Friday, September 09, 2011

Lazing in Luang Prabang

January 1-6, 2010

...our first act of the new year is to catch a bus bound for Sam Neua. Far to the north on the Vietnam border, Sam Neua was the stronghold from where the Pathet Lao launched their attacks against US forces. Curtis LeMay is famed for his comment about bombing enemy forces back to the Stone Age. Yet it could be argued that the Pathet Lao had never left the Stone Age, living and plotting their raids from a series of caves. It was these caves that I wanted to see, a bookend of sorts to the Viet Cong tunnels of Cu Chi that I'd crawled through over a decade before.

So we waited for the bus. And waited. An hour after it was to leave, it hadn't. "No problem...Maybe this afternoon...Maybe tomorrow." We could stick around Phonsovan, attend the wedding to which we'd been invited. As we made our deliberations, a bus bound for Luang Prabang revved up behind us. We boarded and left within 5 minutes.

The trip seemed repeat of the one two days before, a dreamy floaty meander along mountaintops, Hmong villages like pearls on a necklace. One village seemed populated only by children. In another, a young man kicked a cow, sending the rest of the herd spinning like bowling pins. In the next, young women play catch with prospective suitors. At a pee stop, a hilltribe woman squatted in full view beside the bus and let fly...

...for 5 days we settled in Luang Prabang. There was little to do but wander the streets, hide from the sun on the grounds of shady temples, or sip coffee on the veranda of an old colonial French building. We liked the pace, tried not to plan, not to fill our days with things to do. One day, we went up the mountain at the center of town. On another, we visited the 'museum,' little more than a tribute to a long dead king, housed in a beautiful old building. Rings that had formerly been on the fingers of US Marines were on sale in the lobby.

One hot afternoon, we crossed the river on a rickety bamboo bridge to a small village before doubling back to town along the riverbank. A few foreigners had stripped down and entered the water, letting the current pull them toward the Mekong.

I especially liked the small alley down which we were staying. We'd first stayed in a different, grungy place across town, after searching for an hour, in a town swollen for the long New Year's weekend. Hotels were booked nearly solid with 500 Thai tourists. After a mosquito plagued night, we moved to our current digs, run by a friendly Hmong couple. In the afternoons, a man across the street played a wooden marimba, accompanied by his teacher on a gamelan, who also did double duty in singing out the notes whenever his pupil got stuck. Next door was a shack whose outdoor kitchen looked out on the alley and served as center for the alley's social scene. The baby that lived in our house was slightly croupy, and the mother spent a good part of the day soothing it in a sing-song baby voice that I at first had thought was a children's program. On the other side of us was a gallery, its European owner always reading a newspaper by day, merrily drinking wine with friends at night. Across from him was the Heritage House, a one hundred year old building built on stilts and partially hidden by tall trees. At the end of the alley was a large wat, and beside it, the peaceful Mala Cafe.

The cafe was where we relaxed during the blackout, amongst the trees and the ponds and the fish. Without TV, the staff seemed bored, except for one girl who, with a small baby on the seat, rode a bicycle up and down the alley, giggling as she was chased by dogs. The blackout also caused problems at the night market, quashing the usual tunnel of light. Some vendors had their own power generators, but I felt sorry for those who didn't, as they'd have no business. But it was pleasant to sit in the garden of the guest house basking in the complete absence of man-made sound. Nothing but the voices of people coming fr0m out of the dark, inciting the barking of dogs, all accompanied by that omnipresent marimba. When the power eventually returned, the son at our guest house turned on the TV within seconds.

The town quieted considerably after the 3rd day of the year. Most of the time I spent sitting and watching life as it is lived in Luang Prabang. Watching the tuk-tuk drivers gossip as they'd awaited fares. (They nap in the seats, rather than slung out in hammocks like their corresponding brethren in Vientiane.) The mystery of what goes on behind the louvered blinds above the shops. Joma like a US cafe, done up with murals and warm colors. Muggy, overcast mornings burning off to become hot afternoons. A tourist guy with dreads, drunk everyday by afternoon, talking to ghosts, holding a beer in one hand and a book by Coelho in the other. His local counterpart, walking down the center of the main street in a sarong like a checkered tablecloth, topped by a coolie hat. Other times, he'd be squatting in a storefront smoking his pipe. Running into White Lotus's Beatrix at breakfast one morning. The sound of Lao, like backwards English, especially in the tones of men. Watching incense swirl into beams of sunlight at Xieng Thong, inspiring thoughts on transcendence and flexibility in travel. Zigzag walking the side alleys, looking at centuries-old human technology -- cooking, weaving, carpentry. Being sniped for a photo at Art House Cafe. Monks begging at dawn, along two parallel rows: one of orange garbed boys, the other of foreign photographers right up in their faces. The ever-present rivers. With the sun high, the river looked like someone was pulling a sheet of plastic wrap over dull-looking stones.

Every night we had dinner with the Italians. After they left, we ate at a couple of fusion cafes, one screening Casablanca on the bare white wall...

On the turntable: Jerry Jeff Walker, "Navajo Rug"
On the nighttable: Craig Childs, "House of Rain"

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