Friday, March 16, 2007

Asia Trip - Part Four

Here is Part Four:

Laos – Luang Prabang

Our job this Valentine’s Day was to fly from Hanoi to Laos’ capital, Vientiane, and connect to a Lao Airlines flight that would take us on to Luang Prabang. Given the difficulty I’d had getting Lao Airlines tickets my level of certainty about what was going to happen was low. As it turned out everything went smoothly. Not to worry – no problems.

We wanted to go to Laos for a few reasons. First, it is not a heavily traveled tourist destination, which appeals to us. Second, it has a reputation for being laid back, tranquil and friendly. Third – just because.

The contrast between the Laotians and Vietnamese is striking. Lao-ness is defined by Theravada Buddhism, which stresses the cooling of human passions. The Lao don’t get worked up over the future. The French have a saying: “The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow.” Laotians say too much work is bad for your brain and they feel sorry for people who ‘think too much.’ If you aren’t enjoying what you’re doing, stop doing it. And so on …

Luang Prabang fits the Lao picture perfectly. It is small and quiet. It opened to tourists in 1989, attracts many people who come to Laos and is oriented toward these visitors. But it didn’t offend us in any way as did, say, Hoi An. On the contrary, we liked what it offered. An example that makes the point about Luang Prabang and Laos in general: during our five days in Laos, only once did someone try to sell us something, and then it was a very gentle approach without persistent follow-up requests when we said ‘no, thank you.’

Luang Prabang is located at an elevation of 2,200 feet in a mountainous area about 240 miles north of Vientiane, where the Mekong and Khan Rivers converge. The Lonely Planet writes, “The city’s mix of gleaming temple roofs, crumbling French provincial architecture and multiethnic inhabitants tends to enthrall even the most jaded travelers.” So we had company in being enthralled.

32 of the town’s 66 wats (temples) house Buddhist monks and novices. The monks are ubiquitous in Luang Prabang, in the courtyard of their wat and strolling down the street singly or in groups in their orange and yellow robes. Many of the younger ones are eager to practice speaking English, so we had a chance to chat with several. They appeared to be serious young men, but not solemn. It seems that their English language proficiency is mostly self-taught. Impressive.

We stayed in the Hotel les 3 Nagas. A naga is a building and – surprise – the hotel has 3 buildings, two with suites (a total of 15) and a third for their restaurant. We had one of seven suites in the Lamache House, initially built in 1898 for Royal Court deliberations and later occupied by a French colonial family. Our room was comfortable, but with high ceilings, dark wooden floors and furniture, and not much lighting, it wasn’t bright and cheery. We had a private veranda that was attractive, but also poorly lit.

We expected to be bothered by mosquitoes on this trip, if not in Vietnam then certainly in Laos, both of which are classified as malaria areas. So we came prepared – with Malarone pills and plenty of repellent. It didn’t happen. We saw very few flying or crawling creatures.

We hung out around the hotel that first afternoon, had a snack and a BeerLao at the hotel restaurant, checked out the dinner menu, liked what we saw, and ate some really tasty Lao food that evening. A drink called lao-lao, which is rice whiskey, intrigued me. So I had one. It reminded me of homemade moonshine I drank in the hills of Kentucky a long time ago. I also tried sticky rice wine, a pinkish concoction that I found too sweet. I settled on BeerLao as my default drink in Laos. Sandra continued to search for drinkable wine, usually white, and managed to find enough to satisfy her.

The agenda for our first full day in Luang Prabang was to take a leisurely walk around town. Nothing is very far away so walking makes sense. The only for-sure destination we had was the Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang’s most magnificent temple. On the way we passed one wat after another. It seemed like it was wall-to-wall wats. It seemed like it was because in fact it was. At several points we came upon and talked with monks. At one wat, a group of teenage monks who were intrigued by his camera surrounded an Englishman from Newcastle, on a photographic assignment for UNESCO. They loved it when he let them click the shutter.

Wat Xieng Thong was very impressive. It dates from 1560 and remained under royal patronage until 1975. Whose royal patronage? I don’t have a clue. For certain periods of time Luang Prabang was the capital (of something.) I won’t even try to talk about Laos’ history. For a foreigner, and probably for locals too, it is complicated and confusing. Century after century of internal wars, invasions, sackings, occupations, various royal families, etc.

Whatever the story, the Wat is very beautiful. Mosaics. Elaborately decorated wooden columns. Gold leaf votive figures. Bronze Buddhas. Tapestries. And great architecture. All set on a small hill overlooking the Mekong River.

We stopped for lunch at the Villa Santi, a 120-year-old building that is now a hotel. We ate on the veranda overlooking the town’s main street. It was a great setting. Unfortunately, I ordered a local delicacy, spicy papaya salad, which I found inedible. Much too hot. I like very spicy foods, but this was over the top, even for me. The BeerLao was good.

