30 December, 2006

Photo essay of LAOS (Chapter 1 of 3):
Luang Prabang, the charismatic former capital

Anna roars past a decayed old French house on her 2cc Harley Hogster.
Zey drife on ze right in zis countree, like back in Gay Paree.

When next you fly into Luangprabang, try to book a window seat because mountain scenery on the descent is spec-tac-u-lar. Luangprabang is a former French administrative centre from colonial days, so is characterized by derelict old French-Lao buildings crumbling gracefully into pirouettes of curling paint, pitted timbers, and ageing mold.

Having said that, UNESCO has an excellent (if a tad slow) restoration program under way. The nascent tourist boom is propelling construction of (mostly) tasteful “new old” French-style architecture, particularly around the tourist haunts along the banks of the Mekong River.

After the monsoon flood every year, the newly-fertile banks of the river are re-planted with vegetables and short term trees like papaya. In this early morning misty photo, a family heads upstrean in its motorised canoe, the main form of transport for many locals.

We could speak with locals as our Thai is ok and Laotian is really only a dialect of Thai, given the intertwined histories and love-hate relationship between the 2 countries. English will get you by in the tourist area... and French, bien sûr.

A very stylish French model – and an old Citroen sedan as well.

Very few younger locals still speak French, but you do hear a lot of nostalgic French tourists. I only found one older local chap with whom I could parle en français. I’m getting seriously out of practice, and unintentionally mixing up French with Thai words… mon dieu...

There’s very little traffic as most of the population is too poor to afford vehicles, even scooters, so hiring a bicycle at US$1 per day is an efficient and relaxed way to get an initial overview… make sure the tyres are pumped hard, though.

"Villa Santi" is in the main street of Luangprabang. (Sisavanvong St).

Villa Santi was once the Royal residence in pre-Communist times, it has now morphed into a top-end French-Lao restaurant. Food in Laos is available for all tastes right down to burgers (gag!), and recognizable coffee is hard to find. The Scandinavian Bakery had the best approximation of drinkable coffee, and French-style baguettes lurk everywhere. Lao food isn’t as spicy as Thai, but can sometimes have a characteristic bitter/sour flavour, as in “Or-lahm” curry spiced gently with chunks of juniper root. Nice. You should also try the chili jam with strips of dried buffalo skin. Once.

Marie and Anna walk down main street at dusk.
(Look out for the caged bird which speaks fluent Laotian.)

The same street an hour later. No traffic lights. I heard a cricket chirping here.

As you may observe, there are very few dedicated street lights apart from illumination by the private commercial sector (mainly restaurants). Laos produces huge amounts of electricity but sells most of it to Thailand (which squanders it big-time as if there's no tomorrow... like this electric-city scene near our Chiangmai apartment:

By sad contrast, most Laotians have to live by candlelight, therefore hit the sack early. So you won’t find serious night-life here, particularly as the Communist government doesn’t approve. This means that the tourist profile is slanted towards family and older people rather than cool Generation-X head-banging bongers. Suits us dusty old babyboomers ok.

Luangprabang Police Station is, ...well, unpretentious.

The old red & yellow Soviet Hammer & Sickle still appears next to the Lao flag on government buildings. But not (yet!) on Buddhist Wats:

A large Buddhist Wat provides a backdrop for preparations for market.

There’s a night market in Sisavanvong St, but it pays to get there before dark as the lighting is mostly by candles... picturesque, if not particularly effective. Some vendors have 20-watt globes, though... very hi-tech. Look out for bottles of Lao whisky (?) with pickled cobras and/or 3-inch black scorpions, and spiced with whole red chili: “Take small cup at night for lumbago, sweat of limbs”. Yep, sure.

The former royal palace is nearby – now converted to a state museum walled with grisly mosaic scenes of battles and beheaded enemy soldiers. Among the ornate and expensive displayed gifts to the former royal family, the one from Australia leapt out: a grubby old faded boomerang, roughly carved. The ‘Lao Culture’ show at 6pm is certainly worth a look – it's an excerpt from the legendary Ramakien legend in full costumes with live Laotian music, followed by a hill-tribe dance with a surprising twist at the end.

While in Luangprabang, do go to the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls, and also take the leisurely 1-hour boat ride to the Pak Ou caves with their hundreds of Buddhas, to the left of these boats:

Going by speedboat isn’t recommended… there have been some nasty accidents on the many submerged rocks in the murky river. That’s why they require victims to don a helmet and lifejacket... and they're noisy as a chainsaw up close.

Finally, climb the steps up Phousi Hill at dusk (about 10 minutes or so) to get a panorama of the town and its famous sunset.

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