Luang Prabang – A Short Flight but a World Away Culturally

Traveling from the anything goes sexual attitudes of Thailand to the culturally conservative and devoutly Buddhist Laos is quite a shock to the system. Laos is a small landlocked mountainous country wedged between China, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. The Lao economy seems primarily based on agriculture and much of that is subsistence farming.

At first glance, you might think the entire community lives in small one room dirt floor hovels. My late evening drive in from the airport definitely left me with that impression as we passed one sad little home after another. Everyone with the door wide open and people either sitting or sleeping on mats on the floor in semi darkness.

But, there are wealthy people living in Laos and plenty of beautiful mansions built during the French Colonial era still in service. I’m not sure if the wealthy of Laos are foreigners or local party officials but a lucky few are living high while over 80% of the population lives in poverty and struggle for day to day survival.

The truly remarkable thing about these people is that their daily struggle to survive does nothing to dampen their spirit, good will and friendly attitude toward strangers. I don’t think I met a single local that wasn’t nice, quick with a smile or bow, and willing to offer assistance. The people here are universally polite and the culture has ingrained a healthy respect for anyone older.

And at some point, when I wasn’t paying attention I became the older person. This big bellied Grand Papa Smurf was treated like a celebrity. Although it does feel a little weird to have women (total strangers no less) address me as daddy. I have been assured that it is a term of respect and not derision but I can’t be sure lol. But it still takes I little bit of getting used to everyone from the hotel reception to hawkers in the night markets calling out daddy daddy.

Luang Prabang was such an interesting place and since I crammed 6 days of activities into 2 quick days I will divide my Laos experiences into two blogs. The first blog will cover an absolutely magical day that extended from 4am until after midnight and the 2nd blog will talk about my Temple Death March across the city.

Day 1

My day began with a pre-dawn wake up to prepare and travel to the city center for one of the coolest customs I have ever observed. Every morning before the sun chases the moon from the sky people from all over the city rise and prepare food for the morning alms giving ceremony. And with the first cracks of dawn the town’s people are lined up along the streets and alleys patiently sitting and waiting for the monks and acolytes to leave the temples and monks’ quarters to walk the streets collecting food for the day’s meals.

As dawn breaks 400 monks and acolytes walk the streets receiving the blessings of the towns people. They collect whatever the donor can afford to share with them. It might be milk from one, or rice from another, bread, fruits and vegetables. This procession is very dignified and formal. There are strict rules of conduct when donating food to the monks with a lot of bowing. I chose not to take any photos out of respect for their religious customs.

The images of people so poor they live in poverty themselves sharing their meager daily bread with the monks is seared into my mind without the use of a photo though.

After the alms ceremony, I grabbed a quick breakfast at my hotel and headed out of town to the Kuang Si Waterfall. The ride out to the waterfall turned out to be an experience in itself. I hired a Tuk Tuk for the morning. A Tuk Tuk is a modified motorcycle that has been retrofitted to carry passengers over two rear wheels on benches. I’ve included photos of several different types of Tuk Tuks but all have a couple of elements in common. First, the passenger compartment is not air conditioned, second, the benches are not padded (just plastic or cloth stretched over wooden planks, and third – no shock absorbers.

Every bump or pit in the road sends you off the seat and into the tin roof of the Tuk Tuk. Though there is a floor and roof to protect the passenger from the sun and rain – the four sides are open to the outside air allowing for airflow, dust flow, and all sorts of odor flow from the surrounding homes and fields. And have I mentioned the sewer systems are primitive in the best of places and nonexistent in other locations – just open ditches.

As we trundled along I watched women washing clothes on rocks and concrete abutments in small streams as they have for a thousand years. People bathed out of plastic buckets in their front yards totally oblivious of passing traffic. And throughout my time in Luang Prabang there was the constant distinct odor of dung. The bouquet would shift at times from horse to cow to pig to dog to elephant to human but the smell was always there in the background.

After bouncing along in the back of the Tuk Tuk for half an hour I finally reached the Falls. I arrived just as the national park was opening for the day at 8:30am so I had the entire place to myself for the first two hours. And it was an incredible two hours walking among the enormous ancient teak and gum trees that guarded the many cascades and pools of clear blues and turquoise. By 10:30am the locals and other tourists began showing up and filled the pools with summer bathers. Plenty of photos accompanying the blog.

On my way out of the forest I stopped at a black bear rescue sanctuary and watched the bears they have saved from poachers. Unbelievably, poachers use wire snares to trap bears for their spleens. Once captured some of these bears spend up to 10 years in cages no bigger than a large dog kennel. Then they are dispatched for their spleen.

Apparently, the Chinese believe bear spleen can make a man a bear in bed. But then again Asians say everything makes a man bigger better and longer lasting when and where it counts. I was told the same thing in Cambodia by an old toothless woman trying to sell me some kind of alcohol concoction with a pickled cobra and scorpion in the bottle. Just made me sick as a dog for 7 days. lol. As they say Caveat Emptor.

I gave a donation to the sanctuary in the name of a nature loving friend of mine and headed on down the trail. Next stop was an elephant rescue sanctuary where I spent an interesting two hours learning about elephants and the work they do at the sanctuary. Fed the elephants pineapples and sugar cane, helped bathe one and even took a little ride along the Mekong River.

Once back in Luang Prabang grabbed a quick lunch and was off for a two-hour cruise down the Mekong River to a couple of sacred caves to see more Buddhist shrines. I have since learned that Buddhist shrines are sort of like places George Washington slept. There are more shrines with Buddha’s teeth, bones, and hair than he could have possibly had.

The boat that I rented was rather interesting. I had assumed it would be a small 4 to 6 passenger pleasure boat. Instead it was a large boat with upright seating for 40 and two Cleopatra type lounges with pillows. So, there I sat in one seat with 39 empty cruising down the river feeling a little self-conscience as we passed other boats packed to the rafters with hot sweaty tourists.

After two-hours we made it to the caves which quite frankly were underwhelming. But as they say it is all about the journey. And I did get some great photos both coming and going especially at sunset on the river. Once back in Luang Prabang I had dinner on street food in the local night market washed down by more Chang Beer.

Getting back to my hotel turned out to be an experience after a few beers. The old city is on one side of the river and my hotel is on the other side. There are three ways to cross the river. A modern bridge for cars and trucks that is way out of the way. An old dilapidated wooden bridge that is only for motorcycles and scooters and with a narrow three plank section off to the side for pedestrians. And, finally during the dry season a rickety bamboo bridge.

The bamboo bridge was my shortest route to a bed. And since I had been up for 20 hours and enjoyed too many Changs I opted for the bamboo pedestrian bridge. I’m not sure when they built that thing they had a 240 pound Farangie stumbling across it in the middle of the night in mind. The bridge is constructed of forearm size bamboo poles driven into the mud every ten yards or so then the same size bamboo runners along the edges with two smaller one inch bamboo ribs used in the center for support. Over all this bamboo reeds are woven into a mat for the floor of the bridge.

So as you walk the entire bridge sways and bounces with your weight and to add to the experience the woven matting has sort of a spongy feeling. BTW have I mentioned I don’t know how to swim! So that is how I made it to my bed that night and from that point on took the motor bike bridge to and from town.

But more about my further trips to and from town in my next Luang Prabang blog.

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