A good feeling runs through Luang Prabang. It sounds cheesy, but there is something almost cosmically happy and upbeat about this place. Part of this “feeling” no doubt has to do with the beautiful setting. More than that though, the locals’ positive attitude and laidback demeanor surely rubs off on tourists. The owner of our hotel told us that he and his wife can tell how long a tourist has been in town by the speed of his or her gait. A faster clip on day one gives way to a gentle stroll by day three.
On one of our first days in LP, Bliss and I happened to comment to each other that we had not made any friends we planned on keeping in touch with on this trip, nor had we even added anyone to our Facebook friends’ lists yet. After a couple of days in LP, that all changed. We met lots of friends, during our activities, eating breakfast at the hotel, and simply hanging out around town. It is easy to meet people when everyone is smiling and excited about the country they are exploring.
One couple we met towards the beginning of our stay, Austrian-Australians (that must get confusing), proved to be extremely valuable contacts. We met them at breakfast, and the woman was an instant hit with Jude. Despite her energetic play with Jude, she told us that she was suffering from a bad head cold. We decided to give her the last of our dissolvable vitamin-C tablets to help her out. She was very thankful, and we didn’t think much more about them, as they checked out of our hotel and moved to another guesthouse down the street (because they decided to extend their stay in LP).
Later, when Bliss took her cooking class, I looked after Jude for the day.
We spent the morning walking around town, checking out little temples and running some errands. Something felt wrong as we left the café where we had had our lunch. Then it hit me: where was Mickey Mouse? (Followers of our blog will know that we’ve had some problems keeping hold of Jude’s stuffed animals already during this trip.) Bliss is going to be really ticked; Jude is going to be inconsolable, once he notices; and I’m not even going to be able to blog about this—it’s too embarrassing. These were the thoughts that were going through my head as I retraced all of our steps in an unsuccessful effort to locate Mickey.
Despairing, I hardly thought twice about it when I ran into the Austrian-Australian couple, who could sense my panic (very out of place in laidback LP). I hurriedly told them Mickey was MIA, and was practically walking away when the woman thanked me again for the dissolvable vitamin-C tablets. Yeah yeah, I thought, I need to go find Mickey.
Despite walking all over town and asking everyone I saw (discretely, so Jude wouldn’t hear), I couldn’t find Mickey. By the time I got back to the hotel, Jude had noticed, and Bliss was back from her class. I came clean with everyone. We told Jude that Mickey was on a date with Minnie, and that he would be back soon (we were banking that Disney’s popularity in Asia would mean that we could find a replacement, and soon).
While Jude napped (it took some time for him to go down because he was missing his friend; I sung about 50 rounds of “Happy Birthday,” his current favorite), I hopped a tuk-tuk and made a beeline for the nearest toy store. No Mickey. The best I could do was Winnie the Pooh, a relative unknown to Jude. Returning to the hotel with Jude still asleep, I downloaded the new Winnie the Pooh movie—my thought was to build up excitement about the character with the movie before presenting the new friend.
Then: a major stroke of luck. As we were loading up to go out to dinner, we heard a knock on the door. The Austrian-Australians! They had Mickey! Crisis averted! They spotted him being held by a waiter at a restaurant where Jude and I had not been. Obviously, Jude had thrown him out of his stroller (as is his wont, from time to time) and I had not noticed. Hey, being a single parent (even temporarily) is hard work.
After Bliss’ fun day of cooking school, I did a combination biking/kayaking trip to Tat Se Waterfall (actually several waterfalls in the middle of a jungle that all fall into turquoise pools of water). This basically consisted of: a two-hour bike ride to the falls; tasty buffalo soup for lunch; zip-lining for an hour or so through the jungle, with some extremely intrepid Lao guides; and then kayaking back to LP, downstream on the Nam Khan. A memorable day, rounded off with some great Lao food back in LP that night (Tamarind Restaurant’s Friday Night Lao Celebration Feast).
I told Bliss about Tat Se, and she wanted to see it for herself, so on our last day in LP, we got a babysitter (a woman who worked at the hotel and who had taken a special interest in Jude) and went for it. Both of us zip-lined, and then I had the unforgettable experience of “elephant bathing” (as the $10 experience was advertised on a chalkboard, with no additional explanation).
What this meant in practice was climbing on top of an elephant’s neck from on top of a platform about six feet off the ground. I wasn’t given any instruction, overview of what was going to happen, or an English-speaking elephant minder, for that matter. I just got on, and the elephant started to go. He wasn’t going where the minder wanted, so he got yelled at, and eventually whacked with a leather strap with a metal spike at the end. (Good thing he was thick skinned, figuratively and literally.)
Where he was supposed to go was into the pool of water to bathe with me on his back. Where he wanted to go was over to a pagoda where a Lao school trip was enjoying lunch (along with Beer Lao; my high school wasn’t nearly that cool). He managed to get his trunk into the pagoda and started poking around for food while the school girls screamed. A teacher yelled at the elephant, and that combined with the minder’s strap was enough to convince him finally to make his way over to the pool.
The elephant walked in and stood around for a moment. This evidently wasn’t what the minder wanted him to do, because he kept up his yelling at the elephant, and threatened another lashing. After a little while, the elephant lowered himself into the water. This momentarily terrified me. I didn’t know how deep the water was, so I didn’t know whether I would be fully submerged along with the elephant. I had visions of jumping off the elephant’s back underwater, and swimming around blindly trying to avoid being trampled, strangled by his trunk, or at the very least, bumping into some of the coconut-sized turds that were floating in the water next to us. Fortunately, the water was the exact right depth for him to get fully under while I remained largely above the surface. Eventually, I was able to relax and enjoy the experience at least a little bit. I’m glad to have done it, but would not jump at the opportunity to do it again, especially after seeing the questionable handling of the elephant.
We would be remiss not to mention some of the recent history involving Laos, impossible not to think of when visiting the country. Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the history of the world. (Vietnam is the most bombed country. The US, of course, has the dubious distinction of having been responsible for setting both of these records.) During the course of the US’s “secret war” with Laos, we dropped more bombs on it than were dropped on all of Europe during WWII.
With these facts as background, the experience of visiting Laos as an American is the polar opposite of visiting Berlin as an American, and the former involves a lot of crow eating. Seeing the remnants of the Third Reich in Berlin, patriotism abounds. Hitler’s Germany set out to conquer the free world and perpetrated the holocaust; we stood up to the menace, achieved victory, and did ourselves proud.
Visiting Laos? This tiny landlocked developing nation with the sweetest and most good natured people in the world? We bombed them into oblivion in what—certainly with the benefit of historical hindsight—appears to have been an ill-advised and wholly unnecessary war.
Although many of the bombs remain unexploded and the clean-up efforts are ongoing, Laos appeared to have done a remarkably good job of moving on. We did not visit any of the areas most affected by US bombing (such as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or the Plain of Jars). However, we never met anyone who outwardly bore any grudge against Americans. On the contrary, everyone welcomed us with open arms and seemed genuinely curious about the US.
ALL PICTURES FROM LUANG PRABANG, LAOS: here
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