Four Days in Luang Prabang
I've just returned from a four-day visit to Luang Prabang. Four days is hardly enough to get to know a place and the people that live there, but it was all the time I could spare on this occasion. The trip began with an eventful arrival. I had less than the required six months left in my Canadian passport and so decided to travel on my UK passport, obtaining a tourist visa from the Laos embassy here in Bangkok. I used my Canadian passport to leave Thailand, and when I tried to enter Laos with my UK passport I was asked to 'have a seat' in a small office and wait while several officers of various rank (over a period of about an hour) came and explained that I would have to pay a US 200 dollar fine because there was no exit visa in my UK passport to prove that I had come from Thailand.
For the most part I pretended to be clueless (not that difficult for me), pointing to my Laos visa, and at one point feigned a decision to go back to Bangkok. Smiling a lot probably helped. In the end the fine was reduced from 200 to 100 US dollars paid in Thai Baht.
The rest of the trip went well and we had fun walking around the town, markets, and temples. The views across the Mekong and Khan rivers in the early evening were beautiful. Most locals reported fewer tourists than last year due to a large number of cancellations caused by the problems in Thailand - in particular the recent closure of Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. Perhaps things were a little more relaxed than usual as a result. We made merit at dawn on Friday morning giving rice, chocolate bars and small cartons of milk to the stream of monks leaving the temples to receive alms. I went again on my own on Saturday morning and shared my mat with a Swedish and American couple.
I'd read about the concerns by some that the number of photo snapping tourists (including myself) at the early morning ceremony might be changing the nature of the ceremony for the worse, but the atmosphere was relaxed and respectful. It appeared to me that the right balance had been struck between those participating and those wanting to record the event.
The highlight of the trip was when we invited ourselves to visit the central Luang Prabang school. We spoke to students and their teacher during a Saturday afternoon class. The school is a combined primary, secondary and vocational college and the students were taking a lesson in nutrition. Most students had traveled by bus from the areas around Luang Prabang to attend class that day. I gave an impromptu (and brief) lesson in Canadian geography, explaining that at the moment the weather is very cold in Canada - reaching minus twenty degrees Celsius during cold snaps, and that there is plenty of snow. I told my usual stories, including how if you breathe in through your nose very quickly, your runny nose will instantly turn to ice (with the usual gasps of surprise followed very quickly by disbelief). And my old favorite - of how during the winter people that have to park their cars very far from where they work, don't always make it to the car before freezing like a statue; at which point they have to be carried back inside to be warmed up before trying again (more gasps and then laughter as I pretended to be frozen).
We bought the class a box of cakes, swapped email addresses, and said our goodbyes after having rescued them from twenty minutes of nutrition. I suppose if I have any misgivings about the trip as a whole, it would be the questions I continually asked myself which included: why were people coming to Laos, and who benefits? One theory at least is that tourist dollars help the local economy and that some of this money will filter down to the average Laos person. Looking at the condition of the classroom and teaching materials at the local school I struggled to see any immediate evidence of this. What's more - having lived in SE Asia for nearly a decade now, I've seen families that have become rich on tourist dollars - the fortunate ones that have land, or a house in just the right location, and my impression in most cases has been that these families tend not to share their wealth with their less fortunate neighbors. And then of course there is the system of patronage and corruption common in Asia which usually means that by the time tourist dollars have trickled down to the 'average' person, a large percentage has been siphoned off at the top.
The central night market in Luang Prabang is remarkably well organized and suspiciously homogeneous in the goods that are on offer. I would have liked to ask the vendors who they bought their crafts from and how much they paid to rent their spot in the market. I guess the other reason people visit a country like Laos is to experience the culture - to see how other people live and perhaps to learn something about the hardship experienced by those living in a developing country - in particular the minority areas. The trouble I have with this explanation is that Laos is a 'developing' country for some very good reasons. I'm not an expert on the history of the region, but after just a little reading on the topic it's easy to see how the recent and tragic history of Laos (as well as Cambodia and Vietnam) explains much in terms of the current situation there.
According to the CIA world factbook the average life expectancy in Laos is just 56 years. So does this mean that as tourists, we are benefiting from a tragic past? That we're able to travel back in time to see the 'real Laos' - people in villages living a subsistence existence because of the chess piece wars and conflict in the region that stunted the development of a country which should otherwise have prospered? I'm not sure, and that's probably a simplistic view of the complex combination of conflict, culture, religion and environment that have helped to create and shape the country as it is today.
So would I go back? Yes I would. The people are truly friendly and welcoming. I'd love to spend more time in Laos traveling and talking to people about how they live and the changes occurring in their country. For now at least, I'll have to accept that after such a short trip - I'm barely qualified to comment, and close to justifiably being accused of being a 'flash-packer' in Luang Prabang for four days :-)
A collection of some of the pictures I took in Luang Prabang can be found here.