Short stories from Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, Laos. It almost felt like home. We spent 8 days there all up in two different stints. Below are some snippets from our stays.

Luang Prabang old town main street

The ATM debacle

‘No, I want my money’, I said strongly to a young Lao man. ‘You took $445 US dollars out of my account and only gave me 3 million kip!’

Then I showed him the math’s. $445 times the going Lao Kip exchange rate added up to 3.6 million kip (I know – crazy). Subtract the 4% commission and I figured I was out of pocket somewhere in the vicinity of 475,000 kip (about $80 Aussie dollars). The young man just looked at me blankly and insisted he didn’t know anything about it. He wanted me to leave, but I wasn’t going anywhere. I wanted my money.

It started out simply enough. We were low on cash and leaving town the next morning, so I wandered up the street to find an ATM. I found four, but none of them worked. No cash in a country that barely recognises a credit card does nothing for my blood pressure, so I tried one of the many money exchange windows scattered around town.

I asked if I could withdraw money using my debit card and receive the cash in Lao Kip. They nodded agreement. I asked for 3 million Kip worth. They put through a withdrawal for US $445, before slapping down a pile of cash about an inch thick. Just then two American guys walked past behind me. ‘Count your money carefully – they ripped us off’, they warned in strident tones. Hmm, I thought. So I counted carefully. Sure enough the pile of cash was a million Kip short. The money changers looked unimpressed as I pointed this out, but added another three quarters of an inch of cash to my pile. More counting, more calculating.

Off I went back our hotel where, with Emma’s assistance, I realised I had used the wrong US exchange rate in my calculations. I was short 600,000 Kip! Back I marched determined to right this wrong. When I got back to the window, the lights were turned out and the shop door was all but closed and locked. I stuck my foot in the door, collared the young attendant and set about berating him for what felt like thirty minutes, insisting I had been ripped off. I wanted my money and I wasn’t going anywhere until I got it! But it was late now. Shops were closing up and down the street.

I eventually yielded. I was getting nowhere. The young man looked like a rabbit trapped in the headlights and either didn’t or wouldn’t speak English. So I left. Then my heart sunk, even further, as I realised my mistake. The young man I had been haranguing did not work at the money window where I made the original transaction! I felt like a worm as I quickly found the right place just fifteen metres down the street. The two windows looked so similar and my mind was clouded by emotion.

Ten minutes later, and after repeating my now well practiced rendition about how I had been rorted, the whole deal was reversed. I wound up back at our hotel two hours after I first set off and still without any cash in hand. I did go back to the place where I had wrongly accused the poor young man to apologise. Profusely, which at least appeased my guilt. I went to bed telling myself the ATMs must surely be working in the morning.

Into the night markets

‘Can Seigne and I visit the night markets together?’ Amy asked Emma and I one afternoon. Seigne is Amy’s Danish (almost) twin, the eleven-year-old daughter of our now Danish friends Morten and Britt from the cruise down the Mekong. We ended up spending a number of thoroughly enjoyable days hanging out with them and their three children, exploring the sites of Luang Prabang.

But that would involve you, being separated from me, in a strange and foreign land. That was the first thought that went through my head. Before I could say anything though, Britt had said in a relaxed and casual voice that it would be fine with her as long as it was fine with us? ‘Um, sure, I guess’ one of us must have replied.

So off the two of them went into the bustling Luang Prabang night market. What could go wrong? Not much I told myself. We strolled the market entrance ourselves, quiet calls of, ‘Froo (fruit) shake Mister, froo shake madame?’ greeting us every few paces from the food stalls that lined the area.

They returned 30 minutes later, Amy with a slightly grown-up air about her and me with an inaudible sigh of relief. She had bought a couple of small items and even bargained with the shop keeps to reach a price. ‘Can we go again tomorrow?’ they both implored. ‘Isn’t once enough’, I didn’t say.

They did go again, two nights later. This time for an hour! Oliver went too and I was without both my offspring. Emma comforted me with a chocolate croissant. They all returned, on time, feeling well pleased with themselves, but substantially poorer.

