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Laos

I’m a wordy person.  If you read this blog, you already realize that. If you’ve ever had an actual conversation with me, you’d realize it’s the same long winded kind of storytelling.  A few friends have asked if I put up all my pictures that don’t appear here with snarky captions, so here we go.  As I travel, I have already seen people losing pictures and files when physical items get misplaced so I’ve decided to back up all my pictures on Flickr.

I’m joining Fiickr like it’s the mid 2000’s: Travel Photos.

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Laos has been a country of two wheeled adventures for me.  Ever since I figured out in Luang Namtha that I could get an automatic motorbike for 6 bucks, I was set.  This is the best way to see the sights in this country.  It helps that I run into some awesome people doing so as well.  There were the two Central Asian guys that are biking from Laos to London in time for the olympics.  That’s a mere few months from now, I hope they make it!  Then I ran into the Chinese foursome of retired folk biking from Kunming, China through Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.  One of the old ladies is doing it on a commuter bike with 21 gears.  More power to you, old folk powering by me on the road!

My first adventure was with a motorbike that went awry as I ran out of gas halfway on the 60 km drive to the scenic village I was heading to.  Luckily, it was the drive that was the most beautiful part with national protected area lined curvy roads.  The real mishap was in my rush to find gas, I slid the bike and have a weird shoulder scar now from it.  I didn’t make it to the next village but I’m now hooked on two wheel adventures.

The beautiful Kuang Si waterfalls. It was a series of many falls and you could go wading in a few of them. There’s a cave behind the biggest, highest fall.

The next two wheeled adventure went better.  I had planned to leave Luang Prabang, but as these things often go, I was easily persuaded to stay another day for a bike ride to the falls.  I thought about it the day earlier but correctly figured out I couldn’t bike 32 km (about 20 miles) to the falls and back in one afternoon.  I’m glad I had someone to bike that with, the last 10 km were all uphill.  It was not an easy ride for me, I haven’t exercised that much since my capoeira month.  We passed by the military training in the fields with their automatic guns.  Many kids we saw tried to give us hellos and high fives as we passed.  One even tried to give me a high five while we were both on bikes, it seemed like a good way to clothesline a small girl to me.  The tuk tuk drivers who kept zooming by us full of backpackers and tourists saw us when we arrived, all tired and sweaty.  They zoned in and asked if we needed a ride back.  Opportunistic jerks.  We stayed a while, but I still can’t get used to the conservative dress here (no shoulders or knees for the ladies, or at least no bikini tops or bare chests) nor the many tourists flaunting the rules. Luckily for me, the ride back was way easier, with the big hill going down from the waterfall.  The next day one of the tuk tuk drivers in town was badgering us to go for a waterfall ride, and when we mentioned we went already, he laughed!  “I know you, you bike yesterday!”  That’s one way to get those pesky tuk tuk drivers to stop bugging you. I think this 40+ mile ride was the longest I’ve ever done.

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The bike ride was so fun, new friend Bruce and I decided to go to the Plain of Jars together.  While a magnificent site, I hadn’t planned on going because it’s a bit out of the way and a whole day of bus riding away.  I’m really glad I did.  Taking a motorbike to the completely devoid of tourist sites 2 and 3 was wonderful.  The large site 1 where everyone was hanging out was a site to behold.  I always thought the Plain of Jars was one plain, not 52 different sites.  It was amazing to be in a region that reminds me of Montana complete with cowboys and ranches.  It’s also incredibly sad because this beautiful region is one of the most bombed regions in the most bombed country in the world.  The US’s secret war against the communists in the 60s and 70s means this country is pocked with bomb craters and unexploded bombs that continue to haunt Laotians to this day.  It is a shame to see such a grand historical mystery be partially destroyed by a secret war.  Trenches and bomb craters sit side by side with the huge jars.  The town of Phonsavan is the nearest town and isn’t very developed but has enough for the one day everyone seems to stay.  I’m really glad I got to see such an awe inspiring sight.  What could these ancient people have made these for and why so many?

