Lamenting Luang Prabang

November 25, 2011 - Luang Prabang, Laos

Some towns seem timeless. A haven where you can do as little or as much as you like.
UNESCO listed Luang Prabang is once such place. Set at the confluence of the Nam
Khong (Mekong) and Nam Khan, it embraces its history and cultural and spiritual
significance as Laos' former capital and a centre for novice monks.

One tourism figure quoted 34 wats in the town; they definitely dominate the lay of the
land, but sit quietly in the background as the town goes about its daily life. The monks
and novices are more visible, but they take the town and all its beauty and wonder in their stride. The daily alms procession gets underway at dawn, and is a sign of how welcome the monks are in town as their bowls overflow, with food passed on to the homeless (it's also an indication of how important buddhism is to the secular community). Likewise, it's a regular occurence to see a group of six or eight novice monks brandishing bright coloured school bags over one shoulder as they head to or from class. For many, becoming a novice monk is an opportunity to continue education that their family may not otherwise be able to afford. And it's not all spirituality and study - a group of novices were keen to declare their love of various teams in the English Premier League, and the rivalry between the major teams remains half a world away...

Perhaps its the tranquility generated from this spirituality that takes the edge off a town
that could otherwise be hustle and bustle. Instead, although its other focus is very much
tourism, it's as much about the tourist themselves as the tourist dollar.

Take the night markets as an example. Get there early enough and you'll hear the monks
chanting inside a temple in the background as the local women set up their stalls in the
main street. Once you get past the Chinese imported scarves etc, it's possible to find some lovely Lao handicrafts made by women from minority ethnic groups and local Lao. I particularly liked a couple of quilt covers, but one didn't have a backing, and the other was too small. I was able to negotiate with the stalholder to make a backing for one, and add to the smaller cover to create a bigger one. The agreed price for both the quilts was the starting price for one, and with all the extra work I was requesting, I figured this to be a good deal for both of us. Still, 1,500,000 kip is a lot of money (a bit under AUD$200; to put it in context, a rice harvest is likely to return 2-4 million kip to a family, and there's two harvests per year). I took a chance on this woman that the third deposit was enough to show I was genuine, and that she'd return three days later with the new and improved covers. Sure enough, there she was in the same spot, and the covers were perfect. We'd put the deal in writing, but it wasn't needed. And what I liked most was her no pressure attitude. She was a good businesswoman who had the skills to back it up. Other stallholders were equally friendly. Everyone would engage in a 'sabaidee', but wouldn't argue if you didn't want to buy - which was just as well because there were hundreds of stalls!

Venture a little further to a handicraft village and the experience was enhanced even
more. I walked across the Nam Khan on the bamboo bridge completed this week by
monks (it gets washed away every wet season and rebuilt by monks, with the 5,000 kip
crossing fee going to the poor) and wandered through a couple of villages on my way to
the handicraft village of Ban Xienglek. Just a few kilometres from the centre of Luang
Prabang, but on the other side of the river and near the northern bus station, this village is a hidden oasis of top quality handicraft, with the added bonus of being able to watch local women making the bamboo paper, silk and cotton scarves and other textile weaving. Some were in factory-like setups, but others were more low key. I met a lovely young woman who sold me a devine piece of textile that I hope will remain in my family for generations. The intricate weaving is a testament to her family's weaving skills, and like the markets, the price was negotiable. Ever the businesswoman, she not only gave me a business card for when I return to Luang Prabang, but a friendship band. This is one town that definitely leaves a lasting impression, and if I do return, I will make a point of visiting this young woman again.

Women play a very important role in Laos. Although they are even more quietly
spoken than the men, they are the backbone of the country. I'm constantly drawn to the
combination of seeing a country in such poverty and women marking a real difference
to their and their family's lives; it's definitely a country where although secondary
education is rarely afforded to girls, women do whatever they can to contribute to the
family income. This includes running the homestays, laundries and restaurants, working
alongside men in the rice fields while their babies sleep in the nearby bamboo shelters,
and selling their wares at the markets or looking after the village shop until late at night.
These women are astute and savvy, and very much a key to the success of the country -
especially in rural areas. I never heard a woman complaining about the harsh conditions,
having to bathe in public under the cover of her traditional Lao skirt or a sarong from
the town water pump or river, rising early and looking after a family while working
all day, and making meagre ends meet. Sure, the men do their share of the work too,
but the women seem to carry the extra family burden - and they do it graciously and  by supporting each other. Particularly in the small remote villages, the importance of community was very clear, where everyone had jobs to do in order to keep everything ticking over smoothly.

Laos has a reputation of being in the bottom 20 countries in the world in terms of poverty
and development. Yet it feels far advanced compared to a country such as Uganda, which
also has a proliferation of small villages and subsistence agrarian focus. According to the
official Lao Tourism Agency in-flight magazine, there are 40,000km of roads in Laos,
and 4,000km of them are bitumen (and of these, I note that the severe wet seasons and
heavy trucks take their toll, with landslides and large potholes a regular feature).

The Chinese influence is very evident, especially in the north, where Chinese workers
are building or contributing to the road infrastructure, and according to one guide during
my travels, only two per cent of the mining royalties is put back into the country, with
China benefiting greatly. I passed a proliferation of mines between Luang Namtha and
Nong Kiau, and again between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. But the relationship
has benefits for Laos, too. As more bridges are built (we travelled for more than three
hours south of Nong Kiau before we came to another bridge across the Nam Ou) and the
country is opened up, the local people are keen to embrace progress. Many people saw
an understanding of English as their ticket to a better life, and while there should be a
balance where their native languages, culture and heritage are retained, there appears to be room for Lao, Chinese and English - a melding of old and new. It's already apparent in some village women's dress, where traditional Lao skirts are paired with western style monikored shirts. Here's hoping they realise how special their own culture is, and get the mix right.

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Things on sticks...
Luang Nam Tha morning market
Lenten woman who made some bamboo paper I bought
Making cotton in a Lenten and Hmuong village
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