Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Luang PraBang…the city of monks walking.

I am writing this on the last day at the Casa Brazil in Karon Beach. I am moving next door for another week, and it’s good because I know by then I’ll be ready to move on. I can tell I’m ready when I start to think about where to go and what to do. Up until today, I’ve been happy just day by day.

I really don’t want to write this blog about Laos, because as much as I want to tell you about Luang Prabang, I also don’t want anyone else to know about it. From the minute I got on my Laos Air flight, I knew I was going to a nicer place. Everyone was so much gentler than in Chiang Mai. When we flew into Northern Thailand, it was like flying into Hanalei on Kauai.  The airport was tiny, but very efficient, and I got through Immigration very quickly. I had a long ride through very hot tropical scenery to the city. My first view was not very impressive, as it was very busy and it’s hard to tell a city from the window of a cab. I booked a guest house that got rave reviews on TripAdvisor, although it was very expensive. It was a wonderful little place tucked away on a street between the Mekong River and the second river, right in the middle of the main visitor part of town.  The room was tiny, but beautifully made up with the most beautiful wood floors and doors (Kent would have known what kind of wood!).  The shower was open with just one wall closed, which I didn’t mind. It was a very cozy place. Breakfast was included, and the food was excellent. Another wonderful find is Lao coffee. It is the best coffee I’ve had on my entire trip, including Paris and Turkey. An effort was made to switch the Hmong tribes from growing Opium, which they had done for generations, to growing coffee. The coffee is a very dark, strong bean; and is delicious.

What was so special about Luang Prabang? It was the Asian village-town I’ve been yearning for. How Chiang Mai and Goa were reputed to be in some long ago. Those magical places that I always seem to end up in when the glow is fading, like getting to the beach when the sun has already set below the horizon. Paris in the 30’s, Hawaii in the 40’s & 50’s, the Haight in the 60’s, Amsterdam in the 70’s, Seattle in the 90’s; there are some many names of places, and times “you shoulda been there”, and no matter how good your timing is, you will miss some of them and some of them will be special only because you were there.  The people in Luang Prabang were mostly kind and gentle. There was a bit of hustling for river cruises and taxis, but even that was mild compared to other places. There are a number of Buddhist teaching monasteries in the city, including one very large temple, and every day everywhere you see all ages of monks walking through the city in their bright orange robes, some carrying colorful sun umbrellas. I know that monks are just as good as priests or clergy in any other religion, and they are only humans like the rest of us, but there is something about the feel of this city that sings; here is a place where there are a lot of people contemplating the nature of life, the nature of being, the real underneath the real. 

The first couple of days in a new place are usually spent getting my bearings, and finding out where stuff is. My favorite places where the soup lady stall, and she was the antithesis of the soup Nazi in Seinfeld. She was a middle-aged lady with a large shop-restaurant who stood all day in front making noodle soup, with a beautiful face and generous eyes.  I loved her soup. When I had a cold, she made me some soup from all greens that cleared me up in a minute. She also rented bicycles for about $3 a day, pretty pink and purple bikes with wide tires and little baskets. I rented bicycle from here several days and rode all over town. Although there is a lot of traffic, everyone is very polite and easy to ride through.

My other favorite place was the local market place where I bought ice and water. This was a raucous family with the mom who was also young and hard-working. She kept giving me free ice, or cookies, or drinks. I kept trying to pay her and she kept giving me free stuff. We had good laughs tussling over me trying to pay.
I only did one tour while I was there. I took a very, very, very, long slow boat ride in a long wooden boat with a loud motor down the Mekong River through miles and miles of jungle, although I didn’t see much wildlife. The boat ride was so long, that I started wondering if the boat man had misunderstood and thought I wanted to go to China. We finally ended up at the Buddha Caves, built into the mountains by the river. It is a little hike up some very rustic dirt steps into this series of caves filled with Buddha’s. The place was packed with tourists, but the setting was unusual and beautiful. There was every size, shape, color, and style of Buddha you could ever imagine, and again I purchased a flower candle and knelt by one shrine to offer my prayers for myself, Kent, and all my friends and family especially all the ones who have “passed on”.  I started to hike up to the higher caves, but just couldn’t make it. Angkor Wat wiped me out for hiking up to anymore temples or sites for quite some time. 

