Travel overload, morning alms, evening chants

Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
Trip End Jun 15, 2007

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Sunday, December 24, 2006

On its surface, Luang Prabang is a quaint, comfortable, quiet town filled with ancient wats on every corner, winding alleyways, and French colonial architecture. Locating a guesthouse in any price range and settling down to a nice western meal of pizza, baguette sandwich, or muesli with fruit salad and yogurt is no problem, since this Unesco World Heritage City is well acquainted with western tastes and sensibilities. The night market, which spans nearly the entire length of the main street, is busy with shoppers but quiet, hushed almost, unlike the turbulent chaotic markets of Bangkok or Chiang Mai. Even the roosters are less prevalent here and we find ourselves sleeping in well past 8 am for the first time in months.

We wander the streets, taking in the worn whitewashed buildings with their cantilevered balconies and tiled roofs, the many Buddhist temples tucked away behind cement compound walls, the numerous shops selling textiles, handworked silver, and bamboo paper lanterns.

The Royal Museum draws us in with its shiny wood floors, high ceilings covered with shimmering Chinese glass mosaic murals, and collection of gifts from countries around the world, all of it a reminder that this now communist "Peoples Democratic Republic" was once ruled by a king in the not-so-distant past.

I spend the evening meditating at Wat Xieng Thong, then just before sunset the monks file in and fill the air with the vibrant sound of evening chants. When I leave, it's just light enough for my eyes to see the silhouette of spiky palm trees standing quietly against the backdrop of the darkening night sky.

Once we get beneath the city's cozy spiritual vibe, however, Luang Prabang suddenly becomes more challenging. In the mood for a bit of evening socializing, we meet up with friends at the Lao Lao Garden where we sit around an outdoor fire while we sip our Beer Lao. Todd and I get to chatting with a few of the local guys sitting near us who turn out to be the bar's gay contingent. Perfect! During our two months in Asia, we've seldom met anyone who outwardly acknowledges being on "our team" and it's a refreshing change. Soon they're whisking us off our seats to a small neighborhood gay bar across the street. But the second we step into the place, these formerly chill guys transform into bitchy, boisterous, bawdy showgirls. They moan with bitter displeasure when we tell them we're a couple, and as they pull us apart one of them coyly chortles, "Tonight you with me and he (Todd) goes with him!" It's funny for a few minutes until one of them begins to massage Todd's legs, then puts his arms around me and starts sliding his hands south. We're out of there within minutes, fed up with the ravenous boys out to score fresh farang.

The next morning brings 12 hours of alternating between speedy trips to the bathroom and bed rest. This is one way to get quickly through that extra novel I've been lugging around in my bag!

The following day, no longer feeling like there's an alien in my stomach, I suggest that we rent bikes and pedal our way to Ban Phanom, a village known for its cotton and silk weaving and, according to our Lonely Planet Guide, good bargains. When we arrive, a woman demonstrates her weaving for us, then like a black widow spider starts drawing us toward her web of shawls and scarves. As soon as we express interest, the other arachnids perched around the room begin tugging at us with pleadings of "Sir, look sir. Ssssilk?", until it's a constant undercurrent. Their work is quite beautiful and we make a number of purchases. Back at the market in town, where the exact same textiles are available, we discover that we've been completely ripped off. Mesmerized and overwhelmed at the village, we made several big mistakes. And so, a few guidelines for future purchases, learned the hard way - with cold hard cash! (These are completely commonsense, but it's strangely easy to overlook them in the heat of bargaining!)

1) Always research prices at more than one market before buying - you can always find the same thing somewhere else.
2) Spending too much time indicates your level of interest - find what you like quickly, then purchase or leave.
3) Don't comparison shop in front of someone you're going to buy from - it lets them know how much you like their particular product.
4) Don't get emotionally attached to something you like.
5) Be prepared to walk if they don't lower their initial price substantially.

After our disheartening discovery, I decide that I've had it with Laos. I'm sick of the constant bargaining and tired of always paying more because I'm a foreigner (even at museums and parks!). I'm sick of every tuk-tuk driver I pass who says "Hello, tuk-tuk, sir! Cheap cheap, cheap cheap!". I'm done with saying no to the hundreds of offers every days for visits to waterfalls, cave tours, village treks, restaurants, cheap massages, handicrafts, prostitutes, and "you smoke hash?". Tired of discovering that 99% of the time people who approach me want to either sell me something or practice their English so that they can sell me something later. Tired of feeling that little heartstring get pulled when one of them calls me "friend" then get burned when it becomes obvious that they're just saying "friend" to get something from me. Exhausted by maintaining a mental wall just to make it down the street without stopping to hear another pitch.

