Between the Mekong and its Nam Khan tributary, Luang Prabang is palm-tree-lined street after street of French colonial architecture, travel agencies and Westernized restaurants and cafes. The city has been placed on Unesco’s World Heritage list, so it’s quite seen after. The first thing I noticed on arrival is that there seem to be more American tourists here than Lao. I thought perhaps I’d unknowingly flown to Charleston. It’s an enjoyable city, however, with the typical, ultra-relaxed Laos atmosphere, and a huge night market with lots of cool linen clothes.
The wattage in Luang Prabang is out of control: my Lonely Planet guide says there are 66 wats in town, and it lists full blurbs for 22. I only paid to walk around the biggest one, Wat Xieng Thong, which is very glittery and impressive. Unfortunately, I was sporting my brand new Beer Laos T-shirt, which I soon realized was coming off as disrespectful. It was the only top I had with sleeves, though, and they’re big into sleeves here.
During my walkabout day, I also hiked up Phu Si hill in the middle of the town, which offers nice views. Guess what was at the top?? Wats! I had a conversation with a young monk who wanted to hear about my life in America. I asked him how long he’d probably be a monk, and he wasn’t sure, but he liked Luang Prabang, and if he quit being a monk he’d have to find some way to get a house. And then, quite apropos of nothing, he said:
‘I have never been with woman. I am pure.’
‘Well,’ I said, after a moment. ‘I’m sure it helps in your job.’
‘I have no job,’ he said, sounding offended.
You can’t win with these monks.
Across from Phu Si hill is the Royal Palace Museum, which is totally worth seeing, although not really for the exhibits. The museum is in King Sisavong Vong’s old palace, which the French were sweet enough to allow built in 1904, and the interior of the building is beyond impressive. The walls of the main room are covered floor to ceiling in murals of tiny Lao people fighting wars, celebrating, farming and so on, all made of tiny bits of mirrored glass.
After visiting the museum, I sat in the shade on the lower part of Phu Si hill, and was hard at work memorizing Laos numerals when I was approached by three little girls selling bracelets. After a half-hearted stab at selling me something, we moved on to more important matters like how old I was (I busted out my newly learned numbers: I am sip-haa), where I’m from and whether they might have a look in my purse. Presently it became clear that the proper thing in this situation was for me to make each of them a little present. The two youngest quickly grabbed up a pen and my broken mini-calculator and were satisfied, but the 15-year-old had fixed on my Maglite keychain.
‘Wouldn’t you like these Chinese coins instead?’ I offered. ‘From China!’
She wouldn’t (although the little girls promptly got into a brawal over them). Nor would she accept orange-flavored lip balm, gum or a rhinestone bobbypin. The girl was no fool; she pointed solemnly at the Maglite.
‘Look,’ I said. ‘I need to have this light to find the toilet when the lights go out in Laos.’
Finally, she settled for the lip balm, and we all put some on to seal the deal.
Yesterday afternoon, I took a minivan to the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls about an hour outside town. The falls filter down into a number of terraced pools, which are deep and blue and freezing, and filled with shameless foreigners in bikinis. You can jump from overhanging trees into them, and slide over the falls from tier to tier, and all sorts of good stuff. You can also climb to the top of the falls (which I did), and cross the brink, supporting yourself by a rickety, wooden fence (which I began to do, before coming to my senses). It was the most delightful afternoon I’ve spent in Laos, but sadly I left my camera at the guesthouse, because I knew I couldn’t look after it while swimming, so I have no pictures of the lovely falls.
Upon returning to Luang Prabang, I ate a delightful dinner at a very nice restaurant on the banks of the Mekong, with sparkly lights in the trees and all. I followed that up with a wretched night of projectile vomiting. I won’t soon forget it; the very geckos fled my room in disgust, and I fear they may be in for an encore. I’m spending the day recovering in overpriced, highly Westernized cafes, taking tiny bites of bread and pretending I’m at a Borders in the States. This whole city reeks of food. If I’ve recovered sufficiently by tomorrow, I’ll head on to Vang Vieng, but in all likelihood, I’ll be dead by then.