Friday, February 20, 2009

A crumbling temple at an abandoned wat across the Mekong River from Luang Prabang.

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.

A typical street corner in Luang Prabang – white-picket fence, well-kept yard, immaculate home and a Mercedes parked out front.

Thai toothpaste – "It's black because of special herbs" – which seemed like an interesting cultural purchase at the time, but leaves a funny taste in my mouth. Still, my teeth do seem to be getting more clean...

A local boy searches for minnows and frogs in Luang Prabang.

Local actors perform an ancient play in a colonial hall at Luang Prabang's cultural museum. In the play, which was part of a serial, two deities warred, a king searched for a kidnapped princess and purple-suited monkeys battled.

A temple at Luang Prabang's cultural museum, housed on the grounds of the town's old palace.
A temple structure at a wat in Luang Prabang.

Rice vendors pass the time in Luang Prabang.

Hot peppers drying in a shallow reed basket in Luang Prabang.

At the aptly-named Big Tree Cafe.

An ice cream vendor stands straight for the camera after welcoming me with excellent English and military efficiency – a litany of good luck and good health – to Luang Prabang, proudly declaring himself a 35-year resident of the town.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A girl sells flowers to give as tribute to Buddha outside a wat across the Mekong River from Luang Prabang.

Kids pause from playing kick-the-can to pose shyly for a shot. The kids in Luang Prabang were up early, playing, and up late, playing, with a bit of time in between for school.

Alms bowls washed and drying in the sun at a wat across the Mekong River from Luang Prabang.

Tuk-tuk drivers pose for a picture on Luang Prabang's main street. It took me five minutes to convince these guys that, No, I didn't want to go to the waterfall.
A brilliant purple flower blooms from an overhanging bush on one of Luang Prabang's side streets. There are beautiful flowers and secluded gardens hidden down every alleyway in this quaint, most-European of Laos towns.
An old Land Rover parked outside a row of shops on Luang Prabang's main drag – read: only real street. Remnants of the European influence here manifest themselves in these old cars – Mercedes sedans, Volkswagon buses – and the town maintains an air of civilized restraint.

To buy, or not to buy?

Invariably a traveler will wish to purchase something besides sunscreen, mosquito repellent, toothpaste or another bar of soap – a local trinket, a bit of hand-woven cloth, or perhaps a pair of baggy fisherman's pants one would never wear on the streets back home. Invariably this will involve haggling, which can be an entertaining activity in itself. My tactic has been to counter an original price with a ridiculously low price, which usually gets a laugh, at which point the soon-to-be-agreed-upon price rises incrementally to a number both parties are happy with. And remember: in Asia, one can haggle for just about anything.

But invariably a traveler will also simply wish to admire, to entertain the notion of buying something: a scarf, a wooden box, a strand of handcrafted silver. This is where trouble can brew, feelings can be hurt and consumer guilt can set in.

Below is a breakdown of how much one is committing to a purchase based on one's actions in a market stall or an established shop. These numbers are not set in stone, but if followed roughly may make for a more pleasant purchasing – or non-purchasing – experience.

Note: These rules do not apply to department stores in big cities or the ubiquitous 7-11s.

1. If one does not wish to enter into any sort of capitalist intercourse while walking through town, one would do best to simple keep one's eyes on the road – even looking at an object from the sidewalk can pre-commit one at least 5 percent to a purchase, depending on the type of look given to said object.

2. Pointing to an object immediately brings one at least 15 percent into a potential purchase; actually picking it up can add 20 to 30 percent more.

3. Asking the price of an item takes one well into the 50 percent committal range, particularly if one asks if there is a similar item but in a different style – "Same same, but different?"

4. Trying the item on, discussing its merits with a companion or in any way showing sustained interest in the item continues to raise your percentage of commitment. If one finds oneself at this stage in the exchange, one is probably at least 75 percent of the way to paying for the item.

5. Once one has begun to haggle it becomes nearly impossible to extricate oneself from the purchase. By this point the store owner or stall vendor has no doubt already offered at least two prices that are lower than the original price and is just as committed to getting you to purchase then item as you are to not buying it.

6. Only through tactful and appeasing excuses can one actually hope to now walk away from the exchange without buying the item. However, this is also the point at which the seller is most willing to strike a deal and often by beginning to walk away the price will come down even more and the item may very well be had for less than half of its asking price. Commitment: 90 percent.

7. If one manages to get a good price, well done. Be happy with your well-haggled purchase and feel more confident in approaching your next shop. But if one was never intent on buying anything in the first place, and has left a frustrated vendor calling after with a lower price still, then don't feel guilty. But understand what one has just gone through, know that your kip or baht is aggressively sought after, and be a little wiser with the local wares.