After another lazy afternoon, we went to the highly regarded Elephant for dinner. I’ll assume its high regard is deserved, but I’ll never know for sure because I didn’t realize until we arrived that it is a highly regarded restaurant that specializes in French cuisine. I wasn’t a happy boy. I didn’t come to Luang Prabang to have European food. (At this point it’s fair to accuse me of inconsistency, since I loved the Metropole’s European brunch so much. To which my response is, yes, I’m being inconsistent, and I still didn’t want French food in Laos.) We found the Elephant did have one pre-set Lao dinner on the menu, which we ordered. It was OK, but not wonderful. Bummer. I guess you could say we had a bad food day.

The next morning we visited the Royal Palace Museum, built in 1904 as a residence for King Sisavang Vong and his family. I’m sure you know all about old King Sis, as do I, so no details are necessary. His home underwhelmed me. There is some nice statuary inside, but for the most part I thought the art and objects were mediocre and uninteresting. Some of the rooms were decorated in a faux-baroque style. His and the Queen’s bedrooms were under furnished and looked uncomfortable. The ostentation put me off. I think I’ve made my point. I’ll move on.

We stopped at a few more wats, had a good lunch at the 3 Elephants, no relationship to the single elephant from the night before or the 3 Nagas where we stayed, and finished our day with dinner back at the 3 Nagas restaurant, which again was very good.

I’ve just reread what I have to say about our stay in Luang Prabang. It’s accurate, but misleading. Misleading in the sense that it sounds a little too laid back, even boring, and without wonderful adventures. That’s not the impression I took away. My experience is that it is a little jewel of a place, totally enjoyable, with a gentleness and sense of peace that is unique and worthy of being appreciated. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Vientiane

Upon our arrival in each new city we needed a taxi to take us from the airport into town. My memory from past trips to this part of the world is that when we’d exit a terminal we were 1) besieged by a throng of taxi drivers and 2) needed to negotiate a fare before deciding which one to take. It was a hassle, and no matter how hard I bargained I usually felt we’d been ripped off. This time we found a system in place at every airport that eased the process. A taxi booth offered set prices for rides. And they were fair prices. So we paid our money, got a receipt, walked outside and climbed into the cab.

That’s what we did when we arrived in Vientiane. In this case the car was rather beat up and lacked air conditioning, but the driver was a happy guy who asked us if he could pick up his daughter on the way and give her a ride home. No problem. She met us at the airport entrance and off we went.

It was a really ugly drive. Near as I can tell the road into town was in the process of being widened and repaved. But the work wasn’t very far along, so it was dusty and bumpy and crowded. The entrance to Laos’ capitol city didn’t show well. We hoped the environment would improve by the time we arrived at our destination, the Green Park Boutique Hotel. It didn’t improve much, and we were beginning to wonder what the Green Park would be like. Happily, as we approached the hotel it looked like an oasis in the desert.

We were reminded of the Life Resort in Hoi An and Pilgrimage Village in Hue. Recently built. Two story buildings designed in the local style. Ponds and lovely gardens. Large rooms with Lao fabrics and materials. Very comfortable. Regrettably, the staff and management were not on a par with the design. They were willing and pleasant, but untrained. At dinner the restaurant was missing some basics, like rice and chicken, and the white wine was warm. Fortunately, the BeerLao was cold.

Our one full day in Vientiane was a really good one. How could we miss? We had three temples to see. The most famous, called Laos’ #1 national monument, is Pha That Luang. It is imposing, a 150’ high gold-gilded stupa in the center, surrounded by several dozen smaller stupas, atop a base, each side of which is 227’ long. From a distance the temple looks like a gilded cluster of missiles. It was originally built in 1566 and restored in the 1930’s. Imposing, but not my favorite.

Nor was Haw Pha Kaew, which also dates to the mid-16th Century and has been restored. Some beautiful stone and bronze Buddhist sculpture is kept here.

My favorite was Wat Si Saket. It is newer than the others, built in 1818 in what is called the early Bangkok style. The main building, the ordination hall, is surrounded by a colonnaded terrace and topped by a five-tiered roof. Inside, the walls have hundreds of niches, in each of which is an image of the Buddha. Also on the walls are fading murals depicting stories of the Buddha’s past lives. I had the feeling that the inside of this hall is a sacred space.

Outside is a cloister, the walls of which are also riddled with small niches that contain over 2,000 silver and ceramic Buddha images. Over 300 seated and standing Buddhas of varying sizes and materials rest on shelves below the niches.

Finally, the grounds of the wat are planted with coconut, banana and mango trees.

From the temples we walked through Vientiane’s downtown, looking for a place to have lunch. Lo and behold, a French bistro caught our eye. It suited my mood perfectly. I would have steak/pommes frites. They were delicious. Another inconsistency? Of course.

Later, in what was a very good food day, we had dinner at Kua Lao, specializing in top-end Lao dishes. Kua Lao was like a favorite neighborhood restaurant – simply designed, not pretentious, good service without airs, great food. Since we were leaving Laos in the morning I wanted a farewell glass of lao-lao. I got it.

The next day was a serious travel day. We flew first to Bangkok, spent about five hours waiting for our connection to Kuala Lumpur, and then continued on to Malaysia. It all went smoothly. By 8 in the evening we were settled into the Pan Pacific Airport Hotel for an overnight stay, before continuing on to Sarawak in the morning.
End of Part Four

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