I went to Laos for 9 days, in Luang Prabang, in the Northern part of the country.
At first, I thought that 9 days there would be quite long and boring, Luang Prabang being a small town. But after all, it went by very fast and I can even say I have done many things! But it is a nice chilling town. I’ve met many people, a lot of French, Israelis, and some Irish, and I heard lots of German speaking people.
Luang Prabang is a very touristic town on the Mekong.
A long street goes through it, a street that transforms into a night market at 5pm. All around they are small streets with brick houses. Many things are still written in French (as part of the colonialist heritage) and you can buy a French baguette pretty much everywhere. Other than that, the town is full of guest houses, restaurants, and souvenir shops (the night market being the biggest and nicest one to shop).
Restaurants are actually pretty expensive. You can’t eat a decent meal or breakfast for less than 7 USD. It doesn’t seem much, but for Laos, this is really expensive! If you want to eat cheap, you have to go to the night market or to some stands on the main road near the clothing market. You can easily find good food for as cheap as 2 USD. There are buffets where you can have a large bowl of any veggies/pasta you want for 2 USD. If you want some grilled meat (fish, chicken, pork), add another USD. It took me 2 days to find this trick… I’m a slow learner!
During that week, I went twice to the Kuang Si waterfalls, 30 km away from the city. Both times with people I had met either on the street or at the guest house. These waterfalls are truly beautiful! They are on several terraces. Each one is incredible. You can also swim there. Water is pretty cold but when it is 36°C outside, it just feels wonderful!
I also spent one day on a cruise on the Mekong to go visit the Pak Ou caves. The caves themselves were not that incredible though. Hundreds of Buddha, some big, some tiny, some new, some in really bad condition, all piled up next to the other… the whole thing was a little creepy to me!
But the boat ride was nice with great scenery. Unfortunately, soon, you won’t be able to do it anymore. Chinese are building dams everywhere on the Mekong. So far 8 are built, but soon there will be 40! It made me worry about the local people as their whole life will have to change drastically. Scenery is going to change too. What will happen to the boat drivers and the villages near the shore? On top of that, the contract stipulates that the Chinese also own everything they find on the Mekong where the dams are. When you know this region is full of gold, you really feel sorry for the Laotians. They will lose both their revenue and their country. And the Chinese only employ Chinese people. Every dam belongs to China for 20 years. After that, they will be Laotians, but what will be the state of these dams then? People told me that all the Northern part of Laos is being bought by China. The North part now, the rest later… the government doesn’t seem to care.
For my birthday, I went to a cooking class. Ok, don’t ask me to reproduce these dishes for you, but I can assure you they were delicious! We started the day by visiting a typical food market, away from the city. The Chef explained to us all of the herbs and vegetables we could see. As most markets, it was very colorful, beautiful, and smelly!
We had the cooking class in the middle of the jungle, in a very peaceful place. The menu was:
- Eggplant tapenade with garlic, onion and chili (not too much for me)
- Fish steam cooked in a banana leaf and sticky rice. We also made a sauce out of basil, lemongrass, garlic, onion, coriander, chili, and some other herbs I don’t reckon, all mashed up in a mortar.
- Chicken ball with herbs, fried in a lemongrass basket we made ourselves (not that easy)
- Buffalo salad with many herbs
- Red sticky rice in coconut milk with fresh fruits
The flavors of the herbs mashed together were incredible!
It also rained a lot that week, especially at night, with incredible strong storms! The monsoon season is coming. The first night it rained, I was at the night market and within literally 5 minutes, we went from clear sky to being completely soaking wet! Fortunately, the days were hot and beautiful.
The last morning, I decided to go see the Tak Bat. I got up at 5 :30 am (I know…) and walked up to the end of the main street. The Tak Bat is a monk procession. They walk in the main street with their big food containers and receive food (mainly rice) from the population who lines up on tiny stools. They are not allowed to work so that’s how they get their food for the day. If they receive too much, they give it to the poor.
People had warned me that it was like a circus now. At least one hundred tourists gather there every morning to take pictures. The closer the better, and why not use a flash right? I have to admit that all these monks with their saffron robes are truly beautiful. But some tourists really overdo it and stand 30 cm from their face. Some other pretend they are going to give them food, so they sit on the stools and just take their picture…
It is indeed possible to buy rice or other small food items and sit on the stools to give the food away. Many tourists do it. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for the tourists, they would not get that much food. Local people seem to stand away from this morning gathering. Apparently, after speaking with some monks, they don’t seem to care too much. The most important thing, I guess, is to get the food.
This procession lasts around 30 min. It is indeed very photogenic, but I wasn’t feeling too good about it. The first 7 mornings I really hesitated going. On the last day, I finally decided to go and I don’t regret it, mainly because I got some nice pictures, but I also feel guilty to have participated in this controversial circus-like event.
So, to summarize this week, I really enjoyed my time in Luang Prabang. I might visit other parts of the country in the future. It would be very presumptuous of me to say that I now know Laos, since I’ve only spent a week there and only in one town, but it gave me a nice glimpse of the country and the life there.
I found the people smiling less than the people in Myanmar or Thailand (people who visited other parts of the country also confirmed this), but everyone has been pretty nice and helpful. The scenery is beautiful and the country seems like laid back, where you can enjoy a stressless tourist life.
That being said, I worry for Laos. China is economically colonizing it little by little, and I’m afraid they will wake up and realize it when it is too late to do anything about it.
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