Week 9 – What’s Hot and What’s Not.

21st – 27th October 2013

Wow.  It’s been five weeks since we landed here in Luang Prabang.  Five weeks in our nice little guesthouse in this pretty town.  Five weeks of buying food in restaurants and bakeries, of walking its streets, of taking in its views, of sampling its weather.  A time in which we’ve made friends and colleagues, settled on places we like, and those we’ll skip next time, and learned its geography and vocabulary.

So here’s our list of what’s hot, and what’s not: the Hotness and the Notness, such as we’ve discovered, lost, eaten, bought or dodged.

What’s Not

First the bad news – let’s get the bum notes outta the way.  Stuff that’s bothered us, irritated the grumpy old man in Graham, and tweaked the First World Problem-o-meter in our Sabre-toothed band of (hopefully) open minded travellers.  Thankfully, there’s not much that’s worth putting on this list – there’s no point filling up more of the web with more whinging and complaining – there’s quite enough of that already.

Here’s the top 5, from least to most bothersome:

5) Thong* Thieves.  Like most parts of Asia, one leaves one’s shoes at the door.  It’s a great idea – among other things the place stays cleaner, walking around in bare feet is more comfortable, and it’s a nice leveller.  So most places here (including our guest house), have a collection of shoes out front:  cheap sandals from the Phousi Markets, battered hiking sandals, crocs, the patent leather shoes worn by the softly spoken camera laden Chinese gentleman who checked in yesterday.  So one gets pretty casual with one’s footwear.

So who went and stole Prunella’s thongs from outside the front door?  Seriously?  Rubberised plastic footwear is cheap.  Get your own battered yet comfortably-well-worn-in shoes!

*Yes, I know the word ‘thong’ has more than one meaning.  I unapologetically use the Australian meaning:  A pair of flat rubber shoes held onto the foot between big and first toe by a rubber thong.  You can flip-flop all day about terminology if you want…

4) The Pavement: it’s for walking on.  Luang Prabang is a victim of its own success here.  UNESCO World Heritage listing and the steady stream of us tourists means that the town must have the most complete and well maintained set of pavements in the whole of Asia.  Probably.   Yet in the villages the locals park their motorbikes wherever they can, so they’re scattered all over the pavements here.

Give us a break:  park on the road like everyone else…and when you ride off down the sidewalk, don’t glare at my kids for being in the way – you’re the one in the wrong place. This also goes for the Night Market stall holders which set up their trinkets and low-hanging marquees at 2pm (hello – Night Market?), completely blocking the path and forcing us to walk into the path of those minivans…

STC boys celebrate the Miracle of a clear pavement

STC boys celebrate the Miracle of a clear pavement

3) Alms-giving.  Or Preferably Not Giving.  As a tourist, you’d have to be really quite blinkered to overlook the signs advising of the correct etiquette for observing the daily alms-giving that adorn every corner.  Yet still these ignorant farang (foreigners) hand over their kip to the bothersome vendors of packets of rice who encourage them to wade in among the truly faithful and clumsily dole out whatever it is they’ve just bought.  The monks humbly accept the donations, but if it is given without true belief, it is an empty, meaningless thing.

Sit down low, at a respectful distance, keep quiet, and simply observe.  It’s a rule of thumb that we could all do practising more in many aspects of our lives.

Alms-giving:  do it right, or don't do it.  Simple really.

Alms-giving: do it right, or don’t do it. Simple really.

2) Rubbish.  In a town renowned for its visual spledour, it’s staggering to see the refuse that lies among the greenery at throwing distance from any given beauty spot.  It’s amazing how people who so carefully and regularly sweep their houses count among their comrades those who hurl their packaging and bags onto the riverbanks, road verges and waterways.

but the loser is…

1) Smoking.  We’re spoiled back home in Perth – choofing on the weed is being increasingly shunned in public spaces, frowned upon in homes, and generally on the back foot.  We’ve become accustomed to fug-free dining and getting home from the pub without the smoky stench.  Sadly, what the purveyors of death big tobacco have lost in the developed world, they’re trying to make up for in places like Laos.  Cigarettes are sold everywhere, by the box, packet or in ones and twos, by children, pharmacies and corner stalls.