Success at the night markets
Oliver and Sebastian keeping entertained while the girls shopped

Photo bombing in the temple

We left Morten and Britt’s lovely, spacious, apartment early one evening after spending a thoroughly enjoyable day meandering through the streets of Luang Prabang. We had been skimming stones and launching rocks from Oliver and Sebastian’s (Oliver’s Danish alter-ego) sling shots across the Nam Khan river (with a local who came and put us all to shame); exploring Buddha shrines and temples on Mt Phousi; crossing rickety bamboo bridges over same said river; and lunching on baguettes in the markets.

On the top of Mt Phousi
Built annually as they don’t survive the wet season

Out the front door was one of many temples in Luang Prabang and on this occasion evening prayer was underway. The rhythmical chanting of the monks robed in orange at the foot of a large Buddha lured us in for a closer look. All of us, except Oliver and Sebastian sat ourselves quietly at the rear of the temple to observe a wonderful cultural opportunity.

As the chanting went on, it became clear not all monks are as diligent as others. Young men all of them, a few towards the back passed notes to each other distractedly like naughty kids in a classroom, while the leaders at the front lead the chorus. I cast my eyes back to check on Oliver and Sebastian just in time to see them streaking across the temple grounds and launching themselves in the air, arms outstretched. Curious, I thought. So I got up to investigate.

‘What were you doing?’ I asked as I came outside, but I didn’t need a reply. Across the temple grounds a Japanese man had a camera set up on a tripod and in front of that his family was posing for a photo. Oliver and Sebastian had been waiting until he set the timer running on his camera before streaking across in the background to ‘photo-bomb’ their photo and giggling delightedly. I laughed. What else can you do?

The prettiest falls in South East Asia

Black bears? I thought we were here to see waterfalls? We were, but the black bears, or moon bears more accurately, were a wonderful addition. The Kuang Si waterfalls are one of Luang Prabang’s main attractions, single handedly employing a large fleet of tuk-tuk drivers to ferry ‘farangs’ thirty kilometres into the countryside.

The falls are also home to, ‘Free the Bears’, an organisation we had read about even before leaving home. They rescue the bears from one by one metre cages where they are kept often for their entire lives, catheters in their stomachs to extract bile, which isn’t even good for you. Free the Bears rescues as many as they can and provides them a vastly improved, if still captive, life. Wild and free is just no longer an option for moon bears in this part of the world. Keep up the good work we said and made a small donation to show our support.

Beyond the bears lay one of the prettiest waterfalls we’ve seen. Minerals in the water ensure that rather than eroding the landscape these waterfalls gradually build it up. The result is a series of beautiful cascading falls tumbling over curved rock shelves into pools of unusually blue water. It was cloudy and really quite cool this particular day, but we swam anyway because it just looked so good.

Kuang Si falls
Not many other swimmers, but we couldn’t resist
Like a fairyland
Waterfall shower
Emma and Britt
Such an unexpected colour in the jungle

Fondue by the river

‘This place was recommended to us by some Canadians we met’, Morten and Britt told us.  ‘Goodo, lets eat here then’. So we did, in a scenic little restaurant hidden under the bamboo on the other side of the Nam Khan River just across, and with views of, one of the two rickety bamboo bridges in town. Lunch took hours, cooking up delicious food on a fondue over our own bucket of hot coals perched in the middle of the table. So good.

The best Lao food we found

Lao Royalty

‘That’s the kings throne’, I said to Oliver while looking at an ornately carved, large, golden and uncomfortable looking seat. We were in the royal palace museum. Who knew Laos had a king? I have much to learn when it comes to Asian history.  Laos no longer has one by the way.

The town of Luang Prabang however is a world heritage site, recognized for the fact that is was the royal and religious capital of Laos from 1893 to 1946 and for, ‘…the fusion of French colonial and traditional Lao urban architecture’. It’s an easy place to be with a great vibe, classy restaurants and bakeries, art galleries, temples and saffron robed monks, foreigners and Lao locals all mixing together in almost equal numbers.

