Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Stay…Just a Little Bit Luang-er (Wish We Could)

We’d been worried a tad bit about our flight on Lao Airlines, but for naught – and after all, not much could top our 2008 Costa Rican adventure with a 6-seater landing on a dirt patch in a town with no electricity, right? Anyway, for the record, our flight was on a spanking-new, 100+ person prop plane with full beverage service and even a bag of chips (banana, mango, taro, etc…top that, JetBlue!), and after a quick 40 minute hop over rice fields and jungle and a lot of amazingly brown river, we touched down without incident and began a lovely time in Luang Prabang (Pronounced roughly “Luah Phah-b(ng)ah.” Does that not make it clearer? Neither did asking the locals several times a day.)

We’d decided to splurge and put ourselves up at the swish 3 Nagas hotel just to the end of the main old-city drag – in the executive suite, no less, though we were hard pressed to imagine anyone doing too much serious business in this or any other room in Luang Prabang – and we’ve been well waited-on since we arrived. As for the city itself, we love it – it seems to have retained everything good about French Colonialism (Was there anything good about French Colonialism? If nothing else, how about baguettes, petanque, strong coffee, and elegantly aging villas?) alongside a heavy dose of Laos charm. The old town is a string of temples, each a riot of mirrored glass and gold paint and graceful slanting roofs, each swarming with young monks in bright orange robes either chanting or texting. While most of the old city outside the temples is now dedicated to tourism, the town still feels very much alive, and the setting – on the intersection of the Mekong and Nam Kahn rivers – is amazing.

We spent Monday afternoon wandering around by bike and getting our bearings, ducking into temples and stopping near the river to join a crowd of twenty guys watching another four play petanque. All the businesses did double duty as people’s houses, and we stopped for a late lunch (fried noodles, chicken soup) outside someone’s living room. We chatted up a monk (he told us he wanted to practice his English, but he didn’t need much practice) – one of seven children, eight years in the monastery, studying accounting on the side and planning either to go to Bangkok for Buddhist University or into tourism here in LP. We joined our fellow foreigners for a short trek up the big hill in the center of town to watch the sun set over the mountains and the Mekong (nice) and finally settled down to dinner at our hotel. Dinner was delicious – the NYTimes had judged it the best place to try Lao cuisine. This being the low season though, we were the only people in the room, waited on with great formality by no less than eight people, and both the hotel manager and the chef found time to stop by our table. We slept well.

And briefly. We woke up just before 5am to take part in the daily alms-giving ceremony that takes over the town. I (Josh) still haven’t quite figured out the time, I guess, and so we’d gotten up, found our way out of the hotel, and wandered pretty far through unexpectedly empty streets before we realized that it was actually just shy of 4am (oops). A short snooze later, we tried again and seated ourselves outside one of the big temples, armed with a bowl of fruit and another of sticky rice to give to the monks. There was plenty of chanting and drum-beating, and we got to see the town slowly wake up (roosters and soup vendors first), and then around 6, a line of ~300 monks from all the town’s temples began a slow, silent march through the city’s main streets. Tourists, locals, and country folk waited on the side of the road to place a small ball of rice and whatever else we had into each monk’s bowl – this, along with other cooked food donations from villagers, is what keeps the monks fed, and has historically been a way for families to “make merit” (religious credit), as well as to sustain the temples. For us, it was a bit intimidating (nothing quite like being stared down by the hungry horde) but very cool.

After another nap and delicious breakfast at the hotel (I had the nem kao, steamed rice pancakes with pork etc.; EB had two perfect waffles; we both had a fruit plate with mangosteen and dragon fruit and a cup of jet black Lao coffee), we went to the day’s main event: Lao cooking school. Start to finish, a great time. Our guide took us and our fellow students on a tour of the local market (20+ kinds of eggplant, innumerable greens and herbs, glue made from red ant larvae, pungent fish sauce from fish left to soak for a full year), and then off to an outdoor classroom where we were schooled in the art of jaew (a spicy eggplant based dip), fish in a dill sauce steamed in banana leaves, buffalo stew, and the improbable chicken-stuffed lemongrass. When we heard the latter, we assumed they’d got it backwards – lemongrass is a long, hard stock not much wider than a straw, so we couldn’t imagine stuffing it with anything – but we were wrong, and happily so. All in all, a great day – and it ended in a feast! We rounded out the day with a tour of a few more notable temples – particularly enchanting around 6pm, when the monks gathered in each one to say the nightly chants. We found our way down to watch the end of the sunset along the edge of the Mekong; had a quick, delicious dinner of Lao BBQ surrounded by Lao teens on their Lao cell phones; and drifted off to an early sleep.

If Tuesday was all (mostly) about food, today was all about elephants. We were a bit skeptical about the elephant riding thing (OK, maybe just me, pathologically afraid to admit that I’m a tourist), but it was great. We drove 30km out of town and through villages and jungle (thanking ourselves throughout the bumpy ride for having decided against the 10-hour bus ride from Vientiane), finally landing at a picturesque camp along the Nam Khan and surrounded by foggy jungle hills. We spent a couple hours in a small group with as many elephants and trainers (“Mahouts”) and got a few really memorable rides – including one right into the river on the elephants’ backs!

After lunch, we took a longboat up the river to a locally famous waterfall and spent an hour scampering up the falls, amazed that we could keep our balance with the water rushing around our feet. We spent the afternoon relaxing and wandering through the markets around town, and finished with a tasty meal at one of LP’s poshest restaurants (dinner for two with wine, US$55 – about 10x last night’s BBQ feast). Great day! Now just one more morning left to soak up the Laos vibe, and then off we go to Vietnam.


Ron H. said...

Great photo of you both on the backs of elephants. This alone will secure your transition into the security of the American GOP!

aries_mom said...

I love the photo of you in the rapids - chic bathing suit, josh!

Brian said...

elephants, waterfalls, monks...your brothers have much to learn from big sister & brother-in-law! and keep eating, will you? you're both too thin.........xoxox dad