Last Updated on Sunday, 27 October 2013 20:37
Written by Warren Allen Ashby
Page 1 of 3
As you will see at the conclusion of this piece, by the end of my first 24 hours in Vietnam I knew that I had passed into another kind of time, back into a world where violence is always immanent and often real, and although this piece is about Laotian time and not Vietnamese I guess it is true that often you have to cross a border before you can really see what you have left behind.
Like the open boat that plies the familiar canal,
I find that I come again and again to you.
Anonymous, from the Kokinshu 732
Quoted in Edward Seidensticker's tr. of The Tale of Genji (101).
12 O'clock: Prime Meridian ["It's time to go."]
As you will see at the conclusion of this piece, by the end of my first 24 hours in Vietnam I knew that I had passed into another kind of time, back into a world where violence is always immanent and often real, and although this piece is about Laotian time and not Vietnamese I guess it is true that often you have to cross a border before you can really see what you have left behind. Still, by the time my first 24 hours in Vietnam were up I had already been deftly scammed five times after having had that experience only once in the 24 days I was in Laos.
So, if you will, let me begin across the border in Vietnam and start this reverie from the back half of a van that passed for a local bus. It was descending from a mountain village near Khe Sanh and on its way to Hue, gorging and disgorging passengers and cargo at absolutely random intervals. Under my feet were two huge sacks of rice stacked on top of my pack and next to my feet were two circular wire mesh containers of live piglets; 6 in one and 4 in the other. And over there in the corner was a man with a live duck between his feet sitting next to an old woman chewing a red glob of betel nut and occasionally spitting a stream of red juice onto the floor, and occasionally onto my backpack. But my real nemesis was in front of me, and there was no escaping him.
He was probably 35 and dressed in a dirty blue flashy track suit, and he was drunk and it was only 9:30 in the morning, and I didn't know it then but I still had another two hours of his almost undivided attention. Earlier he had moved me, somewhat against my will, from the first bus I had been on where they had scammed me out of $8 (or 100,000 Vietnamese dong) and into his van, yelling out as he sucked up my large pack, "No steal! No steal! Vietnamese no steal," which wasn't particularly comforting since I wasn't sure why these three words were three of his fifteen chosen ones. But he hoisted my bag into the back of his van and now I was his full attention, and what he wanted more than anything else was to talk.
He kept telling me: "English no good; baby no school." And: "Kennedy and Bill Clinton Number 1; Ho Chi Minh and Lenin Number 10" and he would display his disgust at Number 10 by jamming his thumb down in a vigorous gesture as if he were squashing a bug. I wanted to be polite, although I knew it was useless to be polite to a drunk, just as it is useless to be anything to a drunk, but I didn't want to make my precarious situation any worse. Then after an hour or so he stopped telling me "baby no school" and decided he wanted to learn the words for "market," (which we had just passed) and for "jacket," and "pants" which were nearer at hand, and then in what became a mutually frustrating experience, he took off his watch and he wanted me to teach him how to tell time in English. He spun the hour hand like a roulette wheel, and at first we did fairly well since he knew his numbers: "One o'clock," "two o'clock," "three o'clock . . . ." although at first he thought "seven" was really "eleven," but the problems started when he moved the minute hand. Was that 5:13 or 5:14? And what exactly is "six oh!? three?" Why isn't it "six zero three?" And is that "7:45" or "quarter to eight?" And if you can say "ten to nine" for 8:50, why can't you say "thirteen to nine?" And if 10:45 is quarter to eleven, then why isn't 10:30, "half to eleven?" But before we could get to midnight or noon we arrived in Hue, my destination, and as a parting gesture he offered to shake hands and when I put out my hand he took it, and brought it up to his lips and gave it a long and appreciative kiss. Welcome to Vietnam!
# # # # #
The flight time from Kennedy to Tokyo's Narita airport is 14 hours and it's another 6 to Bangkok, and Bangkok was where I was meant to begin and end this trip. My plans were to spend a month each in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. It had been 10 years since I had really traveled alone, and it was interesting to me that I had approached this trip with more trepidation than I did when I spent 15 months on the road, and I also quickly learned how much in the last ten years I have developed a tendency to fret about life, worrying about every small detail long in advance, and it took a full experience of Laos' sense of time to break a ten year bad habit, and to at least change worrying about what might come to thinking about what might come.
