Mekong Fish, Beerlao, Saffron Monks, and the Fig

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

At the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Kham Rivers lies Luang Prabang, the center of the Meung city-states between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries. The Royal Palace, in the heart of the town, dozens of temples, saffron robe-clad monks and novices, milling tourists, smiling Laotians selling their handicrafts and foods, river mist, and the smell of green all mix together like a hot papaya salad to set the mood and tone of the town. French-influenced houses, reminders of the French occupation of Laos beginning in 1887 and ending after World War II, are now guesthouses and the Laotians are now free from colonial rule and can drink their patriotism in the form of Beerlao, with its mighty Lion logo.

Lucie and I arrived in Luang Prabang late in the evening, after a long bus through the core of northern Laos. The bus driver decided to disappear for a hour in one small town, which delayed things, but we were on Lao-time and ate fruits and crackers as the villages and jungle-draped mountains passed by the rain-soaked windows.

Unlike the remote dirt road town of Luang Nam Tha, Luang Prabang was crawling with travelers of all kinds, which added spice to the scene: dreadlocks, cameras, bald heads, sun burns, Beerlao and Nepal tee-shirts, golden-haired children holding hands, and folks from richer, neighboring Thailand. It was too busy. We walked the streets at night as a warm drizzle fell, asking with futility for vacancy until finally finding a guesthouse nestled next to Wat Nong Sikhunmeuang.

We awoke to the sounds of monks chanting their morning prayers. Soon thereafter, the saffron-robed monks walked with their offering bowls through the streets. Townspeople prayed for them and gave them sticky rice and some money. Children waited for monks to give them small balls of sticky rice or a gentle pat.

After a Laotian rice noodle soup with lime and mint for breakfast, we visited the Royal Palace grounds, enjoying a large fig tree with butresses and sinewy roots. As the rain fell on the canopy, we looked upwards as the drops fell from leaf to leaf, sometimes landing on our foreheads or tongues.

Three hundred steps up a forested hill was That Chomsi, where we made offerings of incense and banana-leaf crowns ringed in chrysanthemums. Among the winding stairs were a reclining buddha, murals depicting Laotian history and figures, buddha's footprint (which was four feet long!), and shrines and stupas in nooks and crannies. At another temple, I talked with a monk who cleaned a dilapidated three hundred year old temple library and opened it for the novices and tourists to study and visit. He was a happy man and felt glad for his work so far--more to come.

We continued to walk around town, meeting people along the way, exploring side streets, eating lemon sherbert, and joking around. From a pair of tourists, we learned an excellent way to say goodbye: "enjoy the peace." It seemed to fit Luang Prabang, after years of strife and war, now there was peace.

As the glow of evening cast itself upon the French facades, the night market appeared. Men, women, and children began laying their wares--silk sarongs, knives, lanterns, scarves, wood carvings, Beerlao tee-shirts--on the road, lit by incandescent lights. On a side street was the food market where Lu and I ate grilled Mekong fish with a sweet succulent sauce and hints of lemongrass. My mouth was watering the entire time we devoured the fish with our bare hands. We found an all-you-can-eat buffet for fifty cents and ate sticky rice, pumpkin, green beans, bamboo shoots, cauliflower, and greens.

Earlier, we had found another guesthouse and had met Rebecca from Houston, who wasn't able to find a room, but we had an extra bed so she stayed with us--whatever fellow travelers can do for one another helps a bit. The roosters and screaming cats, were less welcome, however, and kept me awake. But soon, even they had to sleep. After all, even the bars close at 11 pm in Luang Prabang.

"Enjoy the peace."
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carolyn on

Thanks for the updates!
So fun to know what you're doing halfway across the globe! Wish I could be there too.

I was thinking I could design a website showcase for all the pictures you have taken. Just came up with this idea a few minutes ago, so no details, but consider the idea!

Use this image in your site

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