Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Elephants, a Tiger, and Bears

We boarded the All Lao Travel van in the morning, along with five Aussies, two young backpackers from Holland and Finland, and a lady from Hong Kong, for a day in the country, a little elephant trekking, perhaps a swim in a waterfall, and visits with Laotian villagers. What I expected might be a typical tourist trip turned out to be a delightful journey out of urban Laos (not that Luang Prabang is that big a city) into nature with a look at the way rural life has been lived for centuries in Laos.

Our guide was a Hmong man who told me that when he was young the government forcibly relocated his village from the mountains where they had lived for generations down into the valley. The old people were sad but the young were excited by new opportunities for education and work. I can tell from the faces and the dress I see that there are a variety of ethnicities represented in the population here but it is hard to distinguish one from another. Last night there was an old Hmong woman in the handicraft market that did not even speak Laotian.

The first leg of the journey was down a long bumpy dirt road to the elephant camp where it is possible to stay for a period of time and train as a mahout. All of the elephants we rode were in their 30s, mere youngsters in elephant age. We were given silly straw hats to wear and climbed a platform to get into our carriage. Then we lumbered off at a slow pace into the dense jungle. Because of the heavy rain, the small path was muddy and slick but the paciderms were amazingly sure-footed, even climbing up and down step hills. Part of the trip included traveling up a rain-swollen stream and I half expected the elephants to begin swimming. I flashed on the jungle ride at Disneyland and thought to myself: this is the real deal. Back at the camp, after the hour ride, we fed and petting the trunks of our elephants, but mine gave my hand a whack with her trunk, indicated “the ride is over, bud, keep your hands to yourself.”

After lunch at the elephant camp, we stopped by the “three-cleaned village” (that’s what the sign read, but no one could explain to me) of Ban Phanom where a hall filled with weavers (looms were in the back) hawked their wares. While the others dickered and bartered, we had a cool drink on the terrace of the silver shop across the road. Driving back through Luang Prabang, we then headed south, following the route of the Mekong, toward the falls a half hour away. The countryside, with tall hills looming in the background, was beautiful: Small hamlets and bright green rice fields, everywhere were roosters, chickens and chicks, not to mention water buffaloes, sometimes ridden by small boys. Dogs slept in the warm road and children played in the gutters and canals.

Tat Kuang Si is a wide and many-tiered falls, bulging with rain water and sending cooling steam and spray over the many drenched tourists below taking photos of each other in front of the magnificent example of hydrology in action. The waterfall is surrounded by a large public park with restaurants, and souvenir/clothing shops around the parking area below. No one was swimming, although a pool on the second level was available. Because of the over-abundance of water, I was advised against going up the slippery steps.

On the way down from the falls, we stopped to chat with a tiger that had been rescued from poachers and given a large fenced piece of jungle for a home. He (or she) preferred to pace in front of the fence, just like the albino tiger I saw in Buenos Areas last year, where tourists were taking photos. I felt sorry for its lost of the wild, but apparently it isn’t safe out there for prized animals like the tiger and bears that had their own pens next door. There were about a dozen bears of varying ages. Bear paw in Asia is considered an aphrodisiac and these bears had been saved from horny men.

Back at the parking area, I had a cup of strong Laotian coffee (powdered creamer barely changes its color) and watched some small boys hunting for fish in a pond next to the restaurant. Most of the fish we could see were tiny fingerlings, but they searched through the muddy water for a big catch. Finally we heard a scream and looked up to see one of the boys with a big catfish about two feet long. He ran up the road with his fish in a net and presented it to an adult next door, either a relative or a customer. I found a toilet before the ride home but the urinal had no connecting pipe and I peed on my foot.
Last stop was Hmong village where dozens of children were lined up at little tables with hand-woven bracelets for sale. Competition was enormous, and noisy. Our guide took us up a path through the houses but those not selling anything studiously ignored us. From the last hill we had an incredible view of Luang Prabang in the distance, Phu Si with its gold stupa cap, and the Mekong twisting around her like a snake (or perhaps a naga).

We arrived back at our guest house at about half past five, and after cleaning up walked a few doors down the soi to the Blue Lagoon Café where we had a delicious meal of Laotian food, laap (ground meat in a salad) and om lam (beef stew), served with sticky rice. I had a glass of the house French red wine. After dinner we strolled through the large night handicraft market and bargained prices for a large handbag, several small gifts, and a tee shirt. The food has generally been excellent here, not as spicy as in Thailand where steamed rice is more common than sticky rice. Our driver on the elephant trek told us that most of the “Mekong fish” advertised in restaurants here comes from Vientiane, even though we’ve seen people selling fresh-caught fish on the streets (one lady included some dead frogs with her catch. A word about peanuts: Every other Luang Prabang resident we see now is eating freshly picked peanuts. They’re on sale everywhere and look like bouquets of lime-colored beans. Quite the seasonal delicacy.

This is our last full day in Laos. Tomorrow we catch an early plane to Vientiane, take a taxi to Friendship Bridge and a bus over to the Thai side, where I head to Udon for the last two days of this trip. This morning we awoke again before dawn and went outside to feed the monks. This time we saw a busload of Japanese tourists sitting on a line of red stools with their prepaid gift trays at the ready. It was raining slightly and the orange-robbed monks all carried black umbrellas. Very colorful. Time to play catch up:

Monday morning, after climbing up the 300-some steps to the top of Phu Si, we checked out of our luxurious room at the Ancient Luang Prabang “boutique” hotel and into a far preferable room at the Villa Phathana at less than half the price. Phathana in Thai means “develop” or “improve,” and it certainly was. The guesthouse is only a few months old, and we found it quite by accident wandering down the street the day before. The original room we looked at was fine, but by the time we checked in, we had been upgraded to a “superior” front room because of a reservation conflict. Same price: $25 a night. From our windows on the second floor, we can see Wat Ho Pha Bang across the street, and in the evening the handicrafts market which fills our soi. All that is missing is a TV, and who cares about that? There is also no Internet connection, but I hope to be able to plug in at the Internet café around the corner, or back at the café in our old hotel.

