Saturday, May 28, 2011

Discovering Laos

and some thoughts about South East Asia

After Cambodia we wanted to make our way to Laos. The big question was to decide where we were going and how. Ideally we wanted to see the south first and then make our way to the north. However it was one of those moments where it paid to be realistic. We didn't have that much time to visit the country and trying to do both would have been really pushing it, so we decided to skip the south and spend more days in the north, in Luang Prabang. We had made the same kind of decision in India where we skipped a place that seemed really appealing, but we never regretted it. Feeling rested and not too rushed is really important. We haven't regretted it this time either.

So to be truthfull, we didn't discover Laos as much as we discovered Luang Prabang, this charming old french colonial town by the Mekong river.

The french influence is still pretty visible. There are old colonial houses and many municipal buildings labeled entirely in french. We even ran into locals playing petanque. With the heat all I needed was a pastis and it would have been typical south France.

Some people even seem to speak the language, but it's hard to tell if it's a cultural heritage or tool for the tourism trade.
Luang Prababg is indeed definitely geared towards tourism. You get good restaurants, funky bars and plenty of coffee places that are mostly used by tourists. However, unlike Siem Reap the town still has its charm and we felt like the locals were living there as well, so it was a very nice and comfy atmosphere.

Denise distributing fresh pineapple to the neighbors

Consequently it's no mistake that Luang Prabang and its area are classified as World Heritage by the Unesco. Its unique blend of french influence, temples that are still in use and the nearby Mekong make it quite unique

The only drawback was that it felt "relatively" expensive when you consider that Laos is still a very poor country. It may be Luang Prabang though, as the city and even the surrounding villages didn't seem as poor as they did in India for example. It may very well be that while the part of India we visited was dry and arid, Laos is tropical and green everywhere. We started to realize that things automatically seem nicer when it's green around.

A happy consequence of this tropical weather is the many strange bugs we had never seen before. We feel pretty seasoned after our trip to the Amazon but we ran into a couple strange ones here. In particular the first one below, that the locals eat and that seems to be quite the delicacy given its expensive price.

Something very unique to Luang Prabang that we got the chance to witness is the giving of the alms. It takes place every morning at sunrise so when I say we got lucky, we also had to wake up super early to see it (twice since 6am didn't cut it the first time :)
Basically the many temples within the city are still used by monks (in our area you couldn't walk 2 blocks without running into a temple, they're like Mc Donald's in Paris) and every morning the monks walk in the streets to receive food offerings from the locals. It will be their food for the day so it's not just for show.
We sat discretely on the steps of our hotel while it was taking place across the street and I was surprised by how silent it all is. There is not verbal exchange between the monks and the people, not even a thank you. Actually there is not even a nod or a smile or a look or any kind of exchange at all except for the food being placed in the monks' bucket. It seemed a little impersonal and strange but then, it's super early, and they do it every day, so acknowledgement becomes superfluous after a while I guess.

I also thought the whole procession was quite strange at first, what with the people feeding the monks. Why are they doing it? But then I thought about it differently: all those monks are young boys. For most of them it's not a lifetime calling but a transition into manhood (for those who can afford it instead of working during the day to bring money to their family). So many of these guys are brothers or sons of many of the women in the city. Looking at it this way, having the women provide for those boys doesn't seem that strange anymore. I mean, my mother fed me every day when I was a kid too!

And maybe it relates to something else we've noticed in south east asia. People are very nice and kind. It was definitely there in Laos (and we noticed it in Bali too) but the place it impressed us the most was in Siem Reap in Cambodia where people were always smiling and welcoming. It is very easy to feel comfortable in these countries. Cynics will say that it's a facade because we're tourists and have the money, but it feels like it goes deeper than just providing service. We feel free to smile to random people in the street and they will return the favor. I would also say that the more touristy a place is, the less friendly people usually are, which is why Siem Reap really impressed us given the amount of tourism generated by Angkor Wat.

Those who are always ready to return a smile or a wave are the kids of course.
It's amazing. I don't know if it's because we're out during the day instead of being at work, or if it's simply because the kids are outside all the time here but we really got a kick out of waving at them and smiling to them. It's amazing how their face lights up when they throw you back a big hearty smile. It's rare to see them frown or just too unhappy to bother. It made me wonder if it's not exactly because they have so little that these kids are so responsive to a smile or a wave. In countries where little is the norm, you don't need that much to light up a kids face... and it's awesome to witness.

Sadly we are pretty photo shy when it comes to people and kids. We don't want to be too invasive

Now before closing this post I'll make two very random observations:
  • we've seen many cats in Luang Prabang (and a few cute puppies) but for some reason we realized after a whily that they were all young or even baby cats. We didn't seem to run into any adults. It made me wonder what happens to them. I for one didn't see any on the food menu, but one starts wondering :)
  • You know you've been on vacation in a warm country for a while when you start having tan lines. I'm not talking about the normal "farmer-style" t-shirt tan here, but the much harder to reach shoe tan.

That's it for today. Next post we'll talk about the fun stuff we've done in Luang Prabang.

View Laos in a larger map

1 comment:

  1. Nice shoe tan...I keep thinking my feet are dirty :)