I have been in Luang Prabang, Laos, for over a week now. Although I have been pretty consistent with retelling my experiences in facebook, I have been pretty lacking here. So, this is my attempt at rectifying that.
One of the thing that is pretty shocking about Luang Prabang is that it is insulated from the current Xmas and New Year craze that is hitting most of the Western Hemisphere. Despite having thousands of tourists in this city every day, you would not know that Xmas is coming. Laotians just don't celebrate those 2 days. However, the Laotian New Year, which will happen some time in April, is a Huge week for them. I have seen pictures of previous years' festivals. I can't imagine how crazy it will get in this city. From my weeklong experience, I can say that Laotians love to party, relax, and just have fun. A Laotian I know recently told me: "We Laotians love to party and spend money. We make 100,000kips and we will spend 500,000kips. We make 500,000 and we will spend 1 million kips". So Laos New Year will be crazy.
Another thing that I am beginning to begrudgingly accept about this place is that it is one HUGE tourist trap. Every thing here is catered for tourists. It is hard to differentiate between what is genuine and what is done for the tourists. The prices here are ridiculous, they are jacked up 3 times their normal price based just on if you are a foreigner. So, even if you bargain, it is virtually impossible to know where to start. Also, because money talks in this town, some of the things that are said and done, I can't really discern if they come from the heart or the mind influenced by the dollars. For example, I met a tourist who recounted her story of meeting a child here in Luang Prabang.
One day, while she was walking alone, a child, barely 10 years old, came to her and started to talk to her. After 10 minutes of getting to know each other, the kid asked her for some money. She was shocked and initially said no. The child retorted "I have been talking to you for 10minutes, you are rich, and you can't give me some money? You wasted my time". She was slightly shocked. And sadly, her story is not a singular one here. I have experienced it and have heard similar stories as well.
However, I am beginning to think that it is the effect of this World Heritage city. It changes people who live here. The Laotians who live in remote villages, I am told are different. I have seen that also. The Hmong people that I met at their New Year festivals when I first arrived in Luang Prabang were pretty genuine. The Hmong is the poorer minority group that lives around the outskirts of Luang Prabang. They live through farming. I found that they are friendly and carry a genuine look about them. Regardless of what continent you are from, people with good hearts and genuine looks seem to all have that "look". I have seen plenty of it in Uganda, Cambodia, and now among the Hmong people in Laos. I see much less of that "look" in the people who lives in Luang Prabang.
That concludes my commentary. For now.
During this past week, many of the people and students that I have met kept on asking me, which part of Luang Prabang do you like? My answer to them have been: "I have been busy teaching. My day starts at 7am and ends at 8pm every day so I don't have time to see anything". So, this weekend, with the weekend being free and I don't have to go to school until 2pm monday, I decided to visit the Pak Ou cave, Phousi temple, cross the Nam Khan bridge, found an expat hangout called Utopia, and catch up on my itunes' latest season of "leverage". I wish I had downloaded more seasons of that show. I really like "Leverage" and have finished the entire season. Besides, after 1 week of speaking English in a very VERY slow manner, it is refreshing to watch an American show.
Friday December 17, 2010
Apparently I didn't get a memo, as it was never sent. I went to class and saw a massive party outside the classrooms. All the tables and chairs for the classes have been moved to the party area. In the distance, I saw people dancing with loud music blasting, so I figure, yeah there probably won't be a class. At 5:30pm no class. Instead the principal of the school came over and talked to me and invited me to the staff party. Apparently some of the students at the local Training college finished their 1 week internship at the school, so everyone decided to have a party for them. There was Laobeer, dancing and games. The principal then proceeded to bring me over to a few women that were sitting there and introduced me to them. Actually, all the staffs made it very obvious that they wanted me to talk to the women and vice versa. These women are young, single, and knows english. I have to admit that some are pretty, especially the one person everyone wants me to talk to (forgot her name as Laotian names are hard to remember and I suck at names anyways). As I sat down, the first questions from the women were: what is your name? Pretty innocent enough. Where are you from? I have started to use Vietnamese american now because to say that I was born in Vietnam and live in the US, I have learned is virtually useless. People hear the Vietnam part, stick to it and either don't understand or completely ignore the living in the US part. Next question: how long have you been in Luang Prabang? I have answered these questions hundreds of times before by different Laotians. Of course, by the progression of things, I know the next few questions will be interesting as I have been answering them for many times now by women. Are you married?..Nope.. are you single? yep...why are you single? because I travel and don't have time. These three questions have recently bothered me. Why do these women want to know? So finally, I asked them. "Why do Laotian women always ask me if I am married? or if I am single?". The women laughed and said "we don't want to make your wife or your girlf-friend jealous". I laughed. This is hilarious. Later on, I asked the manager of the library the significance of knowing these things. It turned out that Laotian culture is pretty conservative and their women can get pretty jealous. So, if a girl is single, she first asks you these things so that if your wife or girlfriend finds out, you won't be the recipient of the jealous rage. Also, once a girl finds out the guy is not single, she will talk to him in a distant manner. Based on K, a Laotian I know, this part of the Laotian culture is so significant and they have ran into a lot of foreigners with this problem, that in English classes, these sentences are taught before anything else: What is your name? Where are you from? How long are you in Luang Prabang? Are you married? and Are you single?
