Monday, October 08, 2007

In Search of Blueberry Cheesecake

No, not the monks. They were satisfied with sticky rice when they went out on pindabat through the streets of Luang Prabang this morning at 6 a.m. And the old monk seemed pleased when I stuck a folded 50,000 kip (pronounced "keep") note in his bowl next to a mound of rice (about $5).

It was I and my guide and translator who decided in Vientiane, where there is a French bakery on every corner, that we wanted cheese cake. We looked everywhere. And although we found baguettes and carrot cake, and cappuccino in abundance, cheese cake was missing. Until we got to the JoMa Bakery Cafe. There it was. And with blueberries even (which apparently are in season now all over southeast Asia. JoMa has a branch in Luang Prabang down the street from our hotel, and yes, the cook had just made a cheese cake with blueberries, and we could take a slice back to our room. We repeated this miracle last night.

The cook was a woman from Pennsylvania, and she had been living in Laos for three years. She was talking with two young girls. One of them was about to be sold as slave labor to a restaurant, but the American was able to talk her poor parents out of it by having the staff of the bakery contribute money monthly for her upkeep. Now she goes to school and visits the bakery every day where she plays games with the employees and is given food to take back home. Yesterday when we visited she had brought a friend to show the miracle in her life.

There are children working everywhere as vendors of trinkets on Thanon Sisavangvong, the major boulevard here. We were sitting on the terrace of the Café des Arts, and this young man, with the "Make Love Not War" tee shirt (I complimented him on his sense of style), sold us a small bracelet. I was impressed by his command of English and his smile. He tried to sell us other items from his box, but when we said one was enough, he left. To be replaced by one, two, six other kids. Some had a sense of humor. The more persistent girl, who said she was 10 but looked a few years younger, was very serious. I tried to give her a piece of my brownie but she refused. I tried to take her photo and she hid her face. All of them were selling the same cheap souvenirs but she had a crucifix on a leather chain. Soon the vendors around us were thick as flies. An ancient solder in army fatigues held his hand out. A crippled lady stopped by. (Later I gave her a five baht coin and she seemed insulted by the Thai currency. "Kip," she shouted.) Finally the owner of the café had enough and he drove the pack off.

Alert readers will have noticed the sun, or at least the lack of rain, in the newest photos. Yesterday we got a respite from the storm, although there is flooding in Vietnam, and evacuations in China before another typhoon reaches landfall. So yesterday, when we weren't feeding the monks, eating cheese cake or patronizing young merchants, we saw a few of the sights.

First we visited the Royal Palace Museum in the former home of King Sisavang Vong who died in 1959, the longest reigning monarch in Asia until the King of Thailand surpassed him in 2001. A supporter of the French, Sisavang Vong became head of state of the Kingdom of Laos in 1949 but died during the civil war with the Pathet Lao. His palace, built in 1904, seemed rather stuffy; I wouldn't want to live there. Gifts from other countries to the king were on display, including a moon rock and a model of the Apollo space ship from Nixon. Sisanvang Vong was known as a playboy and had up to 50 children from as many as 15 wives, some of who were related. His son, Savang Vatthana, was declared regent on his father's death but never officially crowned. When the rebels took over, he and his family were sent to a reeducation camp where they died. Next to the museum is Wat Ho Pha Bang, a pavilion begun in 1993 which will house the Pha Bang, a sacred Buddha image cast of gold, silver and bronze, perhaps in the 1st century in Sri Lanka. It was more likely of Khmer origin and brought to Luang Prabang in the 16th century. Currently it is housed in a room in the former palace and we paid our respects along with numerous other tourists. In the new wat, we watched workmen applying gold leaf to columns from the tiny squares of gold that are given out in temples to coat Buddha images. It looked like a tedious and time-consuming job. You can see the palace in this photo taken from the nearby wat.

From the museum we took a tuk tuk to the other end of the city to visit Wat Xieng Thong, the most magnificent of the many Buddhist temples in Luang Prabang. It was erected in the 16th century by King Setthathirat, one of the great builders of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (he is also responsible for That Luang in Vientiane, the "gold rocket launcher" as someone described it). Both the palace and Xieng Thong are close to the Mekong by design for easy access. We saw the rare reclining Buddha in La Chappelle Rouge (so named by the French who borrowed it for an exhibit in Paris in 1931), and and the magnificent mosaic tree of life on the back of the main sala (pictured above). There is also a hall containing the large funeral carriage of King Sisavang Vong, something his progeny was denied. The low sweeping roof is characteristic of Luang Prabang temple architecture.

Enjoying the sunny day, we strolled the main street of the town. We saw young boys setting off firecrackers, much to the consternation of little girls nearby. There were groups of tuk tuk drivers playing the Lao version of bocce ball on the banks of the Mekong. Young men brought fish up from the river to sell to restaurants. Vendors carried baskets of freshly picked peanuts down the street and I had to taste one to believe that it was really the un-roasted version of the common delicacy. Everywhere were monks, most of them young students, in their bright orange robes. Taking their pictures were hordes of young backpackers and aging tourists. A young man with an indeterminate accent at a café sported a Santa Cruz logo tee shirt. I gave him a high five. Circling the peninsula, we walked along the smaller Nam Khan River which joins the Mekong, past a few luxury "boutique" hotels with views of the surrounding hills and the fertile flood plain covered with new green seedlings. The skyline is dominated by Phu Si, a 100-meter high hill around which the city streets are wrapped. There are several wats on the hillside in various states of disrepair and one at the top which can almost be seen here. Unfortunately, almost every good vista I've seen is obscured for the photographer by bundles of wires. I've found that to be true in every developing country, Guatemala included. It's a wonder more people are electrocuted.

We learned yesterday that we cannot extend our stay at the lovely Ancient Luang Prabang Hotel where there is not enough hot water in the heater to fill our luxurious giant bath tub (this morning all of the water was inexplicably shut off). Walking through an afternoon craft market next to the palace yesterday we strolled down an alley to visit Le Cinema, where you can rent a DVD and watch it in a private room with surround sound (who needs that with a laptop stocked with classic movies?), we looked through a gate into the courtyard of a beautiful new house designed with wood in classic Lao style. We discovered it was a new guest house and made inquiries. The room is beautiful and the price even better: $25 a night (we had previously reserved a room at the gloomy Phousi Hotel for $66 a night). So today, after walking up Phu Si, if the weather holds, we will move into our new room for the next three nights.

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