As mentioned earlier, Luang Prabang is an expensive town.  Even the recommended “cheaper” riverfront restaurants were twice or three times as much as street food.  I’ve mostly been eating on the street and there are quite a few choices.  They make quite a range of street eats and snacks.  Let’s go through the snacks first.

River weed drying in the sun in clumps.

One of the most common foods is river weed, which is pretty much like seaweed but looks more hair like.  The women smooth it out and dry it into giant sheets.

Flavored river weed drying on a bridge.

The locals eat this river weed with a chili paste.  You can’t quite see it int he picture but there’s lots of sesame, garlic and tomato on the river weed.

Rice cakes drying out before being fried.

Another common snack, or at least for us, is the rice cake.  You can see people drying hand made patties of rice in the sun before deep frying them.  I tried them because I heard they were unlike the cardboardy American kind.  Unfortunately I still thought they were pretty dry.  The locals crumble them into their rice noodle soup.

Some sort of spicy olive or date.

You can also stop random carts with green mango salad or these olive things in a spicy sour powder.  They were delicious but I was rather puckered out near the end.  They look greener when not pickled.

There is a night market where one can wander around finding grilled meats & fish, spring rolls, crepes, sandwiches and other French inspired or Asian foods.  One street has a bunch of “buffets” where you pay $1.25 to load up a giant plate with a plethora of cold dishes.  The better ones have reheating pots and will throw everything on your plate into the pot and heat it up with a dollop of broth.  It all ends up tasting orange to me.  Flavorless and mostly greasy.  I’d recommend skipping this value meal and going down to the morning market end for fresh made spring rolls or seeing where the locals are buying their to go bags on the same street, both are way tastier.  I did have to buy some chopsticks and a spoon to buy the take home food. The morning market has a fresh spring roll maker and a few women selling really cheap ($.60) banana leaf wrapped bundles of rice noodles.  I found a crepe down a street where the night market ended and the locals were lining up to get crepes in colorful cartoony cardboard wrappers with sprinkles and neon colored flavor goos.  It was pretty good.  For all the foods where they come prepackaged or on a table already made, go when they make them (7 am or so for the morning market, 6 pm for the night market) to get it fresh and steaming instead of cold later.

I’m usually a tea and not a coffee person but Lao coffee is rather delicious.  It seemed to involve slightly cranky women with two silver canisters of thick brew.  They pour a bit of condensed milk down an 8 oz glass, then some of the thick coffee concentrate before topping it off with some boiling water.  Beware that you aren’t getting Nescafe (which is Lao made) or Coffeemate, which are both common now.  Lao coffee is particularly bitter.  I kept meaning to try it cold but the rather sketchy ice and my strong reaction to caffeine stopped me from drinking too much of the stuff.  I stuck to the fresh fruit smoothies for my daily sketchy ice intake.

There are rows of baguette sandwich sellers from early morning to night on the main street.  I tried one of their Lao style sandwiches and was rather disappointed.  It was just a mediocre sandwich with pate as the meat.  Then in my rush this morning I found a woman selling a more likeable Lao style sandwich.  Full of fatty pork, pate and sliced scrambled egg all topped off with a spicy paste.  The sandwich was at once chewy, spicy, full of flavor and all shoved into a soft, chewy roll.  Skip the tourist beat and find this lady around the corner in the mornings.

The biggest surprise food for me were the random omelet makers.  They come full of vegetables, usually lettuces of some sort, bean sprout, and with a fish and chile based dipping sauce.  I was rather pleased with how filling and tasty these were.  They’re usually found cheaply at the really small restaurants where you see a woman with a giant basket of eggs.  The best part was watching the women break eggs by poking their finger through the bottom and letting the egg run out.  They really do cook differently here and I enjoy watching it.

