Thursday, December 30, 2010

Into the land of a million elephants

Strung between two men in a hessian bag, the pig squealed loudly as it was carried down the hill.  We threw each other worried looks.

"That's not coming on this boat, surely?" someone said, pretty much expressing all our worst fears.

"Ham baguettes all round" joked someone else.

We still had about four hours left, chugging our way down the Mekong on the slow boat to Luang Prabang.  We'd crossed the border into Laos the day before and been herded onto the basic wooden boat and seated ourselves in chairs that had likely been acquired from a defunct aircraft.  After a full day on the boat, an overnight stop in a strange town and another four hours on the water, our patience was wearing thin and the thought of adding a squealing pig to the mix was enough to see us all throw ourselves overboard.  The men dragged the unhappy swine onto the bow of our boat, then hauled the animal onto the boat beached beside us.  My fellow travellers and I let out a collective sigh of relief, just as we did when we reached Luang Prabang.

The UNESCO World Heritage city is nestled between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.  Rickety bamboo bridges allow travellers who trust Laos engineering and are willing to pay a toll, access to either side of the river and a great view over the water where local kids play in the afternoon sun.  The streets of the old town are lined with french colonial buildings, complete with cute awnings and wooden shutters.  Dotted in between are large crumbling buddhist temples and shrines, the one on Phousi Hill in the centre of town affords a beautiful view of the town and sunset over the Mekong. 

Perhaps the most marketed image of Luang Prabang is that of the orange-robed monk wandering the streets holding an umbrella.  The town's early morning alms ceremony has descended into a bit of a farce, with tourists attempting to make offerings and locals trying to cash in on the action by selling sticky rice.  However, it was a novelty to see dozens of robed monks of all ages going about their business during the day under the shade of umbrellas and even more curious to occasionally see them walking along with a mobile phone to their ear.

Sitting in the town's trendy cafes and bars you could easily be fooled into thinking you were in a cosmopolitan neighbourhood of your choosing anywhere in the world but when you step out into the bustling night market, where vendors sell meat on a stick, rice noodle soup and papaya salad for less than a dollar you're transported back to Laos.  We found ourselves in one of the many funky bars after the government imposed curfews but got locked in, rather than thrown out (and being locked in a bar isn't all that bad).  When it was finally time to stumble home we were ecstatic to see some friendly Laotian mothers waiting to sell us salad baguettes as a healthier alternative to the staple kebab back home.

Luang Prabang is a town that's hard to find fault with.  There are so many tourists that it's hard not to wish you had the place to yourself but in a country where many people live in poverty, you can only hope the tourist dollar is improving the local standard of living.

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