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Adventures in Asia, Part 3: Luang Prabang, Laos

Lao catun chat Lao

Well, at the rate I’m writing, it will take me as long to write about Southeast Asia as it took to actually see it. The problem of returning to everyday life after a break is that there are actually things you need to do, deadlines to meet, and, most annoyingly, jet lag to recover from. Plus, there’s the rather severe culture shock of going from the SEA backpacker lifestyle to the fairly adventure-free, routine, grad-student lifestyle. I’m readjusting, but it will be a while before even my beloved Vancouver stops looking crushingly banal.

Okay, enough bleating. I want to tell you about Luang Prabang.

street scenerytuk-tuk taxi

Laos receives only a tiny fraction of the tourists neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam get, and far fewer even than (also neighbouring) Cambodia, which at least has Angkor Wat. The tourists that do come to Laos tend to be either trendy, upscale European (mostly French) professionals and package-tourists, or the SEA backpacker mix of Australians, Americans, Canadians, British and Germans. Luang Prabang is where the two groups meet — it’s as close a thing as the country has to a specific tourist draw.

The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which I gather is quite a good thing to be, as everything written about LP seems to be contractually obligated to mention the fact. It was the capital of both the French Colony of Laos and the post-colonial Kingdom of Laos, until the communists took over the country in the seventies and moved the capital of the Lao PDR downriver to Vientiane. The entire old quarter is made up of old colonial houses, royal buildings and Buddhist temples. We managed to get quarters at the Sensouk Guesthouse, a former colonial mansion across the street from a ridiculously attractive monastery. The location was perfect, though apparently the monks like to get up at 4AM for their daily drum-and-cymbal rehearsal.

by Buddha's beard, that's a lot of monks!7 AM view form the Sensouk Guesthouse

At dawn, the monks put away their drums and cymbals and shuffle down the street to collect alms. Now, I’m not talking about a handful of monks. Pretty much every male in Laos spends some time as a monk, and you can see them all over town, shopping at the markets and surfing the web at internet cafes. So the procession includes hundreds of saffron-robed monks, shuffling slowly down the street while the faithful hand out alms. The procession is popular with tourists, which I has heard was causing problems. Now there are signs posted inviting people to take pictures as long as you keep a respectful distance and actually practise basic etiquette, like keeping your flash off. And most people are pretty good about it, though there are enough asshole package-tourists jamming their cameras into the monks’ faces and hitting them with flash to make you wish these were the ass-kicking “don’t fuck with me” Shaolin kind of monks.

Though of course, they’re not. They are the gentle, tolerant kind of monk. Kind of like the rest of the Lao people. In fact, this was the thing that made Laos so enjoyable. Everywhere you go, people are friendly and welcoming. Thai people are very nice, but the people of Laos, at least everywhere we were, are so pleasant you can’t help but be charmed and won over by them. Laos is a very poor country — one of the poorest in the world, in fact — and I’m sure that when times are bad, they can be very bad indeed, but on a day-to-day basis the people we met were almost universally happy and friendly, proud of their country and traditions, but curious about strangers and always helpful. Unlike Thailand or (especially) Vietnam, you never feel like you’re being treated as a walking ATM. We were never accosted by scammers, overcharged by taxi drivers, or faced foreigner pricing (foreign food and luxuries are expensive, but that’s as it should be).

sabaideelocal kids will often insist on posing for you and giggling over the pictures of themselves on your camera viewscreen

Anyway, as you may have picked up with my subtle hints, I really liked Laos. And I haven’t even gotten to my favourite parts yet.