I just got back from a 4 days trip to Luang Prabang, and I have lots of news!
Firstly, I went to Luang Prabang to celebrate my 29th birthday. Just thinking about it makes me feel old but I had a lovely time in the former royal capital. I took a bus Saturday morning from Vientiane, and the route took us through the mountains and jungles of central Laos for 12 hours, around twisty curving narrow roads and through tiny villages. Despite being extremely remote, I actually saw a full-sized drum kit through the doorway of one of these wooden shacks perched on the top of a mountain somewhere between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.
My impression of Luang Prabang: the contemporary city, is that it exists solely as a tourist destination. It is now “Low season”, yet the town was absolutely crawling with tourists. The overwhelming majority of them were dirty, smelly, loud, obnoxious, drunk young europeans and americans.
Maybe I’m just getting old, and jaded, but I felt extremely disdainful of all the half naked tourists walking around Luang Prabang. Visiting there made me really remember why I was never all that interested in visiting Asia in the first place – I find the whole “Backpacking around South East Asia” thing to be just a big cliché, involving little more than drunkenness and sleazyness in most cases. I’ll admit that I did meet a few nice people who were doing everything in their power not to perpetuate that stereotype of the dirty, smelly, drunk, ignorant, culturally insensitive tourist, and I really like those people. But I’m still really worried about the overall impression Lao people must have of all these tourists, and therefore their respective countries, considering some of the behaviour I witnessed.
Sunday was my birthday. Thanks for all the kind birthday greetings from everybody!
This day I climbed to the top of Phu Si, gazed out over the Mekong river valley in the rain, and discovered that my camera was not working. I spent the rest of the day at the spa, and then ate a huge and delicious and extremely expensive dinner. The family sitting next to me was also celebrating their son’s 8th birthday, so then they even let me share their chocolate mousse cake with them!
While in Luang Prabang I also visited a few Wats and took a boat to some caves. It was mostly rainy the whole time I was there. The Mekong kept rising higher and higher each day. On Tuesday I participated in a cooking class at Tamarind Cafe, which I would highly highly recommend. Our group included two really funny guys from Britain, a young British lady doctor who had been traveling around India for the past thee months, and a couple from Philly. We learned to make Mok Pa, fished steamed in banana leaves; Buffalo Bile Laap (yum!); Luang prabang stew; lemongrass stuffed with chicken; sticky rice; jeow; and probably some other stuff I am forgetting. It was really fun. I made plans to spend some time with the British folks when the pass back through Vientiane.
I took the night bus back, 12 hours which where mostly horrific, and sleep was nearly impossible. I woke up from a strange dream about being in a bicycle shop where there were millions and millions of bicycles arranged by colour; like a rainbow of bicycles; to find I was back in Vientiane. And it was still raining.
Other than that, Luang Prabang was quite lovely. It certainly has a lot more charm and is much more attractive than Vientiane. However I don’t think I would want to live there. It’s very tiny and bursting with 19 year olds in thai pants and beerlao wife-beaters.
However, before I left for my jaunt up to Luang Prabang, the folks at the library threw a little birthday party for me.
We had lunch on the 2nd floor, and the ladies brought out a huge feast, including Lao Lao and Laap and sticky rice ball salad, and some of my other favorites. I baked a cake, and everybody said it was “sep lae”, which means “very delicious”.
To the left of me is Mr. Chansy, the library director. In bright orange is Sisavanh, one of my best pals. Mrs. Bounsalome is on the very right, poking her head out. She is my Lao teacher. Next to me on the right is Mr. Vay, the only person at the library around my age. He speaks almost flawless English and is going to Australia next year to study Information Science.
They all sang me happy birthday in english and then I blew out some imaginary candles.
It was a lovely lovely day. I don’t know who that tall guy is though.
The big news of the moment is that the Mekong is on the verge of flooding the entire Vientiane area! The library has created some kind emergency-action plan that involved shovels and sandbags and I also volunteered to help if needed. If the river continues to rise… it will be bad news. My house is about 200m from the Mekong so I will probably be in a lot of trouble if there is a massive flood.