Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Feb 27 2010

Luang Prabang

February 23, 2010

I managed to get up at 5:45 a.m., but Chenbl had problems, so it was well after 6 before we got out the door and along the still-dark streets as the day began to show up. We saw the flashes of the hordes of tourist photographers well before we saw the lines of monks walking down the street. I took a few halfhearted shots, but lost interest quickly; it was just too awkward. So we walked over to the temple and found our two friends from last night. They were sweeping the temple courtyard, and were waiting for the bell that called them to breakfast. Kittens played under their feet. They gave us their email address so we could send them the pictures we took of them. As we left, we passed a monk standing in the gateway talking to a girl on a motorcycle.

The sun came out as we were walking back towards the hotel, but it was still cold out. When we got back, looking forward to breakfast, we found the tuk-tuk driver waiting to take us to the docks for the river cruise we’d signed up for yesterday. He was half an hour early, though, so we told him to come back after breakfast. He didn’t seem very happy at this. The breakfast, however, was good, omelets, bacon, French bread, fries and fruit served out on the front balcony by the river.

The now-surly tuk-tuk driver drove us in silence to the nearby docks. We could have walked there easily, but I guess there was some sort of ticket procedure that we would have missed. Someone who would have gotten paid wouldn’t get their cut, I suppose. A large group of foreigners sat around waiting for their number to be called. I chose a spot in the sun and tried to warm up after deciding to leave my jacket in the room; I figured it would warm up soon enough.

I was wrong; after climbing aboard our assigned boat and sitting in front of the others, the wind on the river cancelled out any warmth the sun could deal out at that point. The other four people on the boat were two older couples, rich westerners from Australia and Canada. They had much to talk about, mostly about all the places they’d been and the horrible accidents they’d seen there. Chenble and I pretty much pretended we didn’t speak English and avoided the ghastly details of their conversation.

We passed houseboats and construction sites, fishermen and people on the bank sorting rocks, crossing rapids and navigating rocks. The boatman shifted right or left in his seat according to Chenble’s position.

We stopped for gas at a floating fill-up station. By the time we reached another village set up for tourists, the sunlight was gaining strength. We saw the same scenes as at the other village, but there was a temple nearby, so we stopped in to find a small monk chanting mantras in his little room as his friend played with a balloon.

More rapids awaited us back on the river before approaching the caves that were our destination. Of course we had to pay to get in; we had to pay for just about everything, including the restrooms. The caves themselves held thousands of Buddhist statues, almost one for every tourist there, it seemed.

On the way to the upper cave, I passed, in addition to the obligatory small children selling trinkets, a small American boy wearing a t-shirt reading “The Next Big Thing” being carried down the stairs by his parents. How appropriate, I thought. The upper cave was dark inside; the woman outside was renting flashlights and selling water at thrice the usual price. She could do this, of course, as nobody else at the caves was selling water.

Back down the stairs, the boatman was yelling up at us to hurry up, as he was in a hurry. Next to all the other boats, it appeared that we’d gotten the slowest boat with the worst seats. Other boats had been passing us all the way there, and they’d all featured comfortable bus seats instead of the padded benches we had.

Other boats continued to pass us, one with foreigners hanging their legs off the sides into the water. The warmth of the weather and the gentle rocking of the boat made it easy to doze off on the way back; waking up on a boat going down the Mekong is an interesting experience.

The return trip was much faster as we were traveling with the current, and a sudden wind blew in as we pulled up to the docks at Luang Prabang. I’d read that arriving there by boat is the best option, and I could see why; the beautiful buildings along the high bank make for an impressive sight.

We walked down the now-bright, mostly empty streets and had a delicious lunch of chicken sandwiches and salad before going next door for a traditional Lao massage. Unlike most massages, this one didn’t hurt and felt very nice.

At another temple, I took pictures while Chenble chatted with a monk who wanted to learn Chinese. Up past a group of monks fixing a wall were a bell tower and a drum tower overlooking the river below.

As the afternoon was beginning to wear on, we made our way up the hill at the center of town, paying a fee to ascend to the very top, from which the whole valley was visible. As sunset approached, huge crowds of tourists appeared to take pictures. I sat next to a European woman who lived in Houston; I wondered aloud just what people like so much about sunsets, taking pictures of the crowd every so often. The crowd was not impressed with this. We met the girls from the waterfall trip yesterday, and a group of French tourists got yelled at for hogging the view. The crowd began to disperse immediately after the sun disappeared behind the hills that surround the town, but we stayed on, accompanied only by a few other people. Well-known photographer Michael Kenna showed up, amazingly, setting up his tripod facing the structure at the top of the hill. “The light is going to get really good in a few minutes,” he told me. He was right; as soon as they turned on the lights of the complex, it was downright magical.

The downside of staying for this phenomenon was walking down the mountain on a path completely devoid of light. We managed with the aid of my iPhone as a flashlight.

A pizza dinner attracted a black cat to jump up on my lap in search of scraps. Cats are a common sight in Laos, I’ve found; perhaps the Lao people have an affection for them, as opposed to Chinese people, who think cats are bad luck. After dinner, we picked up a few things at the night market before returning to the hotel. We’re leaving Luang Prabang tomorrow, flying back to Vientiane, but hopefully we’ll see a few more things before go. I quite like this place, though it is entirely overrun with tourists. As with many of the places we’ve been on this trip, I could spend weeks here just wandering around and taking pictures.

posted by Poagao at 11:59 pm  

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