As far as tourism in Laos is concerned, the town of Luang Prabang is it. It?s the only real attraction Laos has and many people fly directly into town from Thailand or Cambodia. My bus arrived in the late afternoon on the outskirts of town. The taxi I shared dropped us off on the outskirts of the main tourist area and I started walking. The first hotel I walked into had one large room covered in spider webs for $7 a night. Considering I hadn?t paid more than $3 in Laos so far I promptly left to find something more reasonable. Unfortunately, there wasn?t anything more reasonable–atleast in the old town area where the night market, restaurants and attractions were located. Carrying my huge backpack door to door, the first 15 hotels I tried had no vacancy. When I finally found a hotel room, even though it was $12 a night, I took it. Atleast it didn?t have spider webs.
The town has received a large amount of funding from UNESCO for maintenance and beautification. Many of the smaller streets have been re-laid with brick which adds to the beauty of the numerous wats in town. The old town is a peninsula formed by the Mekong and Khan Rivers which beautifully frame the mountains surrounding the area. Luang Prabang is famous because of it?s 32 wats. The number of wats is surely due to the fact that it was a royal city up until the 1975 revolution, when the royal family either fled Thailand or was sent to labor camps. I started my tour at the royal palace which is actually quite small. Determined to do some drawing I sat down in front of the King?s bedroom to recreate the interesting three-headed elephant bed frame. Five minutes and half a drawing later a guard came by, waving her hands and shaking her head until I stopped drawing. Photos of the interior of the palace are forbidden but I would never think that I would not be allowed to draw. I was so angry that I stomped through the rest of the palace, retrieved my shoes from their locker and left.
Over the following days I visited as many wats as possible but after a while they all start to look like red and gold copies of each other with slightly different details. I continued drawing (you can see the drawings in the sketchbook section) and spent enormous amounts of time on a few of the more intricate carvings I saw. Meeting monks was easy and after a while I tried to hide from them so I wouldn?t have to give impromptu English (and sometimes Spanish) lessons. It?s a strange contradiction: you want to see the culture and photograph the people but sometimes you just don?t want to talk to them. It sounds horrible and selfish but you have to understand that every person who talks to you asks you the exact some questions. I am asked every day which country I?m from–sometimes as many as twenty times. And when you?re American (or from the U.S.–don?t want to offend any Canadians out there) a whole other layer of questions and assumptions come with conversation that most Europeans don?t have to deal with. I did enjoy speaking to the monk who wanted Spanish lessons because he genuinely wanted to learn. I also met a nice monk in a remote wat who later sent me a love letter.
However, the most surprising person I met in Luang Prabang was a girl who I went to high school with. I was sitting on my own eating dinner on New Year?s eve, contemplating how I would spend the evening when she approached me. I recognized her right away and we decided to meet up for a few drinks closer to midnight. On my way to the bar I attempted a shortcut which led me down a small street lined with locals celebrating the new year. It was obviously a dead end but I was soon invited to celebrate with a group of friends sitting outside their home grilling fish and drinking beer. One of the men played his guitar while I tried to drink as little as possible from the dirty beer glass I was given. Normally I wouldn?t accept beer from strangers but they seemed harmless and there were neighbors around to watch out for me. Soon the brother of the guitarist had his camera phone out and I was the unwilling star of a long photo session. Everyone wanted to have photos taken with me and I had to watch my glass while I was posing so nobody succeeded in refilling it.
New Year?s went over without a hangover from the many bottles of Beer Lao I consumed. I spent a few more days walking around town, eating pizza and bagels at the fancy cafes before deciding it was time to move on. Before leaving I ran into a German friend I had met in Southern Laos and I convinced him to follow me up north to the beautiful “town” of Muang Ngoi, which is where you?ll hear from me next.
You can see the photos from Luang Prabang here.