Luang Prabang, Laos
The place that time forgot. From the moment you land in the dusty, two door airport of this little outpost town, that fist of anxiety you’ve been carrying around, caused by deadlines and meetings and social media and whatever else—will ease it’s tight hold around your heart. The slow, unhurried pace, the colonial charm, the laid back kindness of the Laos people…even the mighty Mekong river, surging through five countries, slows down as it’s winds it way alongside the single main street of downtown Luang Prabang.
In the 10 years since I last saw this tiny city, the only real change is the road beside the river, once a dirt strip, has been paved. There are a few more cafes and guesthouses, but otherwise, it’s remains a living monument to a world apart. Which is why UNESCO named the entire city a heritage site, and why it brings increasing amounts of tourists each year.
There isn’t anything to do exactly in Luang Prabang. And that is sort of the point. One wakes up late and has breakfast, (a steaming bowl of noodle soup, clear and bright and loaded with veggies and chicken), preferably by the river. Then meander into town, by foot or by bicycle. There are French patisseries, colonial buildings transformed into grand hotels and tiny little boutiques to poke into. A stroll along the river, where you can buy fresh fruit, an ice cold BeerLao or a coconut. The pineapple juice will run down your arm as you watch the fishermen in the Mekong patiently pull their nets in. Orange hued monks speckle the streets, their measured, determined gait making you wonder where they are going and what business they are up to.
There is no hustle here. Around 70% of the population are subsistence farmers, living off the food that they grow. This is their full-time occupation. The rest work in the cities, and even then, there is none of the usual yelling and jostling for business that you will see in places like Thailand or India. Even at the night markets, there is a quiet dignity to the vendors, sitting on the ground with their product laid about them.
We wake up at dawn to watch the alms giving ceremony. The monks have been meditating since 3am, and as the sun rises, they walk down the street with buckets, receiving money and food from people hoping to receive ‘merit’. These are traditionally older women, who’ve risen early themselves to cook the rice with their own hands. This is important; merit requires you to make the food yourself. I recall this being a deeply, moving, spiritual experience, witnessing the local community serving the monks in the pre-dawn light, the streets silent save for their shuffling.
Today, the streets are teeming with tourists (mostly Chinese). Their tour buses deposit them in multitudes on the darkened streets. Their guides scurry to place stools on the street side, filling the offering bowl with rice bought from a street vendor. The monks look weary as they shuffle past the hordes. We find out later that much of the food is thrown away. The offering must be made with sincerity, and this clearly is not.The younger monks struggle not to wince as the women jostle them. A monk cannot touch a woman, and this is extremely uncomfortable for them. But the greatest disrespect is that the tourists turn on their camera flash, shoving them in the faces of the monks and blinding everyone in their vicinity. It’s still dark, and the flash is extraordinarily bright. We left after a few minutes, Luang Prabang might look undisturbed, but it too has paid the price for tourism.
We hire a guide to take us to the mountains. There are three ethnic groups in Laos (pronounced with the ’s’ by the way): the Lao people, who are Buddhist, and the two indigenous peoples, the Hmong and the Khmu, who are animists. We trek for a day through hillside, cow fields, along a small river, past wild horses, rice paddies, oxen, to get to the village. About 100 people live in this one, making it a larger village. It has a school, so children from other villages come here and live in boarding style huts during the term—two or three girls to a one room hut, sleeping side by side on rush mats. Most of the village sleeps on rush matting on the floor, the huts varying in size. They get their water from the well, although this well-appointed village appears to have three wells.
The village people are farmers, so they rise early and tend to their fields. The children go to school, and while the 6 year old dresses herself and brushes her own hair, the 8 year old boy makes himself and his siblings breakfast. I watch him place the pot over the open fire and add rice, cooking it into a plain congee. This they will take to school and it will be their only meal until dinner. Like their parents, the children are stoic and self-sustaining. After school, they will play in the village until evening, or take a bath. All people in Laos are particularly clean, and bathe daily. Here, bathing involves sitting by the well pump, wrapped in a sarong (women) or shorts (men), and using a mug to pour water over yourself. Privacy is non-existent, you literally bathe out in the open, and all of them bathe in groups.
There is no electricity, so once dark falls, most people go to sleep. They cook dinner over a fire, and it’s typically cabbage soup. The night we are there, our homestay family has a daughter visiting from Luang Prabang, along with her husband. We watch them chasethe chickens around, until one is caught, squawking and screaming. With admirable efficiency, the chicken is killed, plucked, gutted and chopped. The entire process takes 15 mins, and it will make a delicious addition to whatever is simmering over the perpetual fire in the hut. Around the fire sleeps a puppy, one of several belonging to the family. A kitten sleeps on top of him, one of a new litter. The dogs of the village, along with the chickens, the ducks and the pigs, roam freely around, seemingly wild, but we are told that each of them belongs to a family, and that everyone is able to intuitively know which livestock and animals belong to them.
The exception is a single chicken tied to a post by the house. This is the lucky chicken, who is taken out hunting and whose voice attracted the wild birds to be hunted. He is special. Poor chicken doesn’t feel too lucky though, being tied up and forced to stay put while the other chickens get to roam around. Ah, we’re told, but this chicken is safer than the others, and is well-fed too, while the other chickens have to fend for themselves. It seems that luck is just a matter of perspective then.
In the evening, the whole family will sit together around the fire and eat dinner. Come October, the harvest is done and for four months, there will be no work in the fields. The village will celebrate, with festivals designed to help young people fall in love, and to while away the cooler months
Often, when we travel, we hear people say how it makes them grateful for their own lives. But feeling grateful, aside from being neo-colonial and condescending (imagine if someone looked into your life and it made them feel grateful for their own), is also extremely limiting. It stops you from seeing the greatness is another way of living. I looked at the village, where everyone knows everyone and safety isn’t an issue. Where young girls don’t suffer from body image issues, and where everyone has a home and a place. There was a young woman, deaf and perhaps more, who was unable to speak. She squawked and made hand gestures to communicate, and yet she had a place here. Her job for the day was to grind the corn for the chickens, and we saw her bathing with the other girls later in the evening, a part of their gang.
Here were people who ate organic everyday. They lived in close knit communities, and took four months off every year. They were close to their land, their families, their neighbors and their gods. And that, frankly, seems like a pretty good life to live.