There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Luang Prabang (1) The Old Town: Part 10 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

Saturday Evening 22/02/2014

Obtaining a visa at Luang Prabang airport is a bit of a circus and involves joining three separate queues. After the first we were required to hand over a photo (from our visit to the photographer’s in Saigon), while after the third they took their own snaps of us.

And why, I wondered, are Europeans charged US$35 when Australians and Bolivians only pay 30? And what have Canadians and Indians done wrong to pay 42? And why charge an extra dollar just because we arrived at the weekend?

The process was tortuous, but carried out by good humoured, smiling officials, so we left feeling surprisingly well disposed to the People's Democratic Republic of Laos.

We were met by N and taken to our hotel. The road from the airport is almost a country lane and the town has the feel of an overgrown village. 50,000 people live in Luang Prabang, though that number is swollen by tourists. The old town, a UNESCO world heritage site, sits on a peninsula between the Mekong River and its tributary, the Nam Khan. It has narrow, flower bedecked streets and French colonial houses - none of them above two storeys high.
The flower bedecked streets of Luang Prabang
(we arrived in the dark, so this photograph was taken next morning)
Or hotel, the Villa Chitdara, was a beautiful old teak building and reception was welcoming and efficient.

The Villa Chitdara, Luang Prabang
Venturing out to find an ATM made us instant millionaires (£1 buys 13,000 kip) but at least they use their own currency, unlike the Cambodians, and a kip is almost three times as valuable as a Vietnamese dong (£1=34,000 dong).

We used our new found wealth to buy dinner, though Lynne still felt disinclined to eat. I had chicken and fried rice which was, I am sorry to say, a plate of stodge and not a promising introduction to Lao cuisine. With it I drank Beerlao which, at 15,000 kip for a 66cl bottle, was good value for what is generally regarded as Southeast Asia’s best beer - though that does not set the bar particularly high. The quality may be due to the brewery’s French founders or, more likely, to the Czech advisers who arrived when Laos was a client state of the Soviet Union. The company is now owned by Carlsberg.


Later we walked through the night market, which provided several souvenirs and gifts, but not, despite trying many different stalls, a tee shirt which even came close to wrapping itself around my bulk.

Sunday 23/02/2014

At six o'clock every morning, after the banging of a gong, the monks of the town's many monasteries walk in single file through the streets in their saffron robes begging for their day's food. The people, more accurately the older women, kneel beside the road and give something, usually a handful of sticky rice, to each passing monk.

Here come the monks, Luang Prabang
Foreign tourists also line the streets photographing the proceedings.  This has caused problems in the past but as far as we could see, all were well behaved and attempting to be unobtrusive.

We were in an especially fortunate position as all we had to do was roll out of bed, step out onto our balcony and watch the monks pass in front of us; the hotel owner's wife being one of the kneeling women handing out largesse and gaining merit for her generosity.

Lynne was had become increasing frustrated at feeling sick, having stomach problems and not wanting to eat, so when N arrived to conduct a walking tour of Luang Prabang she suggested a trip to the doctor first.
Luang Prabang
He called up a car and we drove into the new town – less picturesque but not very different from the old town – and to a doctor's surgery. When I was little, in the 1950s, Dr Harding made no appointments, had no receptionist and could not have imagined installing a touch screen computer so that you could 'arrive yourself'; patients just sat in the waiting room until it was their turn. This remains the way in Luang Prabang, except you remove your shoes before entering and the consulting room is merely one end of the waiting room. We heard every word of the consultation of the people before us - though we understood nothing - and those after heard every word of Lynne's, though with equal incomprehension. If privacy was required the patient lay on a bed screened by a bookcase.

The young woman doctor (I think she was young, but with a surgical mask covering her face it is difficult to be certain) examined each patient in turn, prescribed and dispensed medication and accepted a small sum of money. Lynne's turn came and she quickly discovered the doctor spoke excellent English – far better than N's, who was theoretically there as a translator. She had a reassuring air of competence, asked all the right questions, prodded all the right places and finally dispensed an encouraging pile of pills and potions. Lynne is a great believer in such things (I prefer to grit my teeth and cure myself by will power) and was well pleased. We paid $41 (requested and paid in US currency) which was vastly more than the locals looked to be paying but if it put Lynne back on her feet, and, hopefully, subsidised medical care for the poorer members of this far from affluent society, it was money well spent.

Luang Prabang
Back at the hotel, Lynne took her first potion and we set off on foot for the National Museum inside the former Royal Palace.

The country we know as Laos has existed since the eighteenth century when three smaller kingdoms came together under French protection. The people are Lao, the country is Laos, the French added the ‘s’ to distinguish between them, but, like (almost) every other French terminal ‘s’, it is silent. The colonisers had great hopes for Laos but as it became clear that the Mekong was not navigable this far upstream and anyway Eldorado was not going to be found round here, they lost interest and the few French officials conducted a light touch administration. Despite this, as we would discover, the Lao picked up more Gallic habits than the Vietnamese or Cambodians.

Of the three earlier kingdoms, that of Luang Prabang became dominant and their royal family provided the Kings of Laos, though the capital soon moved to Vientiane.

The civil war following French withdrawal was a complicated affair involving several factions and some heavy handed interference from the Americans - the after effects of which are still a serious blight on the lives of the people in several parts of the country. It dragged on for many years with some half-hearted fighting and much jockeying for position until a bloodless coup finally brought the communist Pathet Lao to power in December 1975, just months after the fall of South Vietnam. The king abdicated and the Kingdom of a Million Elephants became the Democratic People's Republic of Laos.

