Sunday, December 12, 2010

First few days in Luang Prabang

I arrive in Luang Prabang 2 days ago. So far, I have walked a little of the streets, gotten myself a Laos phone, went to a Film Festival and two Hmong, festivals, and still, I still don't have a sense of what this city really is. It is World Heritage city, so there are many tourists. The streets are lined with shops and tourists of virtually every race.

I spoke to a few tourists and surprisingly, although they have been to many places, none so far have gone to Africa. The common thing, "out of the comfort zone". And it is true. Not because of how life is there, but just the characteristic ...of life. Here, in the prestine streets of Luang Prabang that are flanked by beautiful french homes and tons of shops, I am out of my comfort zone. I am one of those that will enjoy tourism, up to a certain point. Beyond a few days and it become generic to me. Because every tourist destination eventually become similar to every other tourist destination. They have to create that comfort level, that sense of familiarity, and in doing so, they lose the particular characteristics. In some ways, while here, I feel as if I am more closer to Paris, France, than Laos. In Iganga, Ugandan life touches you daily and in time, as you accustom yourself to think, I am immersing myself in Uganda, you feel comfortable because the things you see and experience are for the most part, Ugandan. Whereas, here, the city is kind of having an identity crisis. Is it a Laos city? a french city, a young people's party city, an old people's retirement getaway?

There are many beautiful sights here but some you know have been created for the tourists, so you see it with a sense of disappointment because of the disinguientiy (sic). For example, I was walking with the 2 biking tourists yesterday and near one of the caves there were footprints that the path marks "Buddha's footprints" with a donation jar afterwards. It then has a brief thing about how the Buddha was here. The tourists when, "wow, that is amazing, this is a holy place". I only said "interesting, I didn't think that the Buddha made it this far" (He didn't, unless he took Vietnam Airlines to get here a few thousand years ago"). India is quite a distance for a man to walk to here.

The effect of the tourist industry is so strong here that those Laotian that try to keep genuine aspects of their life, will have to fight a hard current. For example, the monks at the local temple walks the street every morning. In the good old days, before the "World Heritage City" nomer being placed on this city and the hordes of tourists that came afterwards, the locals would line the streets and give alms to the monks. That still happens but it has become an industry. Tourist companies are now selling tickets for places for you to sit, the food that would be prepared for you to give to the monks, etc... A few years back, the monks wanted to stop walking because they disapprove of the new meaning of what their morning walks. The local government told them that if they stop walking, local people would be hired to get their heads shaven, and do the walk instead. So, being bribe into trying to keep their ritual somewhat sacred, the monks continue to do this daily. Also, the only way for children from small villages who want to go to school and learn English is by becoming monks. They would join the monastery, learn enough english, until they are well enough to get a job as a receptionist at a guest house, or as vendors at one of the shops in town. Then, they would leave the monastery. So, the calling of the temples have taken on a different meaning. It is no longer a way to forget this life, but instead, IT IS THE WAY TO MAKE IT IN THIS LIFE.

You can even see that in the Hmong festivals. Traditional dresses with high heels and mall girl's makeup. And this was in the rural area. In the rural area of Iganga, you see how people truly live and it gives you pause, questions your life, and asks you what you should do. Here, it just seems to me as if because of everything that is going on here, there is a big painted mask over everything. And I guess that is what makes me feel out of my comfort zone. May be all of this is Laos. May be Laos is a land that has learn to reinvent itself, to mask certain things, for the purpose of giving those that come and visit, those with fragile sensitivities, to be able to appreciate and while go "wow this is a beautiful place" and yet still be able to go "awww but they are poor".

I hope my prolonged experience here (I am here for another 4 weeks) will change these views. I do like Laotian people but at this point, I still don't know what they are.

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