[Written Wednesday, February The 8th, Night]
Oh shit, I love this city. A World Heritage site, it’s a hold-over from the French occupation. It means way cool European architecture, narrow tree-lined streets, winding brick alleyways, more bicycles than motor-cars. And right on the banks of the mighty Mekong, surrounded by mountains.
It does sort of feel that its Heritage status is in some sense a celebration of Colonialism. But, really, despite all the pretty buildings and charming streets, it’s the Lao people and culture that give the city its oomph. A marriage of convenience, maybe; the result is lovely.
Need to add the perennial Lao caveat of poor air quality. I’d say it’s about on par with L.A.; though I’ve heard tell that later in the dry season it can be essentially zero visibility for the entire day! I’m lucky to have arrived when I have. The other problem is that the fruit — while plentiful enough — is fairly expensive, and decidedly mediocre.
Oh, Laos, why must you torment me? You fill my soul with wonders to beggar this poor sucka’s comprehension; and yet you won’t allow this poor sucka to breathe, nor will you allow this poor sucka to eat.
I moved to a different guest house this morning, ‘cause the one last night was really loud with partiers (not so bad, thanks to ear plugs), and the bed was tiny and the mattress warped. This new one is a few dollars more, and the Internet connection sucks, but at least I’ll get a good night’s sleep. It’s too bad about the first place, ‘cause I really like the community of travelers it’s attracting with its great prices – but those beds and mattresses are just too much to take.
Thought I’d start out visiting the Chinese Market and Phosy Market. The former ‘cause…Chinese Market! The latter ‘cause it’s supposed to be the best market in the city. Both were a waste of time, though the Phosy did have some decent veggies.
The couple of hours schlepping out to the markets and back was made totally worth it when I passed by the Badminton Stadium (!):
Do the Laotians love their chickens, or do the Laotians love their chickens? Don’t know if that cup lights up like the damned Olympics Flame when there’s a Badminton tournament in effect – but I sure hope it do!
In addition, passed by a temple with a very long Naga regurgitating a multi-headed Naga. Had not seen that before.
Took luncheon at the river, and was amazed to see the number and variety of butterflies around-abouts. Beautiful, too. Have been seeing them all over Laos, in point of fact. After lunch, I put up the god damned weather vane, and it told me to go exploring the Old Quarter.
Which, I decided to first trace the route of the river, which heads North, then makes confluence with the Nam Khan, which heads east and bends back down south; peninsulating (guessing) about fifty square blocks’ worth of land, thereby defining the contours of the Old part of the city. Near the confluence, I became involved in a very long conversation with a Schooling Monk, name of “Bick”.
He’s from Nam Bak, same as Misai (c.f. Udomxai post), and wants to eventually be an English teacher. He’s been studying English for only five months, but it seems to mine ears as though he’s better at it than the other Laotian students with whom I’ve conversed – and they’ve all been studying for a few years. He may be a prodigy (although his accent is a little on the thick side).
He asked me which religion I “respect”; and I went on this big long philosophical rant about not respecting any hierarchical institution, and not respecting the preying-on of people’s fears for acquisition of power and money, and so forth.
Turns out, however, that he meant by “respect”, simply, “follow”. He said that Laotians only “respect” Buddhism. I was somewhat incredulous that there aren’t any Laotian Hindus or Muslims; but he insisted it’s true.
During the conversation, he kept complaining about his lumbago. Eventually, though, having noticed my headphones, he asked me if he could listen to some music. So I spun up some Florence + The Machine for him.
If somebody would ever tell you that Buddhist monks know not how to rock it to Russia, you’ve my permission to poop on them. Just look at him loving the groove! By the way, that’s a schoolmate of his in the background, engaging another foreigner in a similarly lengthy conversation. Practice makes perfect!
His initial reaction: “Oh, this is in French…no, English!” He then explained that he’s only got Western music on his phone, before pausing for several seconds with a look of deep concentration, and then bursting forth with, “Oh, this music is very fun!”
I agreed, and he continued, “Female singer, you know? Female singers. Female singer; this is very fun.” He wanted me to send him the song via bluetooth, but I’ve not the slightest idea how to work it (not to mention my device isn’t equipped). Imagine that: a Laotian Buddhist novice making me look like a utter techno-nube. Generation gap knows no bounds, I guess.
