It’s week 23, and we’ve just touched down in Luang Prabang; The first stop in the country nicknamed ‘The ‘Land of a Million Elephants’, Laos.
The different pace of life here, compared to the cities (and even some of the tiny towns) in Thailand, seems immediately noticeable. Things seem quieter, more laid back……and….just…a…bit…slower. Wandering down the streets, through a mixture of old, French colonial buildings draped in Soviet and Laos flags, you could occasionally think you have stepped through a time machine and landed a few decades into the past.
The heart of the city (the old town) is a peninsular between the Mekong river and Nam Khan. I’ve got to admit, it was a bit overwhelming. Walking (and eating along) the bank of the Mekong the first night we arrived…..it had been a bucket list item ever since watching ‘The Mekong River with Sue Perkins’ in a freezing flat in the Manchester winter, now over 6 months ago! :-)
The differences in pace and architecture aside, there are a few similarities between my first impressions of Laos and Thailand – number 1, there are no shortages of temples! In fact, this tiny town, just over a couple of kilometres in length, contains over 30 alone, and in the late 1800’s over 60! Now I can completely understand the guy who built the first temple….and the second…..and the third…..but the guy who built the 60th?
“I’ve got an idea, Dave”
“I’ve bought some land…..I’m going to build something”
“…….. I don’t want to ask”
“Have you got any of that gold leaf left?………Any spare Buddhas?”
“We’ve been through this.”
“Just hear me ou….”
“We’ve got enough already in this town! I can see three alone, just from where I’m sitting here!”
After a few days of exploring the town, enjoying the night markets and the combination of French and Laotian food, we took a boat trip along the Mekong river to the Pak Ou caves, which are filled with old, broken, and abandoned Buddhas.
Towards the middle of the week the weather was scorching. I decided to head back to the guesthouse for a few hours to avoid the early afternoon sun. Beforehand, I stopped into the local corner store to buy some essentials before heading back: A bottle of water, some detergent, a magnum ice-cream, and a beer (Hey, I’d had a productive temple-viewing morning, Ok?!).
As the guy was adding up the total to show me on his calculator, he pointed at the beer.
“To Early?” he asked with a smile.
“Erm……..” I begin to explain myself, but then notice his friend sitting down at a little table behind him. The table had 2 opened beers on it, “….no, not that early” I say and point over his shoulder at the table.
He starts laughing, “You drink with us?”
These guys look like they could put a few away. I look at my phone, it’s 1.30pm. This may not be the best idea in the world, I think. “Sure”, I say.
I sit down and start chatting to Xthai huan (the storekeeper) and his friend from Vientiane, Quan. Xthai’s English is brilliant, and Quan who was learning, was following along as best he could.
“You have a wife?”, Xthai asks me.
“You have a baby?”
“Quan is the same”, he points at Quan and starts laughing, “his wife left him!”, he laughs harder.
“Eh!?”, Quan asks, not following the English but wanting to know why Xthai is laughing and pointing at him.
They have a back and forth in Laotian for a minute. I don’t speak Laotian but got the impression that after the explanation, Quan kindly told Xthai to go f&*k himself….which made Xthai laugh even louder.
Quan shakes his head at the floor and then looks up at me with a half-smile pointing back and forth between us, “Same, same”.
At this point I realise that my unopened magnum is still on the table and is melting in the heat so I open it up to salvage as much as possible. Another customer comes to the counter and Xthai gets up to serve. She looks at the three of us. I feel a bit like a 12-year old…..I’m sitting there, on this tiny chair, eating an ice-cream, with melted chocolate on my face, while the 2 adults I’m sitting with are drinking beer.
After 30 minutes of chatting, learning a bit of Laotian (mainly ‘Cheers’ which is ‘Xerndem’), and more drinking, I meet Jan who had been sent on a food errand for some snacks and spicy chicken wings. I thought this may be the right time to leave and let them eat but they wouldn’t hear any of it. It was so kind, from what we had already spoken about I knew that Jan and Quan were looking for work and struggling for cash, but sharing their food was just a given for them.
I extracted myself before getting too drunk around an hour later. Jan and Quan were about to go to the pool hall and invited me along, but there’s only so much drinking I could take in this heat before 4pm! :-)
We hired a couple of scooters for the final couple of days, took a drive through the gorgeous hillsides and towns which surround Luang Prabang, including a trip to the famous waterfalls.
And one final note before closing off this post. If you’re ever in Luang Prabang, a massive highlight was dropping into Big Brother Mouse in the evenings. BBM is a not-for-profit, Lao-based organisation, running for just under 10 years and is one of the first publishing houses in Laos.
Apart from publishing and distributing books around the country, BBM provides a facility where young people can practise reading and writing English (click here for the story of BBM).
We would turn up at the building at 5pm in the evenings and would be welcomed by a cluster of local kids from the nearby (And a few, very distant) villages. The whole structure is very loose and seemed to be organised by the kids themselves. They would take you by the hand, find you a chair (it was so busy that normally one of the kids would give one up for you) and then you would find yourself on the receiving end of a scattering of questions. “What’s your name?”, “Where are you from?”, “How long have you been in Luang Prabang?”……
Sometimes it was a one-on-one, and other times you would find 5-10 faces all firing questions at you at once :-)
After the initial ice-breaker(/’interogation’) you would settle into a conversation or a reading session, going through one of the Big Brother Mouse books, stopping occasionally to try to describe a new word or check pronunciation. Sometimes it was even a challenge even for me as an English native speaker….until you are trying to teach parts of the language (something I have zero experience in!) there are certain things you take for granted without thinking about until you are asked the question (for example…how do you explain the word ‘quite’?).
The kids themselves were inspirational. They are just so hard-working! Some would come in from a few hours out-of-town, 7 days per week, to BBM from 8am to 8pm……every single day. They would talk about wanting to get better at English to ‘get a good job, so I can help my family’. They also spent time talking about their communities, culture, superstitions, and traditions. About 90% of the kids were Hmong (an ethnic group from the mountain regions of China and SE Asia) and were educating me on wedding, courtship, birth and burial traditions. Everyone was just so open and friendly…It was a really enjoyable, humbling, and highly recommended experience!
Time to head South…..next stop, Vang Vieng!