Locals from early teens to an early grave can be seen lighting up, as can tanned western backpackers who should know better (and should not smoke outside our bedroom window).  It’s a tragedy that alongside land mines and road trauma, yet another legacy of death and disablement is being foisted upon this country by global capital.

What’s Hot

…and now for the happy stuff.  This list was easier to write, and harder to write – so many inspiring things, so much to leave out.  These ones made it.  Read them, and if you ever make it here – take it from us – seek out people and places like these –  it’s what makes travel worth doing.

10)  The Funeral of General Giap, or, how a history geek enjoys crap TV.  On 4th October 2013, General Vo Nguyen Giap, former senior General of the Vietnam People’s Army passed away.  Giap was an architect of several major victories of the VPA: notably against the French at Dien Bien Phu, and later against the Americans in the 1968 Tet Offensive, and in the final campaigns of the war.  Like any General, he was responsible for the deaths of many, and his record can and will be reviewed in the light of history and new evidence.  But for this avid student of modern Southeast Asian history, watching the official coverage of the funeral on static-blurred TV that blustered its way into our hotel room across the mountains from Vietnam made for weirdly fascinating viewing.  The totalitarian regime aesthetic demands its formal parades and funerals, and so I’m sure I can say there’s nothing more nerve-wracking for a young Vietnam Navy ensign than marching towards and then clambering over the wheels and trail of a higly polished gun carriage while carrying the coffin of a revered national hero on your shoulder boards.  In a sharply pressed uniform. On live international TV.  No pressure.

Or maybe I just need to get out more.

9) The 20,000 Kip note.  As mentioned in an earlier post, depending on the vagaries of Lao ATMs, the traveller may come across thick wads of these.    The issue of a bulging wallet notwithstanding, these notes provide a useful and versatile bridge between the relatively high valued 50,000 Kip note, and the 10,000 Kip note:  The former evoke mutters and glances from street vendors and tuk-tuk drivers (“Do you have smaller?”);  the latter seem to disappear as soon as they arrive in your wallet.  The 20,000 Kip will buy a street baguette and a lemon-mint shake, a satisfying brace of ‘big’ Beerlaos,  or a Sabre-toothed tuk-tuk ride back home from the Luang Prabang ‘burbs.  Handy.

20,000 Kip:  Medium denomination is powerful.

20,000 Kip: Medium denomination is powerful.

All this said though –  much as the 20,000 Kipper is a useful one, you really don’t want to end up with too many of them (or any other denomination) when you leave Laos.  The Laos Kip is one of those in the Johnny-no-mates category: when the US dollar gets together with the Euro and has a party – the Aussie and Canadian dollars and the GBP might be invited, the Swiss Franc gets a dutiful call, the Chinese Yuan might be grudgingly sent a half-hearted text message like an annoying cheap-ass relative, but the Laos Kip doesn’t find out it happened until months later.  Awkward.

8)  Geckos.  Living pest-control.  These little (and sometimes not-so-little) critters are everywhere.  As soon as the sun goes down, any light fitting, wall or its vicinity will spawn a small community of them, darting around and snapping at tiny bugs.

There’s something nice, cute even, about the gecko’s round-padded feet, their disproportionately fearsome chirping, and their willingness to maintain a mutually beneficial sense of personal distance, unlike some of the other denizens of the tropical night (I’m looking at you mosquitoes and ‘roaches…)  OK, buzzy, creepy crawly things: you are starting from behind – fact is that unlike the geckos you will never be made into brightly coloured soft toys and sold at the night market.  But, hey, evolve a bit and people (and geckos) might not be so happy to swat you.

The gecko, however, is always welcome on the inside of a lamp post near me.

