal, total. Our next stop, the classic middle stop on the Lao circuit, is Vang Vieng where tubing down the Nam Song (Nam means water and therefore river too) is the main attraction. Should be fun and it's a necessary stop as Vientiane, from where our flight to Hanoi leaves, is about a 10 hour bus ride away from Luang Prabang and we aint' doin that. Enjoy the pics folks, the Lao countryside was extremely beautiful. Breathing the fresh clean mountain air was great.