Main street in Luang Prabang
Temple in the museum grounds contains PraBang Buddha statue

Oliver however was more interested in the gold scabbards holding the king’s swords. One was splotched with red, so we assumed it was the blood of some poor servant or foreign soldiers sliced down for failing to answer the King’s whims quickly enough. What else could it be? Ceramic, mirrored murals covered the walls of the throne room depicting all kinds of terrible battles complete with hundreds of de-capitated men, so we may not have been too far from the truth.

We wandered around the palace making ‘swoosht’ noises, pretending to slice down servants who failed to respond quickly enough to our fickle demands and amusing ourselves in the process – which was all that really mattered.

Big Brother Mouse

I met Pai-Lee at Big Brother Mouse. Big Brother Mouse is centre where English speaking foreigners like us are encouraged to spend a couple of hours helping Lao locals practice their English. I chatted with Pai-Lee while Emma spoke with a young man by the name of Sor. Amy and Oliver hung back, listening and drawing pictures with labels to help us explain certain words.

Helping at Big Brother Mouse

Pai-Lee is twenty and studying to be a teacher. He is learning English because he wants to go back to his village (2 hours from Luang Prabang) and help them learn English – for free – because he was inspired by a fellow villager who had gotten really upset at her lack of English skills. After an hour and half we had to finish up. Pai-Lee asked if we could come every day for a month! Regrettably not.

We spent another half an hour at the centre though while Oliver and I were thrashed in game after game of Connect-4 by Lam, one of the monks from a nearby temple, who clearly practiced his English and Connect-4 on a daily basis.

Oliver said afterward – ‘it’s like he can think 3 moves ahead!’

UXO – Unexploded ordinance

Laos has the unwanted distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in the world. So we learnt at the Lao UXO (unexploded ordinance) Centre. During the Indochina war, the United States flew more than 500,000 bombing runs over Laos, dropping close to 240 million bombs.

It is estimated that approximately 80 million of the bombs dropped failed to explode and remain scattered throughout the country. Cluster bombs are particularly problematic. A single cluster bomb contained about 680 smaller ‘bombies’ each with a killing radius of about 30m. About 30% of bombies failed to explode on impact and therefore remain scattered across the country. More bombs were dropped on Laos than were dropped during the entire Second World War!

Cluster bomb, the bombies are often be mistaken for balls by children

The people of Laos have learned to a certain degree to cope with this legacy although hundreds still die or are maimed every year. Bomb casings are used for fences, bbqs, candlestick holders and even lamp shades. Despite government bans the UXO scrap metal industry is booming, with the additional income outweighing the risk of death. A single 700-pound bomb will return about two thirds of the average Laos income.

How fine it is that unexploded ordinance education is not on Amy and Oliver’s curriculum as it is for the children of Laos. I don’t know what to make of it all. What forces have pushed and pulled and shaped this country.

Ock Pop Tok

Oct Pop Tok. It means east meets west and is a Lao legacy diametrically opposed in nature to the UXO. Ock Pop Tok is keeping alive the silk weaving skills of Lao people across the provinces by providing them with an outlet to make sell their wares to wealthy foreigners like us. The fabrics are stunning, and that from me who really has no interest in such things. The weaving looms are even more amazing. We took a tour where they explained how it was done. I smiled and took photos of the looms. It went in one ear and out the other, but I love the product!

They use natural dyes to colour the silk, here it is drying by the Mekong
One of the intricate patterns
A loom

Farewell Luang Prabang

We bid a fond farewell to Morten, Britt, Seigne, Sebastian and Siegward on our last evening of our first stay in Luang Prabang (we returned for two more days after visiting the elephants). Like so many of you, our good friends back home, there are some people you just get along with. These Danes are such people and Denmark is now looking increasingly like a great place to visit when we make it to Europe. Happy travels our Danish friends we hope to see you again mid year.

Farewell to the lovely Luang Prabang – so many great memories.

Touring Mt Phousi
Cycling by the Mekong
Farewell Laos
Farewell beautiful streets
Farewell good freinds

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