I only stayed five days at the first hotel, and then I decided to stay in Luang Prabang longer. I just couldn’t leave this quiet, lovely place, so I found another room right across the street. I’m getting really good at that. This place was much cheaper, the room was larger, the family who ran it was friendlier, and I loved staying there. It also had a much hotter, nicer shower than the more expensive place. So I rolled my bags over there and set up house for another ten days. I kept deciding not to leave. The weather was really nice, although much cooler than Chiang Mai, and it did rain hard a couple of times. When I finally did leave, I had picked up a bad cold and the weather turned really cold for me.

I had breakfast almost every day at the same little coffee place, where I sat outside and had excellent coffee and omelets with fresh fruit just like home. Mangoes, papayas, bananas, melons, mango steins, and that funny fruit with the white juicy sections in the middle of a hard dark shell. Another wonderful thing about this place, influenced by the French occupation and from when it was the Royal capital of Laos, is the over-abundance of restaurants with great food of all types from French, Italian, German, Thai, Laotian, Chinese, Japanese; every type of food you can imagine. There was even a place that had couscous dishes from Morocco.That's the place I had a lovely talk with the couple from Sidney who were also staying at Amanta House. We agreed it was really a nice place, especially for the price (about $30.00 a night).

Another wonderful thing is that everything here is very cheap, much cheaper than Thailand; although I heard visitors saying it was expensive for Laos. Some friends in Chiang Mai said it was just a place were rich Americans were hanging out. I honestly didn't see any rich Americans, although there were some very pricey hotels. I also saw a lot of backpackers and eco-travelers, and a lot of older travelers like myself. Some of the restaurants were a bit expensive, and some of the ones on the main street were downright snooty. Although it was evidently very popular, and filled every night with mostly French travellers; I did not care for the Elephant Place. I had lunch there, and was not impressed. I was also put off by how silly the waiters where. A couple of times  I went to the Tree Top Restaurant right on the river, mainly because the photographs done by the owner of Northern Laos scenes and people are worthy of an art gallery. I ended up talking with him for a bit the last time I was there. He was from the Netherlands (Holland), and him and his wife had ended up in Luang PraBang feeling the same way I felt about it; and never been able to leave. It’s that kind of place.

The days just kind of rolled along, like the two rivers. I bought a wrist band from a young, beautiful girl by the river. I mailed hand-drawn New Year’s cards to friends and family. I actually was able to pack about 15 pounds of stuff and ship it home at the little post office, which was very organized. It cost me a ton of money to ship, but I just had to lighten my load. I’m very glad I did now that both my cases are lighter. I did end up sending stuff that I wish I had kept, but it just means I have to get new stuff or do with what I have.

I spent the day in the temple, but I am temple-fried so I kind of went through the motions; making my offerings and throwing my fortune again. Although I love seeing the monks everywhere, as a woman you are not supposed to look at them. You have to cover your arms and legs in the temples. And basically, once again, you are not included as part of their religion. I think it is only recently, in Thailand at least, that they have finally allowed women monks to be ordained. I saw women monks in Thailand. I did not see any woman in Laos.

I had a choice of going to Vietnam-Ha long Bay, China, or on to Phuket. I waited and waited for the right decision to come to me. In the end, after hearing pros and cons from different travelers, I decided to leave Vietnam and China for another day. It was very cold up there now, they have a high rate of malaria and I haven’t been able to get new meds over the counter like I did in India, and I definitely did not want to go to another big Asia city like Hanoi. I heard the little towns on the Chinese border of Laos were nice. I talked with a lovely couple from Sidney, and she was not that impressed with HaLong Bay, because it was cold and very foggy. She said she wished they had gone in spring, and stayed for longer on a boat cruise.  She said it was a very long bus trip from Hanoi. I also talked with another lady my age who was traveling all over on the buses (I admired her!). She insisted I should go, and told me there were some islands in the Mekong Delta that were much nicer than Phuket. Then another man said he would have passed on Hanoi; it was loud with cars honking (like India), very cold, and not much to do there.  I usually make my own decisions in the end and really, I just didn’t feel like going any further North this trip. It’s one of those choices you make on a trip like this that you may later regret, but I doubt it. I’ve always known I could not go everywhere and do everything, and have been committed to doing what feels right only for me.

I did have a hard time leaving this lovely town, and was only helped along by the fact that it got rainy and cold right as I was packing up.

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