Everytime I think of this, it makes me chuckle. Half way through the conversations, some of the friends of the girl that everyone wanted me to talk to asked me point blank: Do you like my friend? to which I give the diplomatic answer: I don't know her yet, I just met her. Although I have to admit, she does intrigue me and we have traded phone numbers. If she wants to practice English, I am all game. She is teaching English anyways.
Another funny fact: apparently some men when they are asked these questions, even if they are attached, say no to being married and yes to being single. Lol, so what is the point of asking?
Also, dating in conservative Laotian culture involves, boyfriend and girlfriends walking together. No holding hands or any sort of Public displays of affection. Finally, 2 lovebirds do not live together nor have sex until they are married. However, all rules are off in the gay community. Reading the volunteer packet, I was surprised to read that it is illegal for a man to live with a woman before marriage.
After the teachers' party, K took me to another festival/market. Apparently it is a big one and it closes tomorrow. The festival/market is to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Luang Prabang becoming a World Heritage city. I asked "K it seems to me that Laos people like to find any reason to relax and party". He answered "Yes, Laotians like to party, have fun and spend money. We make 100,000kips, we go and spend 500,000. We make 500,000, we party and spend 1million kips". So I asked him, "where do the people get the money from?" He replied "They go and borrow money from the banks so they can party".
Later, I asked him "what was Luang Prabang like before it became a world heritage city?" He answered: "the people had culture and history and they behaved differently". So I asked him, "wait are you saying that being made a World Heritage city is killing the laotian culture in the city". He looked at me and said "There will soon be no Laotian culture in Luang Prabang. It is destroyed!".
I thought that was ironic and sad. Sad because it is happening. The money that is flowing into the city helps the local economy. Yet it is changing it. Ken's assessment has been the 3rd similar assessment that I have heard from educated Laotians here. It is ironic because here it is, UNESCO designating this city as a World Heritage City to preserve the City's culture. Yet, by doing so, with the invasion of the tourists and everything that is associated with tourism, being made a World Heritage city is actually destroy the characteristics that made the city special in the first place.
I am still on the fence with what is wrong and what is right with all of this. The money helps the people, yet makes everything more expensive so they cannot afford some things while having easy access to others (ie. food is more expensive but they have paved roads and electricity). There is money and efforts put into preserving buildings, yet it is the buildings that invite the tourist invasions which in turn is destroying the old traditional culture that used to exist in this city. It is one big gray ball of irony.
Saturday December 18, 2010
I woke up early this morning, at around 6:30am to walk to the Mekong's Pak Ou cave Pier. Yep, it has its own Pier because it is a tourist trap. It is amazing how the streets along the Mekong that is lined with guest houses, hotels, and restaurants are completely devoid of Laotians (except for those that work there to service the tourists). It felt like I may as well walk along the Seine River in Paris, France. With 25mins until 8:30am, I decided to have breakfast at one of the restaurants. It is slightly pricer, about $4.5 US for a complete US breakfast with coffee with milk. Oh, coffee is slightly more expensive when they add condensed milk here. This morning was a cloudy and cold morning, you can actually see your breath. And it got colder when 4 other tourists and I embarked on a 2 hour slow boat ride up the Mekong to visit the Pak Ou Cave. Apparently, it is a well known tourist place. In my mind, I thought that it was a complex of many caves with different statues of the Buddha. Afterall, it is apparently one of THE place to visit. Anyways, half way through the trip, our boat driver dropped us off at this "remote village" that sells whisky. Well, it has its own pier and there are tons of tourists there, so it really isn't as "remote" as advertised. Once you disembark, you go up a hill and voila, you are inundated with the remoteness of tons of stalls selling fabrics, crafts, and Laos whisky. The Laos whiskey is pretty strong, 55% alcohol. Also, there are bottles that have different roots and embalmed animals in them such as scorpions, water snakes, and even snakes during mid strike that looks like small rattle snakes. As you walk further, you realize that along the middle of your path and all the shops is a Buddhist monastery. It looks prestine etc.. It is funny to see that monastery there, nestled between what must be hundreds of stalls.