The wonderful part about a city so set on preserving it’s crafts is that there are quite a few places to see local things the minority groups make. There are galleries, museums, and various stores dislaying and selling local handicraft and an entire night market selling what appear to be cheap Chinese knockoffs.  I was particularly impressed by the well set up Ock Pop Tock.  They run a living culture center where you can observe or learn how to dye, loom or basket weave, or do wax resist Batik dying.  The classes are a bit expensive so I visited their living cultural center to watch their artisans. It’s still worth a visit to look around and some of the younger tour guides and staff took time to share some fresh tamarind and talk to us about their crafts and their former monk lives.

I was a tad disappointed that i could not finally learn how to make an awesome Ikat scarf, but that just meant I got to wander by the Yensabai bookstore and see that they’re running a stencil class.  I used to love messing with stencils and spray painting so I was curious what they were teaching.  Turns out the local monks create elaborate paper stencils to sponge paint temple walls with Buddhist motifs.

A wall full of paper Buddhist stencils.

I wanted to make the weird looking elephant/tiger mix but the former monk teaching me suggested it would be much easier to make a symmetrical piece.  I’ve seen Chinese paper cutting before but I had no idea how stencils like this could be cut in ye olde times.  It is perhaps telling when the instructor asked if I had ever made a stencil, and when I replied “Yes, with an x-acto knife”, he just looked at me, laughed, and told me that is much easier.

Tools of the Laotian Buddhist monk stencil making trade.

I picked up the various straight and curved metal chisels he handed me and set off to work pounding them into the mulberry paper with the wooden stick/mallet he handed me.  The chisels come in multiple sizes and you pick the right size ones to get the curves and lines you need.  I quickly saw why he recommended a symmetrical picture.  As I toiled for an hour or two with a complimentary cup of watery tea, I was looked at curiously by passerby.  Apparently, all Asians do look the same, as various customers wandered up and asked me for help and one French family even took pictures of me chiseling.  One guy seemed confused why anyone would want to do anything he thought was just straight up “work”.  It indeed was some physical labor but once you got in the groove of it, it was a rather relaxing almost meditative state you got into as you slowly moved or changed chisels and gave it a satisfying whack.  I’d rather be learning how the temple art is made than paying admission to see all the temples in town.  This is a fun diversion if you’re in town and have a few hours to learn an old craft or want a homemade souvenir.

Yensabai Bookstore

On the street on the opposite of Phousi hill from the main street and the same street as the Hive Bar.  If you’re at the Hive bar, walk towards the nearest visible intersection and it’s on the same side of the street as the Aussie Sports Bar.  You’ll pass the sports bar and a few guesthouses before you get there.

Ock Pop Tock

There are two store locations in town and the living cultural center is two km south of town near the Phousi Market.  See the well designed website for better directions.

 

After the not so fun cooking class in Luang Namtha, I decided it was worth a second splurge to try a fancier, better rated cooking class in Luang Prabang.  I signed up for the highly rated Tamarind restaurant cooking class. They started with a much better guided tour of the Phousi market with some snack foods and explanation of common ingredients.  Apparently juniper trees are put into stews here.  Our amusing guide seemed equally surprised when I told him we make alcohol with it.  After the market they whisked us off to a beautiful riverside garden and pond outside of town.

Already looking like a good class. Look at those tasty ingredients and animated instructor. Sticky rice steamers can be seen in the back.

This class was more focused on fancier restaurant or holiday style fare than every day cooking. Unlike the last class where there was one burner in the back of their office that we learned on, every student had their own prep station complete with full set of tools like knives and a mortar and pestle.  There was a separate cabana with charcoal stoves for everyone.

I love cooking things directly over a fire.

I really enjoyed the stoves we used.  They appear to be open ended small grilled that looked like a flower pot cemented into a bucket.  I may have to make one of these when I get home, this would fix my grilling for one problem.  I also gained even more appreciation for all the things we made with the mortar and pestle in this class.  I think I’m in love with the cooking tools of Laos.

Ground chicken spiced and pounded with herbs before being stuffed in a sliced lemongrass basket, covered in egg, and deep fried.