Working on the desk at Village Phathana was Son, a nephew of the owner. His home is in Madison, Wisconsin, where he has lived for 26 years. He has two Laotian restaurants back there and is an American citizen, but he likes to return home from time to time to help out his aunt. We talked about Madison, which I visited for the first time a year ago, and the cold Midwestern winters so different from the weather here. He knew all about the painted cow festival and the jazz festival on the lake terrace at the university.

Unlike the previous week, Monday was sunny and hot, with lovely fluffy white clouds in the sky. The night before it rained we weren’t sure what to expect. As the Buddha taught, life is full of uncertainty. What is certain is that the monks from the many temples in Luang Prabang go out in the morning for their food, and we woke at 5:30 Monday to collect sticky rice and other gifts. They came in at least three shifts down the soi and we kneeled to put our gifts in the bowls. I also tried to take photos at the same time, which was tricky. A Dutch girl who did not have a clue as to what was going on joined us. The streets were full of vendors trying to sell offerings for the monks to the tourists taking flash photos in the semi-darkness. We showed her the routine and she will return to Europe with a new experience to remember.

The view of the surrounding countryside from the top of Phu Si is stupendous. We could see the Mekong winding its way through the hills past Luang Prabang, and we could also see its little brother, the Nam Kam, coming down from the mountains to commingle muddy water for the long journey to the sea in Vietnam. There is a small temple at the top of the hill, That Chomsi, and we paid our respects to the Buddha with a gift of flowers bought from a young girl at the bottom. Tourists from Japan and England were taking pictures. On the way down we passed a rusting Russian anti-aircraft gun and a number of brightly painted Gold Buddhas in various stock poses. I particularly liked the unfamiliar sculpture of him surrounded by disciples.

On the way down I also met with these three young monks who were sitting in the shade near Buddha’s footprint (which looked like a perfectly natural rock formation to me). The one in the middle spoke passable English and he asked me all the usual questions: Where are you from? Do you like Luang Prabang? How long you stay? My only question of him was: Can I take your photo? I feel like such a tourist. You can see the Nam Kam in the background.

Much of this pilgrimage to Luang Prabang has been about eating. Meals are cheap, rarely more than $3 or $4 for a sumptuous repast. Yesterday we had a lunch of Thai food at the Blue Moon Café across from the bright red façade of Wat Sensoukarahm, and sticky rice with our meal in the evening on the top floor of Last Cuisine Restaurant where we could watch the evening activities on the main street (mostly people eating or looking at menus). The stairs at Last Cuisine were unusually steep like ones in our guesthouse. Maybe it’s because Laotians are smaller than Westerners? Or maybe it’s to save wood?

My feet are getting a workout. I’m on the second pair of sandals to replace my faithful Chacos which took me around the world but which recently gave up the ghost. The first pair had no back and kept slipping off. The next pair of sandals I got have a Velcro strap to attach in the back and are cumbersome and difficult to put on and take off. I’ve avoided wearing the ordinary flip-flops because the last time I tried I got terrible blisters between my toes. The important thing in this land where shoes are always left outside the door is easy access. There is a reason why flip-flops are the national footwear for Asia. So last night, after returning from our elephant trek, I bought a pair at the night market and are breaking in my toes, hoping for a blister-free day. We tried to buy blueberry cheesecake for desert, but it was sold out and we had to settle for chocolate cake.

Luang Prabang is quiet and slow. There are few private cars. Travel companies own most of the vans on the road. Traffic consists of tuk tuks, motorbikes and bicycles. There are no traffic lights and no traffic jams. Life is peaceful and easy. This morning I saw several tuk tuks waving the red and yellow hammer and sickle flag. You also see it on tee shirts (Che Guevara is another popular image). Since the Laotian government is still nominally Communist, that makes sense. We have walked from one end of the town to the other several times. The sidewalks are paved with brick and lovely tree-lined sois wander off from the main roads. There are tourists but not crowds. Buddhist temples (or wats) are everywhere; the presence of Christian imagery, even in so-called religious countries, cannot hold a candle to the dominating presence of Buddhism here. Most of the restaurants are empty and I wonder about their economic viability. There are night markets on several streets with mostly young girls selling the same products of the weaver and carver’s art. The few rather nice designs are repeated endlessly. But there are not that many customers and I cannot see how they make a living. Before Laos was opened up again to tourism in the late 1990s, I wonder what these craftspeople did?

In many ways, Luang Prabang is paradise (if only you could so something about the rain). It reminds me of Antigua in Guatemala, or San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, a picturesque colonial-era town enjoying the prosperity that only tourism can bring. There are no doubt other desirable destinations for wealthy tourists with money to burn. I’ve read that because of tourism, Luang Prabang is the most prosperous place in Laos right now. Certainly the ongoing construction everywhere is evidence of that. I wonder how many guesthouses and hotels a fragile ecosystem like this can handle? What does the influx of tourist dollars and baht do to the traditional economy?

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