Travel highlights: Laos

What excuse have I got this time for my shameful neglect of this blog? I could tell you that I've been distracted by matters of the heart - a pleasantly unexpected development as soon as I returned from my trip - so that you could sigh and empathize, "Ah yes, understandable." But as I don't make habit of revealing such intimate details on this forum - and to be fair, that's only part of the story - I'll just carry on as if no time has passed since I promised you this summary of my stay in Laos.

The two weeks there now seem like a hazy dream. Oh wait, it was hazy there. I timed my trip just perfectly with the annual burning of the forests. That was unfortunate in terms of pictures and just general breathing comfort, but thankfully Luang Prabang is capable of seducing even through a pervasive curtain of smog.

To be honest, my immediate reaction to this quaint, walkable town was not overwhelmingly positive. I was thrown off by all the tourists who seemed to outnumber the locals. But I gave in to the experience and met a lot of interesting travelers from all over. The hedonist in me was also won over by all the gastronomical offerings. There are restaurants from all over the globe, though the Laos and French ones are (understandably) most notable. Mornings usually began with a warm, fresh baguette and cup of Laos-style coffee with its sweet condensed milk. A wine bar with cushy seating on the front porch turned out to be my favorite post-dinner hangout, and a night was rarely complete without a visit to one of the crepe stands that pop up along the streets. French colonization was fortunate in some regards. Cuba also gets a mini spotlight here as one of the most popular and amusing hangouts is the outdoor bar Mojito, where gregarious Laos guys in cowboy hats twirl bottles ala Tom Cruise in Cocktail and pronounce the j in the signature drink as you would for jug.

Architecture is another aspect of Laos that benefited from French occupation. Just walking the streets and looking at buildings makes for an interesting afternoon.

The morning alms procession (Tak Bat) is a daily Buddhist tradition and with so many monasteries in Luang Prabang, it's a particularly colorful sight here. Just after daybreak, monks file out of the monasteries and line up with their alms bowls to accept homemade sticky rice from the townspeople. Unfortunately this very spiritual practice has become a bit of a tourist spectacle. I can't feign higher ground here because I obviously took this picture, though I did so hastily and from a considerable distance, trying to pacify my conscious by separating myself from the mass in the streets with their flashing digital cams. It's one of those situations that you can recognize as invasive but take part in anyway with a slightly red face. Another issue besides the indiscreet photography is the well-meaning tourists who want to contribute to the alms-giving but end up offending by using the wrong hand or wearing the wrong clothes or sitting the wrong way or giving the wrong thing. Peddlers with an eye for business opportunity sell rice to the enthusiastic tourists, and that rice is unsuitable and sometimes even unclean.

If LP had a soundtrack, the first track would be the constant drone of tuk-tuk drivers directed to tourists: waterfall cave waterfall cave waterfall cave. This is repeated day in and day out lest you forget that tuk-tuks can transport you to the two most popular nearby attractions. I imagine the wives of these drivers waking to their husbands reciting this mantra in their sleep.

Stephanie and I did make it to both the Kouang Xi waterfall and the Pak Ou cave. The waterfall is a beauty, though with so many tourists, serenity is elusive.

The cave contains a pretty cool collection of ancient Buddhist statues but overall isn't that spectacular. As Stephanie keenly observed, you'd be pretty pissed off if you spent three hours round trip on a bus to get there, but being that you go by boat, it's a fairly enjoyable morning.

One of our favorite attractions was the Ock Pop Tok weaving center. You can take intensive weaving courses here, but we only had time for the tour of the silk production process. It was interesting to see what resources are used for the natural dyes, such as turmeric for yellow, indigo leaves for blue, and bark from tamarind tree for dark red. I was struck by the tediousness of the weaving. The weavers at this center don't work grueling hours, but I imagine they still ache at nights from the static position and repetitive movements.

The night market in Luang Prabang offers your standard array of local handicrafts, but a more interesting experience is the morning market that runs parallel to the Mekong. You never know what you'll find there as vendors seem to bring whatever they've managed to kill or capture that morning. Birds of all sorts, hamsters, even the hind legs of a dog.

One day I crossed the Mekong and spent the better part of the day in Ban Xieng Maen. A stroll down a dirt path leads from one historic temple to another, most of them abandoned. The picture directly below is of peaceful Wat Chom Phet, at the top of a hill. I was there for an hour looking down and across the river at Luang Prabang, not interupted by a single person.

I mosied on to another temple, where I met two young monks with flashlights who led me to a cave and the old abandoned temple pictured below:

If you live in America and visit your doctor before traveling to certain parts of Southeast Asia, you'll no doubt leave with a prescription for Malarone, a malaria preventative. It's the most effective defense against malaria, and to keep it that way, the manufacturers won't sell it in this area (or possibly outside of North America, I'm not sure). The mosquitoes would just become immune, as they are to the malarial drugs that are available here. That's why my doctor said don't bother, just wear repellent and get to a hospital within 48 hours of malaria-like symptoms. And this is how Steph and I got an unplanned and amusing tour of the hospital system in LP. I had been feverish for a day and then had to abruptly abandon a bewildered masseuse to go puke in her bathroom, so we figured a malaria test was indeed in order. We followed the map to a street with beautiful and colorful old French buildings, none of which were clearly marked as a hospital. We were pointed in different directions and had tuk-tuk drivers offer to take us there for a fee - there being some location we could have thrown a stone at. At last, though, we located the hospital and were then directed to a building serving only malaria patients. I didn't sign in, didn't pay a thing - the nurse just came out to the lobby, pricked my finger and told me to wait 15 minutes. That gave us time to find humor in the wall hangings, like this malaria warning:

And this poster demonstrating the importance of proper hand-washing:

Ironically, there was no soap in the hospital restroom.

Of no surprise to you, I tested negative for malaria, so Stephanie and I were able to carry on, the hospital saga evolving into just another funny travel anecdote.

More pictures of Laos are here.

Up next: highlights of Vietnam, coming to you, er, sometime soon.