Monday, November 17, 2008

Laos by Lao-west

Last week I went in search of Nirvana, Laotian-style. If there is one thing that is starkly different between Vietnam and its ASEAN neighbors, it is the intensity with which other SE Asian people's approach their spiritual life: Vietnam was most effectively "cleansed" of its religious attachments during the communist era while neighboring Laos, Cambodia and Thailand and Burma still hold fast to their complex and intense Buddhist and Taoist religious lifestyles. Last week I jumped on a convenient (if pricey) Lao Air direct flight from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Lao. For all the bright colors, shiny decorations and general gaudiness that defines Thailand, I was still a little taken aback by the interior of the airplane, which seemed to me to sing loudly of Hawaiian beach resort rather than landlocked mountainous jungles. Still, the service was better than I anticipated after warnings and horror stories shared by others who had taken the flight before me. Then again, maybe I'm just immune after how many Air Madagascar horror stories... The flight at two in the afternoon offered fabulous views of the Laotian mountains and villages with terraced rice paddies (now brown and dry after the harvest). The sheer ruggedness of the land was breathtaking for me. I had never had the opportunity to fly over northern Vietnam, so this was in a sense my first arial view of what I had been living in for the last two years. Looks far more intimidating than it felt at the time. Then our plane dropped and circled over a broad valley and a town snuggled into the sharp oxbow formed by the Mekong River - and an hour and a hop, skip and jump later we were in another country applying for another visa. Luang Prabang, for all it's exotic name in and exotic location is actually a fairly "padestrian" stopping point for tourists. The town nestled on the banks of the Mekong first came into existence as a religious site and a northern retreat for the royalty. Lao boys still travel to Luang Prabang to train as novice monks (as is common in Buddhist tradition, almost all men will live as monks for a period of their lives), learning to meditate and chant and studying the teachings of the Lord Buddha in the many temples in Luang Prabang. The architecture, history and culture resulted in the whole area being declared a World Heritage Site, and the tourism industry has almost literally exploded as a result. Yet, unlike in Hoi An, the town retains an amazingly Zen-like feel with none of the Vietnamese agressive and in-your-face marketing. The city almost dares you to try not to relax. The shopkeepers, tuk-tuk drivers and travel guides speak in hushed, almost meditative tones. It is a place where you could potentially go without speaking more than 20 words a day if you wanted (as I managed to do myself). Even the town's night market is subtle and subdued in all of it's riot of colors displayed under dim, incadescent lights. I spent my first evening walking the entire tourist district along the banks of the Mekong River. The architecture here seems a natural blend of northern Thai and northern Vietnamese tradition - but markedly warmer structure than the Vietnamese manage. Night time and morning until about 10 am was quite nippy and I was glad I'd brought both a sweater and a Malagasy silk wrap. My guesthouse was nice and cozy though. Guest houses and restaurants were almost literally a dime a dozen, both out on the main streets and tucked down narrrow lanes such as this one. Even the well-trafficked main street put sleep Cao Bang to shame with its listless business. It was almost as if the mountain valley had never heard a noise louder than the landing of the small planes and couldn't imagine raising it's voice to distrub the surrounding hills. Coffee shops and restaurants also lined the Mekong - and who could be roughing it in a place where you could buy a cup of hot chocolate like the one below? Quite the rough daily routine, I do tell you!!

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