Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Luang Prabang

Doesn't that photo belong in National Geographic? This whole town belongs in National Geographic.

I have a theory that former capitals are always gorgeous (you should see Kyoto!) and Luang Prabang is no exception. It's hard to say exactly when Luang Prabang was and wasn't the capital, since Laos has had such a particularly dynamic history. But when Laos was granted independence from the French in 1949, Sisavang Vong was "promoted" from King of Luang Prabang to King of Laos.

Okay, I'm obviously getting a little carried away with the history here (and learning as I switch between the Wikipedia page and the blog), but suffice it to say Luang Prabang has a former palace which is now a museum, and I visited. Photos are not allowed in the palace, but some highlights:

* The throne room isn't so large, and has painted red walls with inlaid semi-precious stone mosaics. It glittered.

* The throne itself is so small and understated! The chair you're sitting on right now? Probably "grander" than the throne of the King of Laos in 1960.

* They have kip notes from the seventies. One kip. Five kip. Etc. That doesn't sound too impressive, but it tells a sad economic history. Today, it's about 8000 kip to the dollar. My dinner last night was 27,000 kip. (It was delicious.)

* The king's bedroom is complete with gifts from dignitaries, portraits of former kings, a mosquito net.

* In the gifts-from-friendly-nations display, the US contribution cracked me up. From China, vases from the 8th century and gilt statues. From the States, a moon rock and a model of the Eagle lander. Hey Laos, how does Communism sound now, huh?

But you don't need to enter a museum to see the beauty and history of Luang Prabang. Not at all. I don't know how to put the town's aura into words, but the whole town is enchanted. Right out of a fairy tale. Look at this no-name street corner:

It's just beautiful! It seems like everything here agreed to be as beautiful as possible. Have you ever seen such a nice tree? They're everywhere. I must have 20 photos of great trees in my camera now:

The butterflies turn every stroll into a Disney film. Just bouquets of butterflies fluttering around every flower. And they're great butterflies. Distinct, bright, iridescent colors. Here's the one mediocre photo I have:

The whole place is enchanted.

So maybe that's why so many wats (temples) were built here. I mentioned earlier that you can't walk down the street without seeing a monk. Young monks, old monks, monks in groups, monks alone, monks on tuk-tuks... I even found a monk in a tree. Seriously. He was up in a tree with a bamboo pole knocking down fruits. (My camera was not with me, sorry.)

An aside: When I first landed in Australia, I was immensely jet-lagged. At 2am, I awoke and couldn't get back to sleep, so I wandered around. In a park, in the moonlight, I could barely make out some dog-sized animal munching on the grass. Couldn't believe my eyes. It moved a bit like a rabbit: not hopping quickly, but that awkward style of movement when your back feet are poles, and you have to luuump over them each time you take a wee step. Belly in the dewy grass, I scooted ever-closer to the bizarre animal, hiding in the shadows of the moonlight. To me, this was living out some Jules Verne adventure, or maybe the other-worldliness of Tolkein, foreign lands and mythical beasts.

Turns out the critter was a wallaby. If you've ever been to Australia, that's the equivalent of an Ozzie coming to America and silently stalking the rare and fantastical... squirrel. (And I'm not knocking wallabies -- you know how much I love squirrels!) Wallabies are everywhere in Australia. You honk to get them off the road.

That's kind of how Luang Prabang is with monks (minus the honking). At first, you think "woah, a monk! I can't believe this!" and you wish you had your camera. That thought goes away in about half an hour. It's not that you get bored of them, you just stop being so stunned. But they're still culturally and artistically wonderful. This photo is pretty nice, no?

At around 11pm, everything in Luang Prabang closes. It's a little surprising when you're sitting at a cafe having a beer with some fellow travelers, and, in mitten drinnen, everyone starts closing up shop. Why so early? Well, partly because Luang Prabang is just a sleepy little town, but partly because folks rise early for Tak Bat. What's Tak Bat? Well, I'm glad you asked...

