I have been working in Singapore for almost a year now and as my time in South East Asia wound to an end I had time for one final tour before returning to the United States. Not knowing when or if I would ever return to Asia I chose to travel to Laos, a country I knew little about. Along with Cambodia and of course Vietnam, Laos was one of the countries at the forefront of the Vietnam conflict or the American War as it is known there. During the War, Laos was effectively partitioned into four spheres of influence: the Chinese in the north, the Vietnamese along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the east, the Thais in western areas controlled by the US-backed Royal Lao Government, and the Khmer Rouge operating from parts of the south. Because of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Laos was subjected to saturation bombing by aerial raids launched from Thailand and from within Laos.
Now finally at peace Laos is a relatively large country for its population of 6.5 million people. Luang Prabang and its surrounding area that I would be visiting has a population of 400,000 though the city itself has quite a bit less. Situated at the convergence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, recent rains had turned the water the color of rust. It’s a very green landscape, moderately mountainous that greets my small plane upon landing.
After some minor formalities getting my Visa, which disappointedly turned out, to be only a large stamp in my passport I was greeted by my guide for the weekend, EK and his driver. I should take a minute to remark that it is fairly common to have a personal guide when traveling in Asia, nothing elitist here as of course the wages are much lower than in Europe where the same thing would smack of indulgence. It still takes some getting used to, this level of attention. There's no escaping the minutia in the descriptions emanating from your guide as he speaks of the local flora and fauna. A quick doze while you move to the back of the group is not possible for you are the center of his attention. You soon learn the art of mindless nodding while your thoughts are elsewhere.
After leaving the airport we took a short tour of the area. Luang Prabang has been designated by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site, one of over 851 such places. In exchange for this little bit of notoriety is attached a certain level of bureaucracy and its attendant bureaucrats. At first the local population resented this intrusion into their lifestyle. They were no longer able to build or renovate their houses without filling out additional paperwork and gaining the approval of this foreign body. Certain materials were required, especially as it related to the roofing. Buildings or even trees could not be torn down to make way for their modern replacements. Slowly the additional tourist income and some prodding by the government brought grudging approval but it is now recognized that tourism is vital to South East Asia just as it is to every other country in the world. It is one industry where the benefits are easily spread to the local populace ignoring the additional congestion and rising land prices if you may, as these would have risen in any case. Tourism besides bringing benefits to the local populace I feel brings the world closer together for better or worse.
To earn the designation of being a heritage site you first need some heritage. Like the rest of South East Asia the earliest inhabitants of Laos were migrants from southern China. From the 11th century onward, parts of Laos fell under the Khmer Empire, and later under the Siamese. In the 14th century the first kingdom of Laos emerged under Fa Ngum. This kingdom was named ‘Lan Xang’ – the Land of a Million Elephants. Upon Fa Ngum’s marriage to a Cambodian princess, the Khmer court gave the Lao king a sacred gold Buddha called Pra Bang. Fa Ngum made Buddhism the state religion, and Pra Bang became the protector of the Lao kingdom. Named after Pra Bang was the city of Luang Prabang, the cradle of Lao culture and the centre of the Lao state for the next 200 years. In the late 19th century, Laos came under French rule in exchange for allowing Thailand to escape foreign domination. The French gave the new protectorate the name Laos, from les Laos, the plural term for the people of Laos. Because it was too mountainous for plantations, and the Mekong along this stretch not being suitable for commercial navigation it remained a French colonial backwater, known as the land of the lotus-eaters, where an indolent lifestyle prevailed. An unfortunate moniker that remains to this day though the more modern label of "laid back" might be a kinder term. The local people show no embarrassment in the fact that few things are made in Laos seeming to prefer a slower lifestyle to the frenetic pace of their Vietnamese neighbors.
Friday was devoted to visiting various temples or Wats including Sene, Xiengthong, Aham and Mai. While not quite as ornate as those in Thailand these Laotian versions have a charm all their own. Made mostly of wood with their high-pitched roofs extending almost to the ground they seemed more inviting than those I saw in Bangkok. While not visiting temples there are many cafes and restaurants around town and along the river where you can enjoy a relaxed meal while partaking in some people watching.ater after having dinner at one such place I would visit the Night Market.
As part of my travels throughout South East Asia I try to visit a few of the surrounding villages, at least those within easy reach because usually my time is limited. Saturday was the day that had been set aside for this activity. While visiting a number of villages I noticed a game that seemed vaguely familiar, Petangue, introduced by the French and one that’s caught the imagination of the Lao people. I would see young children to grown men playing the game. So popular is it that Laos now has many world ranked players in this sport. I would travel in a 4-wheel drive minivan through a number of villages including Hath Hien, Ban Pickngai, Ban None Tan, Ban Kok Wan, Ban Bo Hae, Ban Tha Oui and Ban Kok Muang. Because it was between school terms I was met by many of the village children who seemed very interested in the Westerner with the big camera.
On Sunday, before my return to Bangkok I awoke early in the morning to join in the daily ritual of giving alms to the local novices and monks in the form of sticky rice. They would proceed to walk in single file down a number of streets where they were doled out morsels of rice that they would collect in their food bowls. Sometimes they were given other foods as well and from this they would eat twice a day. I was told that for a poor family, becoming a novice would provide their sons with a basic education that they could ill afford and that upwards of 90% of the novices would never graduate into a monk. What happened to the girls from these families I wasn't told. One other interesting fact I was told was that traditionally all the couples in a village were married during the new year. What additional pressure this put on those not selected for a particular year can only be guessed at.