Following the Soviet model, they nationalised what little industry there was and collectivised the farms. By 1979 the leaders realised that their changes had done little except make a poor country poorer and they abandoned the agricultural cooperatives. By 1985 it was clear that more was needed and the old guard, who had spent 30 years fighting for communism, introduced a full market economy. Laos is now communist only in name, though the Hammer and Sickle is flown as much as the national flag. Economic liberalisation has not been matched in the political sphere and the 'Communist' Party remains very much in charge and brooks no dissent.
The Hammer & Sickle and the Lao flag fly side by side in Vientiane
The former Royal Palace is a modest building for a hereditary ruler. To the right of the entrance is a hall containing the Pha Bang Buddha, the most sacred image in Laos, which was brought from Angkor in 1353. Provided we approached without our hats, shoes and cameras we were allowed to look. Almost a metre tall, he stands with his arms raised to shoulder level, palms forward in a gesture of protection.

The hall of the Pha Bang Buddha, Luang Prabang
The palace itself is approached down a short avenue lined with palms. It was built in 1904 to a French design modified to Lao tastes. Over the portico is a gilded Airavata, the three headed elephant god that symbolises the Lao monarchy.

The former Royal Palace, Luang Prabang
Beside the entrance hall is the king's reception room where diplomats and other visitors lounged in comfort before their royal audience. Beyond is the throne room with a display of regalia and behind that the royal quarters including the relatively modest bedchambers of the king and queen with an interconnecting door (they managed to conceive five children). We passed through the library and the royal dance exhibition before reaching the collection of diplomatic gifts, which include a Lao flag that visited the moon on the Apollo 11 mission. Six months ago in North Korea we saw the gifts received by Kim Il Sung; they have their own palace, far bigger than the whole of the Lao royal palace. The Lao approach, with its gentleness and modesty is far preferable.
Gilt relief, Wat Mei
Wat Mai, next door, dates from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the Pha Bang Buddha is brought here annually to be ceremonially washed. Wat Mai is most famous for the gilt relief work on the facade. No photography is allowed inside but it is possible to photograph the main Buddha statue from outside.

Buddha statue, Wat Mai
Walking towards Wat Xieng Thong at the end of the peninsula, we passed a group of people busily forming mashed sweet potato into balls then flattened them into discs.

Making discs from mashed sweet potato, Luang Prabang...
Earlier production was drying on frames in the street before being sent to market.

...and drying them in the sun
Wat Xieng Thong is the most holy monastery in Laos. The complex is not large though it has several stupas and pavilions. The main building, the Sim, dates from 1560 and is a masterpiece of Lao architecture. Unlike the town’s other temples it has never been razed by Chinese marauders nor over-enthusiastically restored. The eves sweeping elegantly almost to the ground are said to resemble a mother hen protecting her chickens.

The Sim, Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
On the rear wall is a mosaic of a flame tree....

Flame Tree, the Sim, Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
 while inside is the usual collection of Buddhas....

Inside the Sim, Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
...and a relief depicting life in hell.

In Hell, Inside the Sim, Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
There is also a naga, a long hollow wooden snake, used as a ceremonial water channel during the washing of the Sitting Buddha, Luang Prabang’s second most important Buddha which is kept in a pavilion behind the Sim. The Sitting Buddha is locked in darkness, except when being washed, as taking it out would cause extreme bad luck. There is, however, a small hole through which the Buddha can be viewed, and even photographed.
The Sitting Buddha through the keyhole
Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

At the back of the complex is the funeral carriage which carried King Sisavong to his cremation in 1961. The urns at the front and rear contained the ashes of his father and mother while the late king rode in the middle. Built of teak and decorated with scenes from the Pha Lah Pha Lam, the Buddhist Lao version of the Hindu Ramayana, it is based, as a quick glance underneath confirmed, on a very ordinary car chassis.

Funeral Car, Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
It was lunchtime so N conducted us to one of the town's posher restaurants. The set meal consisted of vegetable soup of unknown ingredients, minced pork salad (meat salads are a Lao specialty, though this one had too much coriander for Lynne's taste), Luang Prabang pork sausages (remarkably like Tesco’s sausages) and stir fried vegetables.

Saying goodbye to N, we took a nap during the hottest part of the day and afterwards set off to climb ‘Mount’ Phousi, the hill that overlooks the old town.
Starting up Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang

From the entrance by the former Royal Palace we climbed 138 steps, paid our 5000 kip and set off up the remaining 190. We were soon accosted by a girl selling caged birds who thought we might like to gain merit by releasing them. Although the cages were too small for their starling sized occupants, we declined, not because we liked them in cages, but because buying would encourage the capture of more. A few steps higher up the girl's school bag lay beside the path. It had an Angry Birds logo.
Buddhist monk on Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang
 At the top was a small temple and an excellent view over the old town and the Mekong one way.....

Luang Prabang old town and the Mekong river from Mount Phousi
 ....and along the Nam Khan river and over the New town the other. After the flatness of Cambodia to be surrounded by mountains, however distant and shrouded in mist was a relief.

Luang Prabang new town and the Nam Khan River from Moun Phousi
On our return to earth I treated myself to a refreshing BeerLao (Lynne ordered a lemon juice) and we then just had time to shower and write an email before heading out for dinner. I had ‘lap beef’, another meat salad, while Lynne, still far from her best, struggled with a banana pancake.

Another wander through the night market yielded more gifts, though I remained tee-shirtless.

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