20-23 November 2006
There are few roads that lead to Luang Prabang, and we were crazy to take one of them instead of flying. However, it was cheaper than 8 plane tickets. You can see more of the country, they told me. It’ll be fun, they promised.
It was fun and interesting for approximately the first three hours. I saw a plethora of banana trees and coffee growing on hillsides. We passed the occasional pocket of civilization, small villages where naked babies ran amok among water buffalo and street dogs; and women walked with baskets of produce strapped to their backs. The gradient of the road increased steadily the further north we traveled, until it seemed nearly impossible that our old 8-passenger van would keep going. I had an image of us tumbling down the mountainside and village babies pointing as we screamed all the way down.
Halfway to our destination, we stopped in a village with a relatively sizable central market. We bought corn on the cob, gum, shrimp chips, and iced coffee in baggies. Before long, we were back on the road. As much as I wanted to drink my iced coffee, I hadn’t gone to the bathroom once the entire trip, and I didn’t intend to do so. This was a feat of great determination and focus for me, since I normally have to pee every 20 minutes. There were certainly no rest stops or even sporadic outhouses in these hills, but it’s not that I am opposed to going in the bushes; after all, I did grow up in the woods. However, at the beginning of the trip, Mom talked for some length about the bandits that used to rob travelers on this very road. If you were lucky, the only things they took were your money and jewelry. She finished the story with,
“Eh, well. I guess they don’t really have a problem with bandits anymore these days.”
I should trust my mother but, as I didn’t see any police checkpoints or emergency phone booths along the way, I was quite leery. So instead, I assumed the role of vigilant scout while everyone else did their business.
Miraculously, I was successful at holding my bladder for the entire 8 hours. But sitting in the back seat of a van as you travel up a mountain, not eating or drinking, did not do much for my equilibrium. It was the first time I ever experienced carsickness. My family’s remedy for nausea: sour fruits. My cousin, Lan, ever the dutiful scrounger of food, marched off in search of sour green mangoes. I have to say, they did help tremendously.
Luang Prabang, for all its ancient beauty, was full of tourists. It is a secluded gem that teeters between tradition and modernization. Signs are posted all over town, petitioning tourists to respect the morning alms-giving by refraining from wearing short or revealing clothing. At the Night Market, many Westerners perused the absurdly low-priced handmade wares. The wealth of art and craftsmanship here is reminiscent of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The people of Muang Luang speak with a colorful accent. I would almost compare it to the Southern drawl of the States, only it is found in the North. They speak slowly and loosely, with words going up at the end instead of down, kind of sing-song and lyrical. The cadence matches the lazy Mekong and the slower-paced mountain lifestyle. You also hear Chinese, as we were only about 300 kilometers from the border. Hill tribes are represented as well. Tour guides speak a variety of languages: German, French, Swedish.
I have seen some of the most spectacular (and obscure) natural wonders in Laos, and Luang Prabang is no exception. We ate at delicious seafood restaurants overlooking the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. The experience was certainly worth the 8-hour drive through bandit country, but unless you are feeling adventurous, I recommend you take a plane.
My favorite memories from the trip (links in the captions have more info):
Pak Ou (“Mouth of the Ou River”) consists of a lower cave (Tham Ting) and an upper cave (Tham Theung). They are filled with priceless relics, many of them placed there by kings of the past. A steep staircase leads the way to the upper caves where, in addition to relics, you will find gold-flecked cave paintings.
I noticed that Lan and my aunts were breathing heavily and paused frequently on the way up to Tham Theung. Mom usually speaks in metaphors, and regarding the trek up the stairway, she said:
“The road to heaven is just like climbing these stairs – very difficult. But the descent into Hell is much faster, like the ease of walking back down.”