Finally, he needed to return to the temple, south of Phosy Market; but urged me to walk with him so that he could show me his school. Once there, he requested that I take a picture of it, while he departed. Don’t know why the request, but here ‘tis.
Continuing on my tour of the old quarter, I noticed the Hammer-And-Sickle flying all over the place.
Makes sense, of course, if the Commies are still in the saddle. But I’d not noticed it anywheres else in Laos.
As far as the famous architecture is concerned, yes, it is very gorgeous. The guidebook says the city is “a dream location for any travel photographer.” Couldn’t disagree. But (as the man said), “When I got the pictures back, none of them came out.” See here.
Just looks stupid, or at best, “Whatever.” But when you’re standing in front of it, it’s superb. So, I stuck to photographing the old tried and true: temples, and Laotians going about their daily lives.
Not that I can do Laotian temples any better justice than I can Thai; but that don’t stop me from trying. This is one of my faves on the outside…
…and on the inside, proving that the Thais don’t have the corner on the drop-the-tourist’s-jaw-to-the-floor-and-shatter-it-into-four-billion-shards-to-be-eaten-up-by-all-the-crows market. It looked like the inside was going to be maybe my most favourite of all. Except…
…no Buddha! What gives? Not sure. But the cart in the front is used to transport a Buddha (in point of fact, the Prabang Buddha, after which the city is named) during some or other annual festival, which process requires the labours of sixteen strapping young gentlemen. But, really, this temple was lights out. See more evidence at the Flickr page.
Who gets to go up there? My vote would be for the ghost of John Lennon; but I never seen a ballot-box. Here’s a view from the outside.
It’s interesting to note the different iconography from the Thai temples. In addition to the chicken mania, here they’ve got this Cheshire-Cat-with-elephants’-hooves thing-a-ma-deal guarding many of the temples.
And for my money, the Laotians have it all over the Thais in the Naga Artistry deptartment.
Telling you, this god damned Templemania is as insidious as.
As far as Laotians going about their business, again, see much more evidence at the Flickr page (when I finally get some Laos pictures uploaded, that is). They’re much friendlier/cooler even than they look!
Laos is crazy with kick-assed trees; and in “LPB”, they’re everywhere you turn. This one on the bank of the river is maybe the kick-assed-est of them all. I know, it looks from this image like little more than turd salad. But if you see it in person, you’ll agree with me!
Later became involved in yet another conversation with an student in English needing fresh meat on whom to practice, this one name of “Jin”. That’s him on the bike. I didn’t know, at the time of shooting, that I was going to be a subject of his. I just liked the composition.
He’s from Vientiane, and has only been here since Saturday, and thus needed to ask me directions to the Night Market. I suspect he may have used this pretext simply as an entrée into the discussion, as he was a bit shy at first.
He says that I’m the first foreigner on whom he’s practiced, even though he’s been studying for two years. Found it a bit difficult to believe, but it’s what he said. I think he said that if I had a bicycle, he’d invite me to his house.
All these long conversations with the local English students – they’re usually quite fun and interesting at first, but can get a bit boring after some time. It’s okay, though, if they’re happy to be helped, I’m more than happy to help. Karmically, I suppose it’s an obligation; but even if it weren’t, it’s cool to be able to interact.
Getting towards evening, the riverside was lit up real pretty-like.
And passing this place…
…my ears were flooded with the sounds of a too-right band just throwing the fuck down. Couldn’t resist having a look-see.
Turned out to be a birthday party (or similar), I think. There was a ceremony underway, in which the Guest Of Honour received this flower arrangement.
After that, they eventually all gathered to eat at that big long buffet table in the background there. But not before the band cut loose some more, and the ladies remaining sitting down on the rugs busted into some impromptu singing and hand-clapping.
Listen along with me, won’t you? Luang Prabang Party.
Walking through the Night Market, The Coconut Kid here tried to make me purchase from him some beads in exchange for him having let me snap a photo; but I was able to get away scot-free.
Walking down any market’s Food Alley is always money in the bank for inneresting sights.
That bag-on-stick is how they de-fly the meat here in Laos. They’ve got a buffet set-up here for the night market: one plate, piled as high as you dare, 10,000 Kip (about a dollar-and-a-quarter). There are probably six or eight different tables this size.