But even before I had cut that Gordian knot the world was revealing itself to be a series of enjoyable little challenges and successes: I needed a piece of scotch tape to hold part of my palm top computer in place, and discovered that my airline luggage receipt pealed off and so I cut a piece of it off to do the trick. Or I needed some new small plastic bags to cover my passport and my money in my passport case that I wore around my neck, and voila there they were on my airline lunch tray protecting my silverware and my napkin. And the hours passed and I arrived in Bangkok a little after midnight, and by accident found a beautiful old 6 room Guest House right on the Chao Phraya river that divides that city the way the Thames or the Seine does theirs, and I relaxed for a day and then booked a night train to the Thailand border town of Nong Khai where the Australians have built the Friendship Bridge into Laos, one of the two major bridges across the Mekong, (called the Nan Kong in Laos) (and which, by the way, the Lao pronounce "Lao" without the sound of the "s," an alteration which the French created in one of their typical un-neo colonial mistakes).
And here in Nong Khai it quickly became a case of mistaken identity, or, if you prefer, of screwing up where every new reader of a language screws up: namely, ignoring the words that don't make any sense.
The Lonely Planet guides are the cheap backpacker's Bible. They give you all the essential information of how to get there, what to see, where to eat, and where to stay, and before I left I visited their web site to get some of the most recent information that travelers had posted to it, and I found out there that you could get a Laos visa in Nong Khai by going to Khon Kaen and walking along the lake past the temple and 1 km down the road to the Laos Consulate. So when I got to Nong Khai I set out with the map the guy at the guest house gave me which had on it "Laos Immigration" and I started to walk toward it, and sure enough there was a lake on my right, a large one, and I walked by two Temples though their names were in Thai, and after I walked a mile or so in the 100 degree plus heat I stopped at an expensive hotel and asked the desk clerk where the Laos Consulate was. But she didn't speak English, though graciously she put me on the phone to someone at another hotel who did, who told me that I was an idiot and that my information was all wrong, and that she could get me a visa in one hour, not for 1000 baht ($25) but for 2000B though it would include transportation across the bridge.
Well, it took this idiot the rest of the day looking at maps, and practicing my English in a variety of air line ticket offices to figure out that:
(1) There are a lot of temples in Thailand;
(2) The lake I was walking by was really the Mekong River;
(3) Her visa was only good for 15 days and would cost $5 a day to renew in Laos; and
(4) That Khon Kaen (the two words I didn't understand) was a town 170 km (3 hrs) back down the railway line and that I would have to catch a 7:40 a.m. train there, pray that I could get the visa done in 3 hours, and catch the 2 p.m. train back, and lose a day traveling by train.
So it seems that there are some serious and fundamental relationships between language and time that I really hadn't understood before I started this trip. But the idiot was learning. Though I won't regal you with the comedy of errors of getting the visa in Nong Khai. Suffice it to say that eventually pluck and luck won out over cupidity and stupidity, and early one morning, two days later, the driver of my tuk-tuk (a loud three wheeled taxi found cheaply all over South Asia and Thailand) dropped me at the Thai side of the Friendship Bridge, and I was ready to enter Laotian space, and time.
One O'clock: Vientiane: [Biding time.]
From the Thai side, for some inexplicable reason, it takes the bus 30 minutes to show up to ferry you the two minutes it takes to cross the Mekong. I was standing at the back with two Lao men when one of them tells me that he is going back home for 3 days after having been away for 10 years. "Welcome to Laos," he says to me. We are both beaming, and then once we disembarked, I passed through customs, changed $50 for 1560 kip for a dollar and before I could put that thick wad of money away there was a Laotian tuk-tuk driver who offered to take me the 20 km to Vientiane for 80 baht ($2.50) and so we were off. Rock and roll.
My driver asked me what Guest House I wanted and I told him but when we got there they were full as was the one next to it, and even though I had already paid him, he remained faithful and took me to another place which had a room that needed to be cleaned: fan and hot shower for $10. I took it since this was a special festival week and it was likely that many of the cheaper Guest Houses would be full, and besides the woman at the desk spoke 4 languages fluently and as her husband passed me in the hall he joked with me in English. I felt like I was "in the zone" and I asked him about the holiday and he said: "it starts this evening," and I asked him if he thought the Vietnam Embassy would still be open, and he said: "probably until noon," and so, since it was 11:30 (and I needed to arrange that visa) I left my bag and took my tuk-tuk driver, who was still faithful and beaming, and we headed out and found it; I filled out the forms, gave them $55 and they promised it would be waiting for me in a week when I returned. Back at the Guest House my room was ready; I gave them my laundry to do. I noticed that they had nice postcards and stamps for sale and a small restaurant. Time was flowing quickly and easily; I felt like a boat in a fast and open current. No rocks. Rushing water. Both banks far away.
Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is a comfortable small town, and you can easily negotiate it by foot, as you can Florence. It has a few major paved streets and a boulevard or two, but most of its cross streets are still dust or mud. It's a town that seems overrun by teenagers and potholes, or maybe the men and women just all look young. Certainly they seem to be mothers at an early age. And they all have their own motorbike, a Honda 100 or its equivalent, driven equally by men and women, though rarely with a woman driving and a man on the back. The women are often very attractive but poured from the same mold: 90 pounds, thin waists, long black hair, pants (sometimes bell bottoms), a tee shirt and often with a long sleeve shirt unbuttoned over that. The men are often the same, but with a light jacket replacing the open shirt. The other outfit for the women is the sarong and often a silk blouse replaces the double shirts. There are an enormous number of bicycles, often being ridden by younger kids coming to and from school, and often you see people holding a hand across their faces as they ride, protecting themselves from what they perceive to be fumes and the dust, and often the young girls on the bicycles will carry an open umbrella as they cycle along to protect themselves from the heat.
The Lao word for hello is "sadahwee," and you will hear it a lot, especially from young children from 2-12 who will shout it out at you as you pass by and then wave their hands with their palm open outward in a tick-tock motion like a clock's pendulum. They are a shy but friendly people and they will often stop to stare at you, even in Vientiane, as if foreigners are still really the stranger to them, which given their history, we are, and so I spent a lot of my day smiling and waving. A welcome exchange. Though surprisingly to me, since Laos has really only been open to tourists for a couple of years, there is also a good deal of English around, on the signs, even on some of the restaurant stall signs.
In the afternoon I visited a number of the local Wats. These are the Buddhist temple complexes which you will find all over southeast Asia, and in order to be an official Wat they each must contain at least six parts: a sim or enclosed temple where the monks can be consecrated; an open pavilion for lectures; a dorm for the young monks to live in; a library; a stupa (or monument), and a tower containing a large drum. The architecture varies from Wat to Wat as do the sculptures of the Buddha contained inside the temple, or the colorful paintings that often appear on the walls, most often depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha.
I also paid a quick visit to the Patuxal down at the end of a long Boulevard. It's the "Arc de Triomphe" for Vientiane, and for 200 kip you can climb the circular stairway inside it. It was completed with cement that the United States government gave to finish the airport runway, and so some locals call it "the vertical runway." But the views from the top are grand, out over the lush green hills to the mountains far beyond and back in the other direction over the Mekong. It's peaceful here and you can sense that this capital town still fits into the larger landscape, without sky scrapers or factories or even a sprawling suburban area. It's still a carpet of green in all directions.
Since I arrived during the festival of the boat races, in honor of the full harvest moon in October, there are hundreds of small food and beer stalls along the dirt road that fronts the Mekong, and there are at least half a dozen large rock music stages set up for later in the evening. During the day the boats are raced next to the shore. The boats themselves are extraordinarily long and thin. Forty rowers sit in pairs of twos down the middle with five extra rowers standing along a curved stern and given this man(sic)power the boats can move for short distances at a good speed. There are boats either for men or women, and never gender mixed, either inside a boat or in the competitions.
In the evening, just after dark, the people gather along the banks of the Mekong and put small flower boats into the river. You can purchase these boats everywhere. They are most often in the shape of a circular crown decorated with flowers and with candles stuck into them. These candles are lit and the people gently place them into the Mekong's current, and as they float away they are meant to carry away the sins of your year. It is quite beautiful to see, hundreds and hundreds of yellow lights floating down the river as far as the eye can see, and the kids shooting off roman candles everywhere. Lights in the sky, lights on the water, and gaiety everywhere in between. It is a unique time, and for me, a wonderful way to enter Laotian space.
Two O'clock: Vang Vieng [Time out.]
Still, three days later I set out for Vang Vieng, a small mountain town on the way to Luang Prabang. The guide book said that you shouldn't travel by road to Luang Prabang because of the poor condition of the road and because of the frequent robberies and some killings, but the book is wrong. Things are changing fast, and the road has been completed, and it has been exactly one year since the last robbery.
