Friday, February 20, 2009

Luang Prabang: life in the slow lane

Situated on a small peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong River and one of its smaller tributaries, Luang Prabang is a seemingly idyllic town: brick-lined streets, colonial architecture, shade trees overhanging quiet lanes, tuk-tuk drivers napping between games of Chinese poker, and the smell of French culture wafting down the main avenue.

But below this pleasant fa├žade – according to the Lonely Planet guide to Laos, Luang Prabang has been declared the most beautiful city in Asia – lies a lackadaisical muffle of do-little-eat-much charm that is alluringly mundane.

In the morning there is mist in the streets; in the evening there is mist in the streets. If one were going to write a murder mystery based in Laos, it would be set in Luang Prabang – the town's eerie lamp-lit streets at night the perfect backdrop for a shocking crime – and, at the end of the book, who but one of the innocent young monks could be capable of such a depraved act?

In the evening children gather along the river, jumping from limestone rocks, peering under river rocks looking for minnows or frogs, while farangs idle near the shallows, smoking cigarettes and reading tattered second-hand novels acquired through trade at one of the town's sparsely yet eclectically stocked book shops.

On the second day of our stay, a two-hour ride on squeaky bicycles took us through the town's dusty outskirts, past a crumbling stadium, fresh fruit markets and rice vendors, and back along the shady banks of the great Mekong, its muddy banks exposed in the dry season. The next day a short ferry ride across the river took us to a footpath where we walked through small villages and explored wats in various stages of disrepair, orange-robed monks flitting about the paint-flecked structures and ancient carved stones protruding from the tall grass.

Luang Prabang's main tourist attraction – aside from Pusi, a wat built high on a step-studded hill in the center of town – is a waterfall. At every corner tuk-tuk drivers promise a "good price" for a ride to the waterfall, which is 26 kilometers outside of town. The call for rides is so insistent – we were propositioned at least 20 times during our four-day stay – that we decided one of our missions in town was to avoid the waterfall at all costs, to stay off, as we've come to call it, the "conveyor belt."

Staying off the conveyor belt is particularly difficult in Laos. Unlike Thailand, where one can hop on a scooter and take oneself just about anywhere, avoiding the pre-planned tourism packages, in Laos there is little chance of doing anything without dealing briefly with the local tourism industry. Men in sunglasses and short sleeves linger at the entrances to caves and waterfalls charging a few thousand kip for admittance, while swimming lagoons have been appropriated by village families selling sandwiches and beer and tickets to take a dip in the murky blue water.

(Side note: It has been slightly difficult and surreal adjusting to the exchange rate between Laos and Thailand. Items that cost 40 baht in Thailand are suddenly 15,000 kip, and one has to pause before a purchase to figure out whether one is getting a good deal or getting got. In general, Laos is a bit more expensive than Thailand, in part because the country has no direct access to the ocean and therefore must import the majority of its goods.)

Conveyor belt aside, it is pleasant enough to simply shuffle the streets of Luang Prabang, saying hello to the friendly locals, or posting up at a riverside restaurant playing cards and getting impromptu language lessons from the staff.

And then there is the mangostine. A fruit vendor at a market stall pressed open one these strange delicious fruits for us, and we were soon on a bit of a binge, our hands and lips sticky from the fruit's sweet pulp. The best way to describe the flavor of a mangostine – about the size of a plum with a thick red rind and a soft white core – is a cross between an orange and a peach: the white orange-like sections juicy, fleshy and slightly more tart than a peach. A bit difficult to enjoy without making a mess, the mangostine is easily the finest fruit I've had so far in Asia.

One night we elected for a little local culture, a traditional play and dancing put on by a troupe at the town's museum now housed on the grounds of the old palace. The performance began with a benediction of sorts, a round of low tonal chanting after which the chanters tied small lengths of white string to our wrists, wishing us all good luck, good health, love and a long life. The performance consisted of two rounds of traditional dancing – one by the men and one by the women – followed by an installment of a serial play, the plot of which – despite a provided written summary – was nearly impossible to figure out. There were armies of monkeys, and two god-like rulers battled over some long-standing quarrel, while another attempted to rescue his kidnapped wife.

The dancing, however, was incredible. The women twirled in synchronous groups, all smiles and fluttering eyes, bending and twisting their arms and hands to the rhythm of the hypnotic music. The musicians beat drums, tapped at xylophones and plucked at the necks of simple string instruments. I was soon lulled by the ancient melody, my mind drifting beyond the modern hall.

They say that if it is Thailand that eats the rice, Vietnam plants it and Cambodia threshes the grain. But it's Laos that listens to it grow.

In Luang Prabang, there is little to do but listen.

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