Once the visit to understand Laos culture further (OK, complete sarcasm there), we continued to the cave. After 2 hours of sitting on the boat, the cave was pretty anticlimatic. It has tons of tourists trying to climb these stairs, huffing and puffing. The cave is divided into 2 parts, the upper and ther lower. The lower cave has one bigger statue of the Buddha and hundreds if not thousands of other buddhas that people have placed there. Oh, for a little price, you can buy a small buddha and reach your spiritual self and place it there. They have a stall there to sell to you the buddha statues. They can also sell to you the incense to pray etc.. But you may want to bargain because the prices are ridiculous. The upper cave is a little further up and required a further climb. At the end is a pretty big cave that has a statue of the Buddha at the end. In front of the Buddhas are monks who sit there, and for a "donation", you can sit in front of them, and they will chant and bless you. Without donation, no blessing, you lose. It is pretty funny because while everyone is taking the pictures of the Monks doing their business, sometimes the monks would take their cameras out and take pictures of the caves themselves. That made me think, ummm if you pray there all the time, why would you need to take pictures of the cave like the rest of us tourists? Pretty interesting.
And after that, about 30mins of cave hunting, we were done. It was time to embark the boat and spend the next 1.5hour to get home (downstream). So, 3.5hours ride, 30mins at the "remote whiskey village" and "30mins at the caves". Hey at least I can say that I have been here.
Sunday, December 19, 2010: Me, myself and my camera.
I Took that bamboo bridge across the River Nam Khan and had lunch at a restaurant on the otherside looking back at Luang Prabang. Then took a climb over a bunch of brick stairs to the famous Phou Si temple (or Stupa). The temple that sits ontop of Mount Phou Si is surprisingly small. But now, I know why weather pattern and rain get trapped here, Luang Prabang is surrounded by mountains.
It is only after I have climbed Mount Phousi that I truly understand the geography of this region. Luang Prabang is a pretty long city. Its tip is a peninsula that is formed by the convergence of the Nam Khan river and the Mekong River. Phousi temple being ontop of Mount Phousi is a great place to see everything. You can see lands for miles. You can also see that the whole region is surrounded by mountains. So, when a weather patterns arrive, it can get trapped here. Also, it made me wonder that a long time ago, Luang Prabang must have been a strategically important place. Its history certainly says so. It has been sacked and rebuilt so many times. The Siam Empire was here, the Vietnamese were here, and even the Thais. I can see how Luang Prabang, being the focal point where the Nam Khan meets with with Mekong and where the Mekong continues to sea, could have played an important trade city. It is no wonder that the French came here and made this city a resort town during the late 1800s. I read a book somewhere that the French came here to trade and eventually made Luang Prabang a protectorate. The people here, in a way, have been exposed to western cultures since the late 1800s. When the French left the region in the 1950s, the Americans were here. Historically speaking, they weren't in Laos. Heck, they weren't in Cambodia either. But, I have learned that nearby rice fields of Luang Prabang province are still filled with American bombs that never denotated.
Looking at where Luang Prabang is situated, the natural beauty that surrounds it, it is no wonder that it is a massive tourist trap.
Later that night...
After one week of research and futile searches, I think I have found my Utopia. Utopia is a restaurant/bar that from my research, would have the greatest chance of meeting volunteers and aid workers. So, no more tourist-filled eateries or bars where foreign teenagers use as meat markets.
I have found in my limited traveling experience that in many foreign cities, there is a hangout place that expats frequent (volunteers, aid workers, or just workers). In Jinja, my place is NRE. In Iganga, it is Sol Cafe. And now, in Luang Prabang, Laos, after 1 week of searching and being stuck with restaurants full of tourists, I think I have found the expat hang out. As I was eating dinner at Lao Lao Garden (which contrary to what Laotians will tell you, is not an expat volunteer/aid worker hang out but a young teens meat market for foreign youngsters), I ran into an Aussie expat who has been living here for 2 years. Based on him, if there is a hangout for expats like me, it would be Utopia. Although, as he warned me, despite having thousands of tourists every day, Luang Prabang has a very small expat community. However, Utopia is hard to find and many people, including the locals, don't know how to get there. After dinner, with a full stomach (of this delicious meal that reminded me of a Vietnamese dish called Lau Thai), I went in search of Utopia (pun un-intended). Well, no wonder people can't find it. To get to Utopia, you have to go on this winding road that broke off from the main road. That road then leads to another winding road but slightly smaller (about 5-6ft wide). Fortunately, if you are willing, Utopia has these signs that you can follow. After that road, you turn right into another yet smaller road, passing through the front doors of people's homes. By now if you have no patience or get freaked out by the darker corridors, and decide to turn back, you lose Utopia. At the end of that road, nestled among the trees, with a small gate, is Utopia. However, once you enter Utopia, it expands. The foyer is a massive high ceiling structure made of bamboo and palm leaves. Further in, there are tables and free Wifi. And, the kicker of it all, if you sit on the outter tables of Utopia, you can hear the Nam Khan river passes below you. And this place is where volunteers, aid workers, and long-term expats frequent. I think I found my dinner home. No more night market, or tourist-plagued eateries. It's going to be Utopia from now on.
After 1 week of futile searches, I am glad that I did not give up.