Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Quick Trip to Laos: Day 5 of 5 - Luang Prabang

Day 5 was spent in Luang Prabang itself. We got up early to witness the alms giving which takes place around 6 AM. Every morning, Buddhist monks all over Asia walk the streets to receive food in their alms bowls. Luang Prabang is no exception but the amount of tourists and monks has, apparently, turned the ceremony into something like the steps of the Cannes festival (minus the security), where scores of photographers elbow each other on the sidelines to get the best pics. Hence, the whole city has been posted with little signs asking for people wishing to witness the morning alms giving to dress modestly and behave properly by maintaining a certain distance from the monks and those who donate food.

We ended up witnessing an alms giving ceremony where it wasn't the locals giving food but tourists. But as they were Thai, it was done with due etiquette even if it was a bit more symbolic than what I'd seen in Thailand. All the monks got was sticky rice; as opposed to sweets, curries, and fried meats in banana leaves. Notice on the picture below how the girl kneeling has shrouded her shoulders with a scarf because she is wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt. I only elbowed the tour's in-house photographer once and gently tripped the videographer. I'm a good tourist.

This was on Th. Sisavangvong (the main strip) where there are many nice colonial-style houses. This particular one could well be the cutest of them all.

This temple is in a little street that cuts to the west bank of Nam Khon (the river that joins up with the Mekong, giving Luang Prabang it distinctive peninsular shape).

There are some cheap guesthouses in town, and some much higher end ones. This would be the perfect place to have breakfast but it seems the well-to-do wake up later than the backpackers. Too bad for them, the light doesn't get any better than this.

Still on Th. Kingkitsarat, there survive some dwellings that are much more humble than the fancy guesthouses and restaurants.

A little statue overlooking a stairway to the Nam Khon.

We then walked back a block inland and followed Th Sakkarin, which is lined with temples.

As the morning drew on, the novice monks were now busy doing chores. You'll see them cutting wood and whitewashing a temple's premises in the pictures below. They like chores just as much as any kid and were doing them as sloppily as they could get away with. In this particular image, the commotion is caused by the discovery of a rat, or family of rats, that lived in the old tree. Now we all know what Buddhism says you SHOULD do to animals. These kids took their spades and feet and tried to kill the terror-stricken animal until one of them got wiser and said, "Hey, lets lock him up with the cat, and watch it get torn apart." At which point, my assistant was on the verge of throwing up and ready to renounce his religion. He didn't utter a word for the rest of that morning. Torturing animals while wearing the saffron robes, is, well, not cool. "They're going straight to hell," was how he eventually broke his silence. My opinion of Buddhists as peace-loving people, as opposed to say, the nasty Jihadist Muslims, was only confirmed. When kids are bored out of their minds, you better pray nobody is handing out AK47's.

More peaceful, just as messy, not as fun.

We eventually made it to the crown jewel of Luang Prabang--Wat Xieng Thong.

And that wraps up Wat Xieng Thong. It's a truly beautiful and awe-inspiring temple--which is quite something because we had seen a lot of stunning temples by the time we made it there.

On Th. Sakkarin.

After lunch (notice how the light is crap now), we decided to cross the Mekong to see some of the temples across from Luang Prabang. While the assistant negotiated prices, I took pictures.

You know the old saying, "If you go on the Mekong and don't bring back pictures of naked little boys swimming, you're not worth the camera strapped around your neck." Actually, a few hours later my camera was in pieces (it wasn't strapped around my neck) so this was in the nick of time.

That was one long negotiation. All aboard.

At the helm.

The village on the other side of the Mekong has nothing to do with the royal splendor of Luang Prabang. It's just a village. Houses are made of dried banana leaves, with a few cinder blocks for the wealthy, and little kids are dirty. This baby's head was one big scab. The flies were having a field day. She didn't look in pain though.

One of the better homes.

The beautiful stone steps lead to a derelict temple. With two little girls acting as our guides, we heard it had been looted, burnt, used as a hideout for drug-dealers, and was now pretty-much abandoned. Some trees in the forest were covered with what must be a parasite and looks like the thorns on roses. The kids explained these were ghost strees containing the souls of the drug-dealers who had eventually been mowed down by the police a few years ago.

Only one Buddha is left.

Our guide.

Our guides overlooking the Mekong. We met maybe half a dozen other tourists on this side of the river. The temple's state of disrepair, the impressive view on Luang Prabang, the under-development of the village at its foot, reminded me of Bali or even of classic 18th century paintings of Greco-Roman ruins.

This kid not only stopped to have her picture taken but smiled while I tried to get the focus and light right. Come to think of it, it was kind of cruel. If every tourist does that, high-season must really suck for them. But I was really blown away by how much these poor kids were carrying.

We reached a temple complex that was in an excellent state of repair. It must have been Wat Xieng Maen. Actually the whole hill is dotted with abandoned temples but most people just visit this temple which hasn't been looted or burnt.

Then the kids went through some complex negotiations with a ten-year-old to get the key to a Buddha cave. He would only let them have it when they swore they needed to show it to us. I wish he hadn't. We climbed down natural rock formations for a while then climbed up for what must have been the equivalent of three stories of stone steps. When I turned to look down on our progression, the camera snapped off the tripod's quick-release grip and began its fall. It fell for a loooong time, bouncing off all those stones steps until finally it stopped at the very bottom of the cave. It is beyond repair; this is its last picture.

These last pictures were taken with a compact digital Sony DSC-P200.

Actually, the rest of the day was a lot of fun. Since I couldn't take pictures, we went to where the Nam Khon meets the Mekong and swam in the rapids. First, a young girl had to show us how to cross the river without being carried away while the boys looked on, positively cracked up. Then the boys showed us just where to jump from the cliff to scare yourself silly without breaking both legs and we also tried to fight the water as it rushed past huge boulders to see who could go the furthest without losing their balance; at which point one is slammed back through the rocks extremely fast. We got a few cuts and bruises and couldn't do half the tricks the local kids could do but it was a blast. I asked the girls why they don't play in the water with the boys and they answered, "Can't you see? We're not boys. We're girls."

And that's it for our trip to Luang Prabang. We headed back to our guesthouse, picked up our stuff and took the bus back to Vientiane. It was a horrible 9-hour ride by night (we got no sleep) followed by a 13-hour train ride from the Thai border to Bangkok, by day. None of this was air-con, so warm dust was blowing in our faces the whole way. When I finally got to take a shower, I had to wash twice before the water stopped running the colour of mud! In other words, go to Luang Prabang, it's beautiful--I mean FLY to Luang Prabang.


Anonymous Mathieu said...

Rhaaaaa... lovely :-)

I particularly like the emerald artichokes... too bad about the camera, tho.

you're still the best

8:53 AM  
Blogger schuey said...

good to know that you bought a new one ;)

waiting for more !

3:16 PM  

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