Vang Vieng itself is "not without charm" as the Lonely Planet says. It's a little off the main road, and since it is up in the mountains I expected it to be cooler, but there's no wind, and it's a hot hot heat. I found the Phoubane Guest House that a Swiss couple I had met on the train in Thailand had suggested I try, and it is really quite fine. There are five rooms upstairs in an old wooden house, each 4,000 kip. There are sit down toilets and mandy baths (large containers of water with plastic ladles) for showers downstairs, and it has a small restaurant attached.
After I settled in I took a walk out of town, and down to the river, and took some pictures. The mountains here are jagged, as they were in the north of Cameroon, or the north of Malaysia. The houses here like most village houses in southeast Asia are on stilts. It's cooler this way, it keeps the bugs and animals away, and lets the rain and the mud remain below. The walls are built out of teak wood, or woven mats, as well as the newer concrete and brick. There's a good size indoor/outdoor market at the bus station. But now for the first time on my trip my first afternoon and evening here are harder to describe, because their pleasures were so deep, so momentary, and so simple, although the passage into these pleasures passes first through three individuals I met and saw that first day.
The first was Kerry, a 53 year old American who was also saying at the Phoubane, and has more than mastered the art of the monologue. According to his own nearly interminable testimonial, he has been traveling alone since 1971, takes Valium, and is a little worried about his "loose ends." I was quietly reading on the veranda when he passed by me and I casually asked him if he knew how to get to Luang Prabang and after I dropped that coin, his music played for 20 minutes, and I never did get my question answered. Originally he was from San Francisco where his father was a judge and he was going to be a lawyer, but in 1971 (I didn't ask) he threw it all over and dropped out, and has never really found or wanted a way back in again. He told me about his rootlessness, his half-hearted desire to be a journalist, his hatred of India where the doctors set his broken clavicle incorrectly. He exudes a constant stream of energy, but he never once had a question for me. I had been worrying that I was staying too close to "home" and not really venturing out enough, but he really never went off the grounds here. So it was hard for me to see what he was seeing, and what he was trying to be a part of when he traveled, and yet he seemed to have all his belongings in a single day pack while I was still lugging about my 40 pound backpack as well as my day pack. Even so, I must confess that in my first comparisons to him, I suddenly felt better about what I was trying to do, and doing.
Then later at dinner I met a young man from New Zealand, Harun. He too was on the road by himself, though only for eight months so far but with no hurry to return home. He still had Europe and Latin America he wanted to see. He was heading up to China now, but wanted to be able to be back in Bangkok with his mates for Christmas and New Years. He didn't want to be alone then, but he had some nice stories (about primitive tribes in Sumatra where on an alcohol induced whim he got a tatoo on his right shoulder)(a lovely abstract design actually), and he shakes hands to introduce himself, and asks questions, though the answers don't seem to interest him much since often he asks the same question twice. And when he went to pay our hostess he just talked naturally in his New Zealand accent assuming she would understand his English and his desire to pay for his half of the room (since he was sharing it with a fellow traveler from Boston), and for me since her English was very limited and he wasn't trying any Lao at all, the miracle was she did, which suddenly said a lot to me about my own reticence to approach others because of my own fears of becoming cornered in a conversation where neither of us could understand the other.
I saw my third lesson of learning that day up the main road at the second large Wat. There was a festival going on with a good deal of praying, some games, speakers blaring, food, and crowds of people. I first discovered it on a walk around 5 p.m., just before dusk. There were a few farangs (foreigners) there as well, and one British man in his mid-20s was trying to gather 30 kids about him in order to have his picture taken with them, and the kids were delighted, though as the process stretched out from a moment into minutes some of them wandered away. But I came to admire him because after he had photographed his moment of time he continued to play with the kids and talk to them, often stooping to be on their level, and letting them climb all over him. This play continued for half an hour or more and from their enthusiasm he seemed to me to be a natural teacher. His six farang friends were just sitting and watching, and so he was the unique man out, and doubly so I thought since he had had to overcome his biological British reserve.
In any case, I could see that each of these three men had gifts I do not have. I could not travel like Kerry for my whole life. I know now the whole world is not equally my home. Now traveling for me only makes sense as an equal aspect of rootedness, though, I often ask myself, if my house burned down and the college detenured me, where exactly are those roots?