We learned about making sticky rice and purple sticky rice, the latter which is only used for special occasions or to give to monks due to its rarity.  Next we tried making jeow, a tasty chunky dip that can be made of many things and eaten with anything.  We used tomatoes or eggplants in class.  I’ll be making jeow again at home.  Next came tilapia cut into chunks, marinated in herbs and wrapped in a banana leaf packet.  I’m glad we learned how to make these packets as I’ve seen so much food sold in them.  The hardest thing we made all day was the lemongrass chicken.  The ground chicken was supposed to be stuffed into a single stalk of lemongrass.  We were supposed to make very straight tiny cuts.  I don’t know if anyone managed to do this and the instructor and his aide wandered around slowly helping us with this.  It does look beautiful and might’ve been my favorite dish. We made a Luang Prabang specialty known as Or Lam stew, which was a rather watery stew with the juniper wood, pea eggplants, and in my case buffalo.  Charcoal grilled sticky rice (which looks like a marshmallow on a stick) is smashed to thicken the still watery stew.  While really interesting, this was my least favorite dish.  At the end we finished with a purple sticky rice cooked in coconut milk that we made and adorned the whole thing with multiple types of fresh fruit.

This class was wonderful.  The garden setting was serene and I wish they had rooms there, although I know I could not afford to stay there even if they had them.  It was great to cook next to the two ponds and many growing vegetables.  We were never rushed and always given lots of help.  I’m glad I got to experience a cooking class like it should be.  We were given little recipe books on our way out and I look forward to redoing some recipes I learned and trying some new ones.  I don’t understand how there were cooking classes in Luang Namtha more expensive than this one, this was amazing!

Lenou is a Lao law student and avid learner who has turned his home into a library and English school for the local Hmong children.  He is 30-45 minutes away from the main part of town so he has more trouble finding volunteers than the better staffed and centrally located Big Brother Mouse. However the kids in his village are too far away to visit Big Brother Mouse so he’s trying to bring education to them.

He invited me to play some games with his class.  The first day we played a rhyming game and I had the kids come up with words that rhymed with “tree”.  They thought of a good 10 or 20 words.  The second day I had another class that had less experience with English.  We attempted to play Pictionary but the kids didn’t know words like “rice”, “man”, “house” or “tree”.  Later I found out there were very early on in their English education.  What’s interesting is later in the class the kids were reading passages with words like “multilingual”, “intelligent” and “delicious”.  Not how I’d go teaching English, but this is not my class and a workbook does help plan lessons.

I’ve always joked that I wanted to write awful children’s teaching materials.  Who would know what you were writing anyways?  Looks like someone beat me to it.  The FabuLao workbook written for Laos by an American had such gems as “I never study and I am very lazy”, “beer is very good with papaya salad”, “he had a small head, so I don’t know how he could be so smart”, and “I want to find a boyfriend so I can visit other countries”.  Great things to be teaching children.

I hope the map I made Lenou to find his house will be more helpful than any teaching I could do.  I personally got lost for about an hour trying to find his house and asked everyone in a three block radius.  At this point in my travels, I’ve made maps for two of my friends.  I think that’s more maps than completed games on the trip.  I’ll change my freelance title to “mapmaker”.

Lenou’s a wonderful and kind person and a fun guy to have a Beer Lao with.  I’ve greatly enjoyed getting to know him and the boys from his province that stay with him to study.  He could always use more funding and if you happen to be in Luang Prabang, you should try visiting his class in the evenings.  Here’s the link to his site for more info: Lenou’s Library.  The students are very sweet and really want to learn.  He’s running out of seats because so many new students show up every day.

A dry season bamboo bridge from the world heritage protected part of town across the Nam Khan river (a Mekong tributary) to the rest of town.