Around the corner, wonderful décor at this outdoor restaurant.
Who knew the Communists could be so fashionable?
Moon made an appearance (I guess the other night wasn’t the Full Meal Deal after all…).
And then, a visit to maybe the best-kept secret in all of Luang Prabang: night-time badminton! Similarly to the Chiang Mai foot-volleyball scene, these kids take no prisoners. This is real sports right here: no fucking commercialised stop-and-go crap; just full-on killing that god damned shuttlecock until it’s dead and buried.
The Aussie next to whom I’d bungalow-ed in Nong Khiaw showed up to watch as well. He’s off to Vientiane tomorrow, then flies home out of Bangkok next week. Talked to him for a while, wracking my brain trying to remember from where I’d known him. Only figured it out a while later. Felt like a schmuck, but I don’t think he even noticed…
[Written Thursday, February The 9th, Night]
I did get a good night’s sleep last night; but I need a decent Internet connection to get some pix uploaded! So went off in search of better lodging. There’s an old wooden bridge across the Nam Khan (called “Old Bridge”), open only to pedestrians, bicycles, and motorcycles. Here’s the view of the morn from the middle of the bridge.
The motorcycles are only allowed to go in one direction at a time, and during the morning rush hour the lineup of those waiting their turn is almost Bangkok-esque.
Returning to the city side of the bridge, I received one hell of a jolt, after having written last night about the Olympics torch and all.
Wow! Didn’t purchase, ‘cause I always get light-coloured shirts so damned dirty. Still might do anyways.
Also found a new hostel, with dorm rooms for 30,000 Kip (just under $4) per night. Looks like kind of a party-property as well, rocking the Jetsons barstools and all…
…but it’s a half-way decent Internet connection, so maybe I’ll actually stay here more that one night… Got me name on the Big Board, and everything. The more to whom I speak what’ve been there (including two Americans staying in the dorm tonight), the more convinced I become that a visit to Southern China need be added to my itinerary. Will have to have a look into it. It’s about a 24-hour bus-ride from here.
After checking in, it was off to the Morning Market (different from Phosy Market; which, you’ll recall, is located south of the Old Quarter). On the way there, I tried a little experiment; to wit, walking out into the middle of the street to see if any motorists would respect the sidewalk, and then making a big show of pointing it out to them if they didn’t. Conclusion: motorists didn’t give a flying fuck about my “big show”, not a one of them slowed down even a whit.
Markets are always great photographic subjects.
The live-fish tank, however — while likely not at all unusual – seems awfully cruel.
The dead fish look quite beautiful – though I’d wager they’d rather be alive.
Much like at the Udomxai market, one may purchase live ducks – but here one may purchase dead ducks too. Hooray for carnivory!
Frog kebabs, too, were available.
I was able to find some pretty good Watermelon, so hopefully this will bode well for my stay here. Lunched along the river again, overlooking a little gully where half a dozen cocks were pecking around for food, and more than occasionally fighting with one another. So very entertaining! Every day in Laos is a day in which the tourist loves chickens just a little bit more than he or she had done the day before.
Decided to continue my exploration of the Old Quarter by taking in many alleyways. It’s great, ‘cause the structures fronting the streets are all the guest houses, and restaurants, and travel services, and cetera; but down the charming brick alleys are all local dwellings (when they’ve not been converted into ad hoc markets).
Became entranced by some children playing a type of bowling game. They’d each ante up a note of currency, which was piled onto the street. Then they’d lag flip-flops to determine order of play; then skid their flip-flops along the ground, attempting to hit the pile o’ cash. Anybody who did so got to pocket one of the notes.
When all the money’d been claimed, they lathered/rinsed/repeated. Once in a while, the kind-of chubby kid tried to hit the pile with a rubber band, but I never witnessed him succeeding in doing so.
Didn’t actually finish the exploration of the Old Quarter, but decided to head up to Mt. Phousi, a hill located right in the middle of the peninsula. It’s 20,000 Kip to go up the four hundred or so steps.
Before I arrived to the bottom step, I was again flummoxed by the beauty of Luang Prabang’s trees.
