Travel Journal

Luang Prabang, 3/9-3/13

(Friday 18 March 2011) by Joanne Chang
The 7-hour minivan ride through the mountains to Luang Prabang is beautiful, captivating, mesmerizing, haunting. With the mountains as a backdrop, daily life of of dozens of tiny villages streams through my window like a movie, but in stark reality. Fragile homes built of bamboo and straw, standing on wooden stilts with the valley shooting thousands of feet below them, looking like they could topple over at any moment or be blown away by the big bad wolf. There doesn't seem to be one foot between the back of their house and the mountainside, and I fear their children accidentally falling out the back window. Some villages are so small, only 10 homes in total, and there seems to be nothing there for them to live on -- no animals, no farmable land, no school, no store to buy goods. I wonder where they get their food, their clothes, electricity. What resources are they living off of? Does money exist here? What are the roles of the people and how do they support each other? With my unknowing eyes they seem to have nothing, but they have everything they need to survive and this is all they've ever known. They are not homeless, they are not alone, they are not afraid. My reactions range from fascination and curiosity to sadness and helplessness as we pass village after village. The privileged life I've lived is sickening in comparison, creating a pit in my stomach and I'm finding it hard to breathe. I feel like I need to do something to help them, like become a traveling doctor and bring them healing medicines or build a school so their children can learn to read. It's not fair, this divide between us. My life suddenly seems so insignificant, the mental and emotional struggles so trite; if I were to spend one week of my life in theirs, then I would know what struggle is. The ride to Luang Prabang is eye-opening for me. It is rural poverty, and I've never seen anything like it, at least not in slow motion.

We arrive in Luang Prabang after dark, and its contrast to the villages just hours away takes me off guard. You could be in any western-influenced country in the world with its twinkling lights, modern restaurants, wine bars, and French cafes. LP was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995, when I assume an influx of tourism meant funding for renovations and foreign investment in the tourism industry. The town is certainly beautiful and charming with French-colonial architecture and all the conveniences of a modern town, and the French "theme" is prominent with bakeries and cafes (we stayed at the guesthouse attached to "Cafe Croissant d'Or";-), crepe stands, wine, upscale bistros, and a billboard that says "Bonjour!" as you enter the town. I want to hate it at first, it's so westernized and touristy, so not "Laos"but it's so darn cute and charming that after a few days I can't help but love it. The wats (temples) are gorgeous -- the most beautiful temples I've ever seen -- ancient and perfectly preserved, beautiful old colors of red, gold, turquoise, with intricate doorways, stained glass details and hand-painted murals. The Mekong river is dotted with outdoor restaurants lit with colorful lanterns, the quaint side streets take you to temple gardens filled with blossoming trees in bright beautiful colors, the night market has incredibly good cheap food, and it's peaceful. We stay for four nights and find our groove.

Our guesthouse is awesome, right in town and only 80,000 kip ($10) for a nice, clean place. The place is run by a group of young 20-somethings, who have little interest in us and have their eyes glued to a Laos TV show from morning to night. Next door is a handicraft store that doubles as a cafe, and across the street is a convenience store that doubles as a crepe stand. We eat crepes every morning, alternating between the two -- the cafe's are crispier, but the crepe stand has better cheese. Oh, the choices of a traveler in LP. At the end of the street just before the national museum is a pricier western restaurant where all the older tourists go, but they have free wifi so we make that our internet spot and try lao-lao (rice whisky and the cheapest thing on the menu), for the first time. It's served in a fancy snifter glass and it's good! It's also good that we tried it here first, lao-lao is a common home-brew and can be hard to handle if grandma made it.

There's a big night market in LP that begins at the national museum, and it's a very long procession of stalls selling colorful scarves, silk, bags, clothes, arts & crafts, chopsticks, pillows, pipes, etc. They're all selling the exact same things. Same colors, same patterns, same t-shirts, same paintings. It reminds me of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, street vendors selling the exact same souvenirs, one right after the other with no differentiation and I don't understand it. Lisa and I theorize about it, I think it's just bad business, but by our fourth and last night I get it. You see this stuff the first couple times and you're not interested -- they're souvenirs, I don't need them. The third and fourth time, it becomes familiar, they start to warm up to you. By the fifth and sixth time these same exact items are shoved in your face, you want to take them home with you so you can remember your experience. This same-same strategy is like hypnosis or a form of brainwashing. Clever. For the first time during my travels I buy a couple things to take home.

LP is a great place to bike, too. We head out one day to a weaving village, then go on to find a waterfall 5 miles out of town. It's a bit strenuous getting there up an unpaved dirt road, and Lisa riding a bike that's many sizes too small, but we finally make it there. Unfortunately there's no water, so we turn around, bike back to LP and watch the sunset on the river with a couple of lao-laos. The next day, an 8.9 earthquake hits Japan but I get the news from George, halfway around the world. Traveling is sometimes like living in a bubble. If you're in a place like Laos.

The other side of my Luang Prabang experience is in my head. It's been 2.5 weeks since my Vipassana ended and sometimes it feels like I'm crashing. The highs and clarity I experienced during and immediately after were so sharp, so pure, and also so impermanent. It's impossible to maintain the I'm-so-happy-I'm-going-to-explode feeling and it's inevitable that I'd come down. Handling the coming down is where my newfound knowledge kicks in. Initially there's frustration, worry, fear, and a strong desire to go back into silence (like, immediately) to get it all back. I'm losing it! I have to get it back! Then there's self-doubt and condemnation that I'm not doing the things I need to be doing to maintain my practice, and then helplessness that I just don't know how. This cycle of negative thought and reaction starts up and I see it -- I see it, which is the awesome thing -- and I step out of the way, remember to have compassion for myself, and let it be. I am not perfect. I am practicing. I am finding the balance. I have my awareness and I have my learnings, and those are the things I need to protect while the highs and lows come and go.


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