Monks don't work in the same way you or I do (er, used to...). They aren't paid and they don't have money. So to eat, they walk around every morning around 6am, in huge lines, wearing bowls like purses. Buddhists line the streets, kneeling, and give alms of food (usually rice) to each passing monk. So all the monks and many of the townspeople are up at 5:30 to prepare for the alms-giving, known as Tak Bat.

Here are villagers awaiting the monks:

And well, see for yourself:

The line is endless, and it's morning and silent and beautiful. Really beautiful. I have tons more photos of it, but out of respect for the ritual, I kept a distance and turned off my flash. So, unfortunately, the photos are not so good. But hey, all the more reason to come and see it for yourself, no? And it's not just seeing Tak Bat, it's hearing Tak Bat. Silence. Just silence. Truly beautiful.

Wowza! I hate to do this, but I guess I lost track of the time, and I need to catch my flight to Siem Reap soon. I thought 5 weeks in SE Asia would be plenty, and now I'm running so low on time I have to fly across most of Laos and Cambodia to catch my flight in Bangkok on the 21st. And here I am, enjoying writing this and recounting the fun, and suddenly I find myself rushed! Such a microcosm. Very briefly:

I took a cooking class. It was alright, but generally unmemorable.

The waterfalls and national park about 40 minutes from Luang Prabang is worth a visit. This fella was doing some fun-to-watch dives.

The market is gorgeous and fun. Just to walk around and smell the smells and listen to the sounds of fish being weighed and people haggling. One guy parted the crowd, Moses-like, to lug a huge fish to his stall. The man was arching his back way back to heave the weight of the fish, hands wrist-deep in the its gills, his biceps straining, while the limp beast swung and smacked against his soaking wet apron and thighs and calves. The tail was touching the floor. The man's knees were bent outward, and he negotiated a strained waddle as each pendulum swing of the fish allowed him to lurch one awkward step forward. I really wish I had a video of the fish and the man and his zombie penguin gait, but I was one of three white people there, and I felt taking flash photos and video and the like would be obtrusive and ruin the scene, so I'll have to keep it in my head. But the cooked Mekong fishes were so good-looking I bought one (yes Dad, I ate fish! Aren't you happy?). So here's the one photo I have of the market:

The skin was delicious! And where the guts should be? Lemongrass!

While I was eating, a Japanese man pointed and me and said "White Obama!" and started laughing. Somehow, it's not the first time I've heard this.

The puppy and I are getting along swimmingly. I think he's adorable, and he likes nibbling on my sandals.

But most of the days I spend walking around the wats. They're just gorgeous. So here, to leave you on the right note:

Now I have to pack for Cambodia. My plane leaves in 3 hours. Sorry our romance was so short, dear Laos, but I'm young, and I'm not done traveling yet. Not by a long shot. A la prochaine, mon ami.

And bye bye to you, too. I love it here, but of course I miss my friends and family. You're all the best.

As always, much, much love.


Anonymous said...

Wow!! Have you figured out what the monks do? And believe? Can you talk to them?

Anonymous said...

your best blog entry yet

i believe it is just "mitten drinnen" you don't say "in" but then, you took yiddish at berkeley, i just learned what i know from the cruel streets


BBB873 said...

I can't believe you have been gone for FIVE WEEKS already!! Your blog is a gem for us armchair travelers. Sometimes I laugh out loud at your adventures. Love your great descriptions and fabulous photos. We are traveling vicariously with you - we miss the experiences of sight, sound and taste - but not the smells, heat and bugs! Looking forward to your next post -

Jake Cooper said...

1 - Thanks Mrs. Berry! I'm so glad you're enjoying the trip.

2 - Good line, Dad.

3 - Mom, I don't really know. The religion, I understand a bit, but not the monks really. All I learned about them I learned from Ton. Remember, monks aren't like rabbis or priests -- most are just normal Thais (all male, of course) who are taking the robe for a few months -- so I don't know how much they're into theology or religion. But no, I don't know what they actually do all day.

Anonymous said...

awwwwww. the puppy is so cute!!

-Leah (I am also loving the rest of the blog, but the puppy photo really got to me)