Luang Prabang: No City for Old Men

I tend toward a curmudgeonly vision of the world, noting the less appealing aspects of a place rather than its attributes.  Where I see the residents of Sydney as over-inked, Jessica notices how fit they seem to be. Where she senses the universe of flavors in a Thai curry, I only feel the heat. Where she seeks out a place’s floral beauty, I look for mosquitos to swat. It is our perspectives that made our trip to Luang Prabang in Laos glorious for Jessica and frustrating for me, frustrating because I just could not find anything to grouse about.  My grouchy side—well, it’s not a side; it’s all of me—was kept from expressing itself for lack of material for the entirety of the four days we spent there. This is no city for grumpy old men.

Luang Prabang (hereinafter, “LP”) is the second largest city in Laos, the only country of the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations (hereinafter “ASEAN,” although since I will not mention the organization again in this post, you can ignore this parenthetical) that we had not yet visited so we decided to take a few days and a three-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur and see what we had been missing. Quite a lot, it turned out.

We arrived on an early flight and had been alerted by our AirBnB host that our accommodations would not be ready until later in the day but he arranged for us to be picked up by a young tuk tuk driver who took us directly to the Kuang Si waterfalls. The natural phenomenon would be striking enough were the waters of the multi-level drops not an iridescent aquamarine color, but they were making the falls and the many pools they filled practically glow. The selfie-stick crowd was beside itself with joy at its fortune in finding a backdrop that was worthy of its faces.

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The hourlong ride back to the city in the rear of the tuk tuk was a bit bumpy but I’m not complaining. When we got back, we were able to meet our hosts, Henri Pierre (hereinafter, “HP”) and his wife, Kham (hereinafter, “Kham”).  They showed us to our well-appointed apartment, introduced us to the kitchen set up and explained that, even though we were four kilometers from town, there were two tuk tuk drivers in the family so we would never be without transport. HP then asked us if we would like to have Kham make dinner for us that evening. Saying “yes” was one of the smartest things we’ve done in recent memory. I can’t tell you the names of the dishes we were served that evening because the amount of Lao I speak wouldn’t fill a cockroach’s cranium, if indeed, a cockroach had a cranium. Suffice it to say that Jessica and I agreed that it was the best meal we had eaten in Asia.

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The only disconcerting occurrence during dinner was HP’s response to some noise nearby. “I think the chicken is stuck,” he said. I thought that this was a euphemism for constipation but it turned out that he was talking about an actual chicken being stuck in a fence. He ran to free it. HP, the general manager of one of the better hotels in LP by day and a French guy the rest of the time, came to Laos with a six-month plan. The plan fell apart when he met Kham and, nine years and two babies later, they were established residents of LP.

We arose (far too) early the next morning so that we could witness the daily ritual of giving/receiving alms. Locals, augmented by throngs of clueless tourists (Yes, I include myself among them.) line one particular street in the old part of LP and, at the appointed time, monks from the various Buddhist monasteries in the town stream past the alms bearers collecting what they will eat for their one meal of the day. We have spoken to monks elsewhere and they eat the handfuls of rice and bits of bread or fish they are given. In LP, though, the rite has become so popular with tourists that the monks receive far more food than they could possibly eat. To their credit, the excess is placed in receptacles where it is collected by those who need the food. In the end, it is still charity.

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After alms, the tourists rush to plant their derrières into seats at one of the cafes in LP, many of which bear French names, vestiges of the colonial period. We found coffee there to be surprisingly good.  Surprisingly, because my expectations were low. As a result, I still was coming up empty on things to gripe about.

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And, speaking of nothing to complain about, let’s talk food. Let’s just say…. I got nothing. The food was clean and fresh and jam-packed with exotic flavors and aromas. If we go back to LP, I’m going to set more time aside to just eat.

Jessica found a yoga experience that checked the “Very cool yoga experience” box for her. The place was called Utopia and, when we arrived, I was a bit disarmed by the lack of conventional seating. Eventually, I did what all of the dreadlocked, tatted, pierced, recently-literate folks there did: I pulled up a pillow and stared out dead-eyed at the Mekong River. After a couple of Utopia’s cocktails (while Jessica mastered Warriors’ Pose), I realized that starting off on the floor just saved me a step.

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If you’re not of my vintage, you may never have heard of the Mekong River. It flows south from Laos through Vietnam and I can’t count the number of times that I heard Walter Cronkite, when reporting on the Vietnam War (or, as folks in these parts refer to it, the American War), refer to it in my younger years. Seeing its broad, shallow expanse summoned memories, some not so pleasant, but none so unpleasant as to generate a complaint.

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A practical note: When we arrived at the airport in LP, we were a little surprised to learn that it costs US$35 for a visa. There is also a US$1 charge if you do not have a compliant photo and another US$1 service charge for who-the-hell-knows-what-for. Personally, I put that last dollar into the category of “You came all this way and we know that you’re not going to turn around and leave for a dollar so give it to us.”  Sung to the tune of “My Way”: Complaints, I’ve got a few but then again, too few to mention.

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Luang Prabang: No City For Old Men originally appeared on Wold-Wide, Wide-Eyed.

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