#9 from SE Asia — the beautiful Luang Prabang

Post #9
Luang Prabang
January 31, 2010

(note: I struggle daily with these computers and keyboards wherever I am, with low bandwidth, site blockage such as facebook, and EXTREMELY loud boys playing video games in the Internet cafe RIGHT NOW, shreiking while playing loud music, completely unaware of the concept of keeping their voices down)

Luang Prabang is the traditional capitol of Laos. With its many Buddhist monasteries and temples, it is still the spiritual capitol of Laos. When I rode in hot and tired in the late afternoon, I happened just by coincidence to get a wonderful room directly across from the main Buddhist monastery, the Senesouk. $15 @ night for comfort. I accepted.

I was greeted every morning before dawn with loud drumming from the monastery. Some of it was faster than I expected. I got up to have my morning coffee and croisant and watch a procession of perhaps one hundred orange-robed monks passing by with their food bowls for the populace to fill. Quickly and I was recruited (more like ‘dragged’) to fill the monks’ food bowls. These women had much food and offerings to give the monks. But they, as women, must not touch the monks. So they grabbed me. Shouting inconprehensible instructions to me in Lao, they drag me over to the front gate of the monastery. For 20 minutes, as the monks come out, they fill my hands with food, mostly sticky rice, which I must quickly put into their bowls as they pass. The monks accept the food impassively. As my coffee cools on the table…

Luang Prabang is built on a peninsula where the Nam Ou River merges into the Mekong. The peninsula has a 100 meter hill in its middle, on top of which sits the ancient Phou Si monastery. I climb it before sunset to watch the light change the color and texture of the city. The change in light is wonderful. It may not equal standing on Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio De Janiero at sunset, but it is beautiful to watch the distant mountains turn from green to blue to purple to grey as the city lights come on.

Hundreds of others are here with me. Someone takes a flash photo of one of the monks. An elderly monk comes nimbly out of the monastery and playfully starts taking flash photos of the tourists as if he were one. He mimics perfectly. Everyone laughs.

In the day, the main street of Luang Prabang, Sisavangvong, serves traffic. But at 6 pm the vendors come and completely cover 400 meters of this street with the stunning handmade tapestries and goods. The street is completely filled and blocked off. These are being sold by the 50+ ethnic groups of Laos. For Laos is less a country and more of a line drawn on a map around these groups.

I am not a shopper, but even I can recognize that some of these goods are as good as they get. Rugs, tapestries, dresses, scarfs, blouses. I watch the delight in the women shoppers who discover garments that they just ‘must’ have. One sees European commericial buyers loading up for their stores back home. There are 100’s of stalls with electric lights, displays, food kitchens, even running water. But when you come by at sunrise, it is ALL gone. The street is just traffic again. There is NO evidence that there was an immense market there the night before. And this happens every night.

I ate at a fine vegetarian buffet that night. The food was so good that I went there for lunch the next day. But there was not a trace of it. Everything had disappeared. There was not even evidence of food spills or garbage. The chickens and pigs had already taken care of that. I thought that I was either disoriented or hallucinating. But come 7 pm that evening, everything had reappeared as if my magic. The people here are masters at setting up and dismantling.

My 30 kilometer misunderstanding:
But it was time to go, so I headed out at sunrise. I got a good start pushing up the Nam Ou Valley. After 25 kilometers I found the sign that clearly stated Pak Nga. One shortcut over a ridge and I would save 12 km of peddling. But this was a hard rocky dirt road. Slow traveling for me on my 20″ foldable bike. 15 hard kms later and I find no ‘shortcut’. Everyone I ask does not understand what road I am looking for. I have to acknowledge that I have made a wrong exit. Now I must ride back. Damnit. This is an entirely different event on a bicycle rather than a motor vehicle.

Now I doubt that I will be able to make the next town 50 km ahead that has a guesthouse. I pedal and pedal up the isolated Nam Ou gorge. Stunning views with a vehicle perhaps every 10 minutes. But at sunset, I am 25 km short of a room. What to do? I have left my tent in Bangkok and given away my sleeping pad. I still have my ultralight sleeping bag though. The elderly Korean cyclist I met said that he had always been able to stay at people’s homes for a few dollars a night.

It is getting dark. I see a logging trail coming off the road, going up a mountain. I quickly push my bike up the hill until I find a flattish open spot. This will have to do. I put on my headlight and bivouac here. I floss and brush my teeth. I spray on insect repellant and put my mosquito mask on. It turns out that I will not need it, for no evening bugs visit me. Once I am in my bag, I feel fine. I fall into the deep sleep reserved for tired people who have worked all day.

I awake much later that night to see Orion across the sky. Some things never change. I hear rain in the distance. Oh no, for I have nothing that will serve as a tent. I hold my hands out, but, other than the heavy dew, I feel no rain. Later I discover that it is water dripping off the dew-laden trees. I fall back to sleep. Life is good.

Next: more cycling, a boat ride up the Nam Ou, the (second biggest spider I have ever seen in my life, more cycling, and the roughest non-road I have ever seen)

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