"It looks like a Banana Republic ad." The perfect description of Luang Prabang from another American I met here.
So do we. We are drinking cold, dry chablis and eating really good Lao/French fusion cuisine while sitting in big rattan chairs on the porch of a restaurant in the old colonial section of town. He is wearing an embroidered white cotton shirt and white linen trousers. I am wearing a filmy layered cotton slip dress - black, naturally - and gladiator sandals. I walked in just as he finished his salad and he invited me to have dinner with him. I think they should film the ad exactly that way. Although they will probably use younger actors.....
I have been in Luang Prabang for about four days and there are no words. I stay in a hotel overlooking the Mekong River. My room is beautiful, teak flooring, window shutters, and a balcony where I sit and look over the river. The tuk-tuk drivers congregate just across the road. Each time I come out onto the balcony, they smile and wave up to me, ask me if they can take me somewhere today. They are always disappointed when the answer is "no". There is simply no need to go anywhere.
In the mornings I walk to my favorite coffee shop, order a latte. The shop is called "Saffron". Not only is the coffee delicious, the owner of this company journeys into the mountains of Laos with coffee seedlings and gives them to the farmers there, helps them to plant and learn to grow coffee. He guarantees that he will buy all of the coffee beans they can grow. He does this to give them a way to live without growing opium.
I walk along the streets or along the river, look for art galleries, artisans, and occasionally visit a museum. By about noon I am wilting. It is too hot to do anything except fan myself, so I return to my room: a dark cool, quiet, haven, and sleep, read, write, wait for it to cool. Evenings, there are night markets, restaurants and, on every block there is a massage parlor with Lao girls sitting in front inviting you in: Thai style massage, hot stones, oils, 40,000 kip/hour, which sounds like a lot, but actually amounts to about $5.
One morning, before sunrise, I walk up Mt. Phousi. It is really a hill - not a mountain - in the center of town. At the top is a temple from which you can see everything for miles around. It's a steep climb up several hundred steps. About half way there is a kiosk where you must pay for entrance - you're certainly going to pay after all of this effort! - and about 50 feet beyond that kiosk is a sign announcing that there are another 300 steps to the top.... The view is indeed worth the effort.
Because it is spring, they are burning the fields everywhere in southeast Asia - they have been farming this way for thousands of years. The burning adds nutrients to the soil, but it is a disaster for air quality. Most days there is smoky haze that burns my eyes and throat. Many people, everywhere in Asia, wear surgical masks over their faces. When the sun appears over the Nam Khan river, it is an orange ball rising through mist and smoke that you can look at directly without burning your eyes. But it is indeed very beautiful.
There is a another path carved into the back of the hill. This one is through a fantasy land of Buddhas; standing, sitting, walking, reclining, the meandering path, broad stone steps carved into the side of the hill and guarded by carved serpents. At the bottom is a cave: more Buddhas - including the fat smiling one, and a gold-leafed indentation reputed to be the Buddha's footprint. I am skeptical...if this is his footprint he was a giant with misshapen feet.
Another day, I take boat about an hour up the Mekong River to Pak Ou cave where there are thousands of Buddha figurines which have been brought to these ancient caves over hundreds of years as offerings. In Asia, Buddhism is a religion and many believe, like religions everywhere, that the gods need to be propitiated. Of course, propitiating the gods might not be such a bad idea. After all, who knows...? But I have seen some very odd offerings along the way. In Hong Kong I watched a woman unwrap a store-bought roasted chicken and leave it on an altar....
Along the river, our boat stops at a village where we are offered whisky made from rice. There are several varieties, including a sweet red one made from black sticky rice that I really like. "May I taste that again, please?" There are also bottles with snakes, tarantulas, and scorpions perfectly preserved in whiskey. I decide not to try those. I realize that eating the worm in a bottle of Mezcal was not as brave as I thought it was.
One evening, I cross a small rickety looking bamboo bridge and then up a path through a bamboo tunnel. There I find a restaurant/bar that will forever rank on my list of 'the coolest places to hang out'. Built on the banks of the Nam Khan, there are a series of wide teak verandas with cushions and low tables, small red and white table lamps, house music, young Europeans in 'bohemian chic' and perfectly groomed Asians lounging in small groups talking of their adventures. What makes it perfect is that it is all just slightly worn and faded giving it an authenticity that similar clubs I have been in at home, merely aspire to.
Six days, and then the travel siren lures me onward with the promise of new places, new experiences, new people. But I have fallen in love and I hope someday to return....