End of the trip
Luang Prabang is known as the Jewel of the Mekong. Once the royal capital of Laos, it has a dense concentration of temples, some dating back to the 16th century, and of course plenty of monks.
Every morning at around 6am, streams of silent saffron robes file out of the monasteries as the monks make their daily rounds to receive alms. The monks are not allowed to cook for themselves and instead rely on food offerings from the locals, who receive blessings and merits in return. The typical offering is sticky rice, which the givers scoop up from their common basket with their hands and drop into the monks' bowls. Others are giving them bananas and other fruits and everything goes into the same bowl so I'm not sure if it becomes a big sticky mixed-up mess by the time they go back to the monastary to eat.
Most males will go through a monk period and there were reminders that these people with shaved heads and shaved eyebrows were still young men and boys with the same interests they had before.
A bamboo bridge over the river Khan was manned with monks at a toll booth. Yes, their young friend is wearing an Osama Bin Laden t-shirt.
Originally a monarchy, Laos fell under Siamese (Thai) control in the late 1800s then became part of the French Indochine colonial empire in the early 1900s until independence in 1953. During the Vietnam war, Laos was allied with North Vietnam which led to the US trying to bomb the country into oblivion. We dropped nearly as many bombs on this small country as were dropped on all of Europe in WWII. With the fall of Saigon, Laos came under Communist control and today the Lao People's Democratic Republic remains Communist.
It doesn't seem too hardcore from a tourist's point of view. They've relaxed some requirements like having to register your whereabouts with the government at all times but then make other decrees seemingly at will. For example, in Luang Prabang, it became illegal within the last couple of months for tourists to rent bicycles or motorbikes. We couldn't get a straight answer for the reason why but were alternately told that the tuk tuk drivers were behind the move so that tourists would have to hire them to get around or that a tourist was involved in an accident that was somehow problematic. I'm not sure what the real story is but the town itself is small enough to easily walk around to see just about everything.
Capitalism is alive and well especially in the areas that tourists are flocking to. Apparently efforts to preserve this UNESCO World Heritage Site will prevent the weed-like spread of fast food joints, billboards and some new construction. Nevertheless, existing buildings are being converted to more and more hotels, guesthouses, shops, tour companies and restaurants but thankfully no Starbucks or Burger King.
For many of the locals, shopping hasn't changed much. Seasonal crops result in a bounty of the produce and when we were there, oranges were the hot item. This little market of nothing but oranges went on for quite a way.
Rice remains a staple and is separated out by color and grade. The most expensive kind is a purple grain of sticky, or glutinous rice which has a beautiful color but tastes pretty much like the white grains.
These arrangements of marigolds and banana leaves are used for the Baci ceremony which invokes the spirit world for blessings and good luck.
One of the highlights was taking a cooking class with Michael at the Three Elephants Cafe Cooking School. We started out the morning learning about the local ingredients at an outdoor market that had everything from chili spices to betel nuts.
Then we cooked, and ate, lunch and dinner, recreating some of the most popular Lao specialties.
After much tasting and snacking, by the time we sat down to enjoy our dinner of chicken larb, green papaya salad, pork/eggplant stirfry with lots of sticky rice, we were rather full and couldn't finish everything.
Now we have less than 24 hours remaining in the vacation. We're back in Bangkok trying to sort through purchases and pack up our bags for the long overnight flight back to San Francisco.
I know I'll be back to this area of the world sometime, maybe again after this upcoming winter at South Pole. Laos is a gem of a country that deserves a long, leisurely visit to really get to know its charms. Like the slowly flowing Mekong, the pace of life goes along at "Lao speed"...unrushed, unencumbered by the hectic outside world yet welcoming to those who want to slow down to discover its beauty.