Luang Prabang is a beautiful city.  It’s protected as an UNESCO world heritage site. The city is dotted in adorable French colonial architecture and French style and riverfront cafes.  There are seventy temples (known as wats) all over.  The local store owners and many others have collaborated to set up fair trade preservation of many of the local handicrafts and products.  It is a wonderful example of how tourism can help the preservation of what was a culture slowly losing its heritage to modern poverty.  Yet it has a dark side as well.  Because no new buildings can be built, luxury hotels and restaurants have had to get creative to open up here.  A local joke goes like this, “Amantaka converted a prison and Alila renovated a hospital.  What’s next, a cemetary?”  Much like regentrification in many urban centers, there are people moving in to make the place nicer than the crumbling buildings that stood here.  Just like regentrification, many locals are getting displaced and this will become a city of hotels, guesthouses and tourists.

French colonial style houses in the sunset.

Laos is supposed to be the most laid back of the Southeast Asian countries.  It is also fairly cheap, and still is in most of the countryside.  However here, in what is quickly becoming a tourist mecca, prices are rising at high rates.  I get asked multiple times a day if I want a tuk tuk or boat ride to popular tourist destinations.  In uncharacteristic moves, some of them keep bothering you after you say no.  That’s not supposed to be very common at all here.

The temple next to the royal palace turned national museum. Temples in the region like to gild everything.

One of the prime sights in Luang Prabang is the early morning/dawn procession of monks collecting alms.  Monks are only allowed to have a few posessions (a robe, a toothpick, their alms bowl, and a razor I believe) and walk around in the morning to collect food.  Locals give the monks the best food they can to gain merits.  There are many rules for this, you should not disturb the procession, you should be lower than the monks, and generally be respectful.  Alas, many tourists ignore the many signs around town with instructions and stand in monks faces using cameras with flash in the darkness.  Even worse, tourists are advised to only participate if this is a meaningful Buddhist activity to them.  However many people ignore this and buy food from opportunistic vendors nearby who sell them rotten or stale rice and bananas.  The monks have talked of stopping the practice being they’ve gotten sick from tourists participating.  The government would not allow it and said they would send out laypeople in saffron robes if necessary.  This is absolutely ridiculous.  Although it was interesting to watch, I’m glad I hoofed it over to the south end of the morning market to watch locals give their alms.  Watching tourists give bad food and stand flashing cameras in the monks faces just made me sad.  You can see the difference as the monks slowly walk by the locals and almost run by the tourists trying to give them food.  Really, I think I enjoyed wandering around later watching monks walking to school, holding hands, and smiling as much as I enjoyed their morning ritual.  I wasn’t even sure I wanted to see the morning ritual, it felt like a zoo.  I was watching more tourist bad behavior than monks.

Tourism has not destroyed everything.  The morning market is still mostly full of locals doing their shopping or getting their breakfast.  Tourism has also allowed many outdoor outfits to spring up to protect elephants.  This is the land of a million elephants and they often lead harsh lives as logging beasts.  Now they also have an option to retire to be or always be ridden by giddy tourists.  The kids here study English in the hopes of joining the lucrative industry.  About one in ten people in Laos is involved in the tourism industry.  The only other production appears to be logging.  I have not been able to see a sunrise or sunset and the sky is constantly foggy from the burning involved with logging and farming.

The French did not just leave architecture. There is a strong gallic influence in the food as visible in the many fancy restaurants and cafes. There is excellent coffee and baguettes all over town.

I am conflicted to say you should come.  This is a beautiful place that must be experienced and cannot be captured in a picture.  Yet I haven’t seen this many SLR cameras since I left San Francisco.  I will say if you want to come, to come soon.  I can’t imagine this development of tourism will be sustainable and the number of guesthouses has just about doubled ever year.  As this old New York Times article concludes:

“The paradox is that Unesco gives out the Heritage Site label partly to reduce poverty, but reducing poverty is reducing heritage,” Mr. Rampon said. “If you want to preserve heritage, you must keep poverty.”

So has tourism made this city more dead or alive?  I’m not sure, but I know that you cannot invite tourism and not expect some sort of impact on your local culture.