Passed a barefoot European, pointed at said bare feet, and smiled; he pointed back at mine and, in a French accent, declared, “Same same!” Cracked me up no end. I almost bought me a “Same Same” t-shirt in Bangkok. Maybe someday I still shall. From the Urban Dictionary:
Used a lot in Thailand, especially in an attempts to sell something; but can mean just about anything depending on what the user is trying to achieve.
Q “Is this a real rolex?”
A ” Yes Sir, same same, but different.”
Approaching from the western steps, about a third of the way up the hill, one arrives to Wat Pahouak.
The “picture” is actual a mural covering all four walls. And “wonderful” is one helluva understatement. It’s practically the Great Asian Novel, told pictorially. Here’re a few of my favourite scenarious; I’ve uploaded a to the Flickr page a set dedicated to Luang Prabang temples, that one may easily view a slideshow of all the pics.
Moving on up to the top of the hill, the temple, Wat Phusi, is quite unremarkable. A commanding view of the city, however. Here’s the Old Bridge.
Coming down the steps on the eastern side, one reaches this Big Bad Garden Of Buddhas.
A little further along, is a Big-Fat-Buddha Garden.
Thence to a cave, at the back of which this Geriatric Buddha (or what) holds court. Not even one hundred percent for-sure that that’s The Buddha – but I think it probably must be, given the posture.
Then you get to see a very, very long Naga. Nagarrific, baby!
The so-called “Saturday Buddha”…
…totally looks like he’s baked. Huhn, maybe Saturday was “J-Day” for Buddha? Buddhas gotta have fun, too, right?
Finally is a small cave with The Buddha’s foot-imprint. I dunno, I guess it’s in there somewhere?
Near here, I was having a rest, listening to the cicada symphonics repeatedly rise to crescendo then fall again, all whilst watching the distant coconut palms swaying in the breeze.
Then, natch, I was joined for conversation by an eighteen-year-old novice, name of “Saen”.
There’s a place in the Old Quarter, called “Big Brother House”, where tourists can drop in and let the locals practice their English on them. The Russian-Visa-process-hating Englishman had been there a few times, and found it to be a great experience. I’ve been thinking to go there meself; but am finding that it’s not necessary: just sit and have a rest for a bit (or even slow your walking pace somewhat), and the learners will find you.
The conversations cover more less the same ground: family, travels, religion, food, and the like. Saen did ask a few out of left field.
For example! After having asked whether I’d attended pre-school, he asked what subjects I’d studied while there. I was fairly speechless for a bit, attempting to formulate some sort of sensible response.
For another example! Noticing my headphones and asking if I liked music (and declining my offer to let him listen to some), he asked if I liked Justin Bieber. Bick had asked the same. I shamedly confessed I’d not heard him. But, uhm, is there something I’m missing here? Isn’t Justin Bieber just, like, bubblegum boy-pop, or its like? Why are all the Laotian novices asking me about him???
He asked about my hobbies, and didn’t have any idea what I’d meant by naming off juggling. Happened to have the ol’ bean-bags in my pack, so took them out to show him what it was all about. He was pretty astonished, but too shy to give it a try.
A friend of his happened to come running up the steps while I was demonstrating; and he wasn’t too shy to give it a try. He even took the balls up to a covered area where a bunch of novices were hanging out, and showed them what’s what. He’s only using two balls, but he has a nice looking follow-through, there.
Saen asked me to spell out the name of the hobby; and once I’d done, excitedly looked it up in his English/Lao dictionary – but it was not to be found.
He took me to his school, and let me hang out in the classroom for a bit.
After this, I headed back up the hill to gawk the sunset. It was already a bit of a madhouse when I did arrive; and they just kept a-comin’ even after that – it was akin to the crowds gradually building in anticipation of an Old Faithful eruption.
Something of a horror-show, as most all the gawkers were these god damned Europeans smoking their god damned cigarettes to the last of them. That’s one fucked thing about Laos, is all the cigarette-smoking Europeans.
In Bangkok, they’ve got the scourge pretty much fully eradicated, from what I could smell. Much more so that in the US of A, that’s for sure.
Another Laos bummer is in a lot of places there’s a fuckload of litter on the ground. It’s ironical, too: in Thailand, you can’t find a public garbage can to save your life, but there’s no litter anywhere; while in Laos, there’re public garbage bins everywhere, but nobody wants to use them (least of all the fucking smokers).
Sunset was quite gawk-able, all right.