And I don't have Harun's naturalness. He seems perfectly at ease. He's not even concerned about how to get to Luang Prabang, or when the bus or truck leaves, while in my own (biologically induced?) fretting I walked up in the afternoon heat to check on the next morning's schedule. On the other hand he missed yesterday's only afternoon bus from Vientiane, and so he had to come up with a private sawng-thaew, (a small pick-up truck with an enclosed roof and benches down the right and left sides) but then, for him of course, it was honestly "no worry mate".
And I can't join in as easily as the young British bloke with the kids. Earlier down by the river four men had asked me to come sit with them, but I refused, and often young men, and sometimes children will stop and try to talk to me, and I can feel myself tense as if I'm going to make a mistake, or as if we'll hit a deep hole of dark silence, and while it is very important to me to acknowledge every "hello," to try to be patient even with the drunks, to constantly (and honestly) smile, still I can't take that extra giant step and join in. So, evidently I'm not Te Kaihau (the wanderer), I fret too much, and I can't really fit in, but hey like Popeye, "I am vat I am," and now this is the part I can't tell.
After dinner Harun had heard about a restaurant up the block that had 10 farangs in it, and he was excited to go and thought I would be too, especially since there was little to do here except watch TV with our hosts. But finally after he left I walked off in the other direction. It was partly because I don't feel that I fit in with farangs and their desire to separate themselves from where they are, but mainly it was because I enjoy being on my own, and enjoy the other direction. And as I walked down the road in the dark, the stars were extraordinarily bright, and then as I passed each house around 7 p.m., I could see the families sitting on the floor in a circle sharing bowls of food, eating with their fingers. And off and on someone would say "sadahwee," and I would say "sadahwee" back. And later when I returned in the dark to the festival at the Wat there were women sitting on the ground on either side of the road selling food, and illuminating each woman was a single small oil burning lamp, and the effect of the two long lines of light and the smoke was breathtakingly beautiful, and suddenly even in that moment it was difficult to explain, even to myself the joy of the walk, the stars, the open homes, the sounds, the long lines of light. Are these the gifts of old age, as Eliot says, and were they gifts only for me? Do I travel only to walk down a road a night, alone in the dark, watching others live their lives? Is that it? But if that's it, then why can't I communicate the joy I felt, or the feeling of finally being at home here where I was, on a dirt road, off, in the other direction, in time with myself?
The next day I took one of the great walks of my life. Harun and his Boston roommate were going on a tour to some caves which the Lonely Planet recommends as one of the local attractions. OK, OK, as the local attraction, but my Swiss friends told me my hostess knew of a private walk to some other caves, and so after everyone left in the morning, I asked her and she got me the "map", and I copied down the route to The Other Direction:
Go down to the river,
take the small boat across,
go up the dirt road for 5 km,
turn right for 1 km,
at the school turn to your right and pass through the gate,
keep walking on the path and
when you come to mountain, climb the steep hill up to the mouth of the cave.
And so I set out around 9. And I did well for a long while, and even loved walking on the dirt road past rice paddies with the green jagged mountain peaks all around in the heat of the morning. But shortly after the school I got lost in the myriad choices of paths, and although some kids laughingly set me straight, and I gave the oldest girl a tennis ball, when I crossed a stream in the narrows I walked too far to the left and didn't go back right to the main path, and I was lost again. This time I was really lost, although it took me thirty minutes of being wrong before I decided I had better go back in order to be right. But I spent that thirty minutes in the "Vietnam jungle." It was a path, or at least I think it was, twisting and at times invisible. Damp and wet. Green and slippery. Closed in. It rambled up and down steep hills over rocks and roots. With vines like snakes. Briars and thorns. It was my first real experience of this since Guatemala, and I fretted a little (my own default position) about what would happen to me here if I stumbled and broke my leg. So after thirty minutes I surrendered to the obvious, turned back, a little exhausted, my water running low now, and started over from the stream again.