Living pest control

Living pest control

7)  My Man-bag.  A walk on the practical side.  OK, snigger if you will, but on this trip I’ve got in touch with my practical side and got myself a man-bag.  Early on in our stay here, I stowed the daypack and splashed out a trio of 20,000 Kip notes at the Phousi Markets on a completely non-genuine Diesel hessian shoulder strap bag.  It has enough zip compartments to comfortably hold:

  • My excellent Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ-200 camera (constant f2.8 aperture across the entire 25-600mm zoom range fixed Leica lens – the most versatile single lens camera in the universe! (except at high ISO in low light))
  • a battered sun glasses case
  • a pack of wet ones
  • a battered map of Luang Prabang (though don’t bother showing any Laos tuk tuk driver a map – maps are an alien, Western concept)
  • a deck of cards for emergency games of snap
  • a small wind-up torch
  • our guest house room key (which comes complete with handy bottle opener)
  • a tiny fraction of the detritus in Prunella’s smaller Macpac shoulder bag <ducks head>

The constant climate here argues against carrying around extra clothing, and the ready availability of snacks and drinks means it is mere dead weight carrying it around in a sweaty daypack.  Why didn’t I think of this before?  Everyone else appears to have come to this conclusion ages ago.

PS:  I’m not saying where my passport is hidden.

Man-bag.  100% non-genuine.

Man-bag. 100% non-genuine.

6)  Free WiFi.   We can proudly claim to have been backpacking when poste restante was a realistic way to (try) to stay in touch, and the first mission in any country was figuring out how to get enough small change for the local telco’s IDD service.  But we’re like anyone else: we’ve evolved to a certain dependency on gadgets – smartphones and the very laptop on which I type.  The pervasive Free Wifi in every cafe, pub and guest house in town is very useful for catching up on emails, not missing Tango calls, running the kids’ schoolwork and paying water rates bills back home.

For whatever reason, Laos, and Thailand, and (on a trip 3 years ago) Vietnam, and likely a host of other places, offer free wifi internet.  It’s fast enough, reliable enough, and we’ve visited enough of the cafes, bars and restaurants on the main Luang Prabang strip to have acquired almost constant wifi service as we stroll.  Sad hey?   But also incredible that it can be managed here, and yet the average hotel in Australia would charge hundreds for the equivalent service, and that’s even without the early twentieth century era rotting copper National Broadband Network (NBN) our new Australian Government yearns to implement.

5)  Laos traditional long skirts.  Simple, practical, and traditional. The dark blue or black long skirts, stretching to mid-calf and usually embroidered with some form of subtly patterned Laos design are worn by women everywhere here.  They are the ‘uniform’ for school girls, office workers, the market-sellers and female wait-staff.

Sigh.  People can and will wear what they want: the sunburned skin, minimalist shorts and spaghetti tops of the backpackers fresh from a Thai Ko beach holiday (and I’m not just talking about the girls); the stuffed-shirt-socks-and-sandles attired retired tourists fresh off the plane from Paris. If you are a local, the odd flanelette-pajama inspired pants or knock off Man City jersey. Wear them if you must – you can probably avoid the disdainful looks of some locals if you keep your blinkers on – but so dressed you will never look as casually elegant as a pair of long-skirted, blouse-wearing Lao women:  one riding the scooter through the afternoon heat, her passenger riding side-saddle and carrying the shopping and a youngster or two.

Addendum:  All this said, I am compelled to report one older shirt-sleeved western gentleman sitting alone in a cafe, reading a hard-back volume and sipping a Pastis with his – wait for it – PITH HELMET hung casually on the back rest of the empty chair next to him.  I bow to such sartorial excellence.

4) The Sisters of Charity of Saint Joan Antida Thouret.  Prunella has described the work of this group of five Catholic nuns in another post, and they make this list.  Swimming steadily against a string current of endemic government paranoia, they provide the only education option for a group of live-in students who have the misfortune to be born deaf in a poor country.  Their agenda is essentially apolitical: we met them with sleeves rolled up in the fields, saw their yet-to-be-opened computer room, spoke to one of the sisters who had just supervised the slaughtering of a pig.