Disgusted by the whole scene, I head down to the river with Todd in tow to escape the people, the commerce, the touts, and the tourists. A nice sunset reflecting on the shimmering waters of the Mekong takes the edge off enough for me to regain a little perspective. I'm a tourist from an unimaginably wealty country visiting some of the poorest people in the world, and I'm upset because they're trying to earn a living by using a few time-tested methods, or because I pay a few extra bucks for something out of my own ignorance?

Once again it feels like the bubble of my travel fantasy-world has burst, and again I find myself surrounded by the tatters of my hopes and projections, the way I want things to be rather than how they are. Letting go of my expectatons for this experience is painful at times. I watch as occasional pangs of bitterness arise when I'm faced again and again with the reality on the ground rather than the dreamy picture in my head. When I get caught up in my mind like this it makes me wonder if all the years of meditation practice leading up to this moment have been an embarrassing waste.

The next day, I wake before dawn to watch the monks collect alms, their bare feet treading the cement streets in the frigid morning air. This must be a difficult lesson in humility for them as they collect their food amidst crowds of onlooking townspeople and gawking tourists with their flashing cameras.

Later, we meet a guide who offers to take us to a Hmong New Year celebration the following day for a good price. Though we know there are places to observe these celebrations for free, he offers to show us around his village, introduce us to his family, and mentions that two other people will split the cost of the tour with us. Sounds good, so we agree on a price and sign up. This time, I'm not surprised when he arrives the following morning, tells us the other two aren't going, and expects us to pay the full tour price. In our newfound wisdom/disillusionment, Todd and I had discussed this exact scenario the night before and had firmly decided, positively swore to one another, that if this happened we weren't going. Of course, as soon as we lay down our position, our guide explains matter-of-factly with red swollen eyes that he has just spent the previous twelve hours in the hospital with his son who has a lung problem and has been wheezing uncontrollably but who is back at home now and how will he pay the medical bills if he doesn't get this "under the table" money since his employer is very dishonest and won't we please help him and if we don't want to see the New Year celebration he can take us somewhere else ("like a waterfall!") and he will give us lots of information about how the Hmong and the Americans were good friends during the war and he'll make sure that we have a good time but he really needs this work on his "day off".

Todd and I are simply outclassed. Again. Our poor little hearts are throbbing so hard for the guy's unfortunate son that we practically run to the tuk-tuk.

When we arrive at his village, he shows us his single room home. Introduces us to his son, whose raspy cough gives credence to his father's story. I feel the knots in my shoulders relax a bit. He gives us sticky rice cakes, warmed by the fire until they're soft enough to eat, and begins to tell us about his family history during the war. Eventually the conversation turns to his spiritual beliefs. He describes how people have spirits, often more than one, sometimes those of their ancestors, who look after them. How people get sick when they make a demon unhappy. For example, he laughed, you might make a demon angry if you step on it!

While his sone was in the hospital, our guide was convinced that a demon was causing the illness, so he made a phone call to his father who, he explained, is a shaman. Shamans are powerful people to the Hmong - able to speak and negotiate with demons. And when his father made an animal sacrifice to appease the demon tormenting his son, he said his son began to recover immediately to the degree that they were able to leave the hospital that evening. He also pointed out several small white paper flags posted on the outside front corners of the house and above the front door. He explained that these symbols warn the demons to stay away since the premises are under the protection of a shaman.

After the tour of the home, we visited the Hmong New Years festivities, where hundreds of people were dressed in beautiful traditional costumes of black cloth decorated with intricate patterns of brightly colored green, pink, orange, white, and blue beads. We observed the annual meeting ritual. Long lines of men and women stand facing each other and as they throw a ball back and forth they spend the time getting to know one another. Traditionally, if one of them dropped the ball (literally!) they had to sing a song to their prospective partner. Nowadays, they just get a bit embarrassed, run after the ball, then start throwing it again. We also watched crowds of people chowing down on fried chicken feet (complete with bones and claws!), took a look at the fighting chickens (cock fights are a popular pastime here), and enjoyed watching kids everywhere as they dexterously played marbles in the dirt.

Our time in Luang Prabang has been rich and packed with experience, and though it's been a challenge at times, I'm so grateful for having the opportunity to make this journey.
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