This time walking along the right trail I got a guide who suddenly materialized out of the rice fields with credentials in his hand (a note written in English from another lost soul). He raised three fingers for a price and we set off. It was only ten minutes to the base of the climb up the mountain but I would have had a hard time finding it. We crossed a stream with a great place to swim, which I did, coming back, and then turned right, left and right again. The hike up the hill to the mouth of the cave was steep, and the cave was huge, with a golden reclining Buddha inside, down in its depths. But once there the guide wanted 3,000 kip ($2) and not 300 (why isn't it "thirteen to nine?"). By now, I was shaking from the heat and the sudden cold of the cave, and some from irrational fear, and the combination of these factors caused me to settle on 2,000 (my only Laotian scam), even though I knew that was more than I had paid to get from Vientiane to Veng Vieng. But with the fist full of money in his hand, he left me alone, and I explored the cave by myself with my small flashlight, and then walked back to swim, and along my route I took careful detailed notes to place with my hostess' map so that the next lost soul wouldn't need this shepherd's help. Out on the main dirt road I waited for an hour at a "country store" (19 items on the shelves) for the local "tractor" truck which would take me back to the river, returning around 3:30.
But this factual recitation, like the recitation from the night before, doesn't capture the joy of being alone and searching, of walking in the jungle, and dealing with my own fears, but most of all these words can't capture the sense of belonging to the full fine heat of the day, the blue skies, the hunters shooting off their guns in the distance, the sounds of the birds, the greetings of the children, the kindness of the people, the sound of the water flowing next to the rice paddies, pushing the tractor truck when it got stuck, and the beauty of just being in this landscape.
Three O'clock: Luang Prabang [Keeping time.]
The next day I traveled with Harun. We left Veng Vieng at 8, or rather we were at the bus station at 8, a 20 meter walk, but the driver of the sawng-thaew waited for a full load (14 or more) until almost 9, and then charged us 2,000 each for the 1 ½ hour drive to Kasi. There at 11 and this time for 7,000 kip we caught another sawng-thaew (run by a frustrated race car driver) and he made it to Luang Prabang by 3:30, and by 4:30 I had showered at the Phounsab Guest House the manager in Vientiane had given me a card for, where they charge 8,000 kip for a double and 6,000 for the same room for a single, but this time it was a double rate for me since Harun had decided to share the expense for a couple of days before he headed on up to China.
The ride from Kasi was a thrill and not only because of the driver. Harun and I stood the whole way on a grate on the back of the sawng-thaew. I was off to the right side and so I could see forward as well as to the sides and behind, but Harun, standing in the middle, had the luggage on the top blocking his view. A storm chased us for the first half of the way. We could see it pouring back behind us in the distance while we remained in the sunlight (which in many ways is how I feel about Laos itself). But I still continued to worry (ok, fret) about my day pack which was resting on top of the luggage on the roof and which had my camera and my palmtop computer in it, but the storm never caught us, though three times the road in front of us was wet where it had it had swept down before us. However, stiff and burnt as I was at the end, the view for the whole way was spectacular. It was a good road twisting over mountains that initially seemed like the north of Cameroon: jagged sharp green peaks layered in front of each other like teeth, which softened by the early afternoon to the Appalachians, and then it seemed we were on the Blue Ridge Parkway, riding along the ridge, although here the Lao people have done a great deal of deforestation in order to have wood to cook with. We passed through 30 or 40 tribal villages, most without electricity, and mostly resembling much of what I had seen in the hill country of Northern Thailand 10 years earlier, perched on the ridge of the mountain on either side of the road, the land falling away behind the houses, though in each village when the children would see us they would shout and wave wildly and we would wave back. Harun said it was my hair they were waving at, and even with the curls (sic) in the wind it was waving back at them.
Luang Prabang is the ancient capital having surrendered its claim to Vientiane in the early part of the 20th century when the country became a French protectorship. It is also the home of the Palace where the last King and Queen were deposed in 1977 (shortly after the fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh in April 1975). The royal couple were then exiled to a cave prison in northern Laos where it is said that they died in the 1980s. So the source of political power was transferred to the south, sucking up most of the people with it, but the buildings remained and today the population has inched its way back to almost 16,000. And the Mekong is still here and the Palace and there are 32 major Wats here as well and so there are monks of all ages walking around in their orange robes, and often carrying an open umbrella to protect themselves from the heat.
The town itself is actually quite beautiful and it has the peace of its age. The Mekong and an adjoining river, the Nam Khan create an "s" through it, and there's a large hill, Phu Si, in the center (directly across the street from my Guest House) which has a golden temple on it. It's a quiet town, and often there are whole sections that it seems you can reach only by a footpath, and the smell of wood smoke is everywhere, though I did pass a computer school with 10 computers, the students each learning Windows 3.1, but when I asked the instructor about the Internet, he said, "next year."