Like most of their fellow Lao, they are honest, hard-working people getting on with their job.

Getting on with the job

Getting on with the job: Sisters are doing it for someone else.

3) Family Business.  Not ours: theirs.  Lao people haven’t strayed far from their village roots.  Most of the businesses here in Luang Prabang, tourist capital of the nation, are owned or run by extended family groups.  You will rarely enter a shop without glimpsing a TV through a doorway, a child playing on the doorstep, or family photographs behind a pile of merchandise.

The separation of home and work – a yawning chasm back in Perth – is so blurred as to be almost invisible.  Entering  local restaurant can be like walking into a family home, with the latest newborn child taking their first steps among the tables, or a pampered dog snoozing in a warm spot near the cooking hearth.  There is a lack of formality which is endearing, and for our family of travellers, it is somewhat of a relief that the babble and chatter of our three youngsters is met by a smile rather than gasps of disapproval.

We have shared a beer or three with our guesthouse manager, held months old babies while waiting for a street-side bowl of morning rice porridge, and chased the hostess’ cheeky two-ear old granddaughter squealing with laughter from our rooms.  Just travelling here and staying awhile is to see the Lao love of family entwined with daily life.

Family business

The Lao workplace – keeping it in the family.

2) Mekong Breakfasts.  We are blessed to have stumbled upon a very economical guest house here in Luang Prabang, situated on a side street in the ‘old quarter’ on the peninsula that catches the gentle breeze that wafts between the Nams Khan and Kong.  Indeed, as we lie on our beds in our ground floor room, we occasionally marvel at the somehow powerful presence of the Mekong that flows south in unending silence less than 50 metres from us.

It is this wonder that draws us ever back to one or other of the small friendly restaurants whose open air wooden decks jut out, sometimes in two or three staggered levels over the river bank.  We are privileged to enjoy every other breakfast and not a few other meals, under the mighty trees that line the bank.  Across the river dwells an almost unbroken expanse of forested hills, dotted here and there with temples, perhaps shrouded with morning mist, or bathed in the warm, hazy afternoon light.  On this epic stage the life of the river carries on:  a small boat carrying saffron clad monks; the clanking ferry; the distant spark of a welder repairing a steel hull; a villager tending a vegetable garden on a richly silted patch of the shore, newly revealed by the slowly falling water level.

I wax lyrical – but it must be asked what better place there can be to enjoy a fresh coffee, a bowl of granola, fruit and yoghurt, a warm baguette (or an icy cold beer as the sun sets).  For about USD 10 for a good breakfast, all five of us can joke, plan, laugh, remember and absorb our singular great fortune of sharing the essence of Luang Prabang together.

The view from breakfast

The view from breakfast.  Again.

1) The Kindness of Strangers.  Laos PDR is in the UN category of ‘Least Developed Country’:  Least developed economically perhaps, but the Lao sense of what is important is deeply grounded, perhaps anchored by the struggles of the past and present.  Even in this town, where new farang faces come and go every day, and locals have seen and heard enough to feel jaded, people seem willing to offer more than they must.

Here the tuk tuk drivers will smile and wave, even if their hopeful offers of rides to the pool or boat voyages to the caves are turned down for the umpteenth time.    A deli owner, in the middle of a guesthouse ghetto, will garnish our purchases with extra snacks for the boys.  Our hotel manager presents each of our little trio with a new t-shirt to celebrate the Ok Pansa festival;  a tuk tuk driver escorts them through the throng of the boat race crowd when he could just as easily snooze in his ride.

Perhaps it’s a cliche.   Perhaps is the contrast with Thailand – where some of those in the tourist trade smile with their faces but not with the eyes.  Maybe we find ourselves in Laos at a crucial point in its development, and things will alter with the pace of change.  Who knows?  All we can say is that first impressions last, and that when we leave this place, the kindness of strangers in Laos will be gone, replaced by the warmth of new found friendship.

Friends made along the way

Friends made along the way

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