My Guest House was on one of the main streets, a block off the river and a block up from the Palace, and yet every morning I was coaxed from my sleep by the sound of roosters, and if I got up by 6:05, I could open my shutters and look down on the sidewalk below me and watch the long line of 100 monks slowly pass by with their begging bowls. Our hostess would kneel in front of our Guest House by her door and as each monk passed she would drop a handful of sticky rice into their bowls as they opened and shut their lids in an easy and graceful gesture. Sticky rice, it should be said is the staple dish for the Lao and although I was promised that I would see it in Vietnam and Cambodia, basically I didn't. I'm told that it is grown as sticky rice and not just prepared that way. It's literally a sticky white rice that usually comes to your table in a woven circular container with a lid. You lift off the top, drip your hand in and scoop out a blob and roll it in your fingers into a small ball and then dip it into the food in the other dishes. It's actually quite good, quite fun, and quite addictive and matches the Lao's other addiction which is TV. There's a color set in every home, every shop, and it's always in the center of things, and since the doors of most houses are always open whenever you pass by you see all these rapt faces caught in its light like the Annunciation.
The Palace itself is elaborate and beautiful from the outside but quite simple and sparse once you are inside including the furnishings in the separate King and Queen's bedrooms. It is also the home of the Pra Bang. This is a golden image of the Buddha which is only about two feet high, said to have been cast in Sri Lanka, and brought here as a gift from the Khmer in Angkor Wat, and in a sense it was this statue which brought Buddhism to Laos in the 14th century, and it is still regarded as a sacred talisman of the nation, and in fact Luang Prabang means the "Great Pra Bang."
There is a serenity here that is difficult to share since it is neither the serenity of nature nor that of say the ancient native American earthworks. One afternoon, for example, as I walked along the Nam Khan I took a half an hour to watch a fisherman in his boat spread out his net across the stream, float along next to it, and then slowly haul it back in again. The fact that I could take thirty minutes and follow him as he floated down the river meant a lot to me; it is a kind of open time that seemed rare to me even then. Later that same day I climbed the Phu Si, my temple on the hill in the heart of the city, and had the top and the view entirely to myself for an hour. Coming down that afternoon I tried the "other direction", and walked through a number of smaller Wats. In one a young monk introduced himself and then showed me the way into a hidden cave where there were statues of the Buddha and a quiet and a hush that was disturbed and illuminated only by the moving beam of my flashlight as it cast its light across the vast variety of faces of the Buddha.
In the evenings I would eat dinner in one of the small restaurants along the Mekong and then head back home along the side of the illuminated Palace to enjoy a final beer and a pipe full of tobacco sitting by the large open double doors of my Guest House facing out onto the street. One evening when I was relaxing there I noticed an attractive American woman come in who I had seen earlier and I invited her to join me. Her name was Christina Fink and as it turned she was the editor of Burma Net. That's a web site that posts information about the repression that still continues in Burma, and is a valuable source of information for a country that still is in the dark for most of us as well. She was in Laos in order to renew her visa for Thailand where her home office is, in the north in Chiang Mai. Burma Net is actually funded by the Soros Foundation and we had a good, and from her side, passionate three hour conversation about Burma, and I realized that in spite of listening to VOA and BBC every day on my small short wave radio that Luang Prabang had almost entirely swept me away from the cares of the world. I had forgotten about the camps containing fleeing refugees, forgotten about repression and torture and murder, forgotten that leaders of governments are sometimes completely narcissistic, and had forgotten about the daily courage not only of Aung San Suu Kyi but of countless others whose individual stories poured out of Christina, cascading one after the other with a care and an intensity and commitment that I had forgotten.
On my first evening in Luang Prabang I had taken a walk by myself trying to get oriented and to get a sense of the place and by accident I happened to pass what I discovered the next day was Wat Ahum which is noted for its two large bodhi trees. That evening there were six kids playing under them. They were each waiting for a leaf to break free and fall, and then shouting and screaming with delight, they would rush to try and catch it before it hit the ground, and reward themselves when they did by putting the captured leaf into their pockets. I watched them play for nearly an hour, caught by their particular enthusiasm and entirely oblivious of time until it was too dark to watch or to play any longer and we all left to go our separate ways leaving behind in the dusk our own momentary apotheosis of time.