Monday, 22 September 2008

More from Louang Phrabang

Monday is a 'Free Day'. I eshewed the blandishments of the hotel's various Spa treatments and decided to see more of the town. I considered doing an out-of-town trip, but decided I'd be happier just walking out of the hotel on my own two feet. The morning started cool but quickly warmed up. The hotel has a guard house and a lifting barrier. As I approached, the barrier went up (the guard releases a cord in the guardhouse and a counterweight lifts the barrier) and I was given a salute, just as he does for each vehicle which enters or leaves.

Being on foot gives you time to notice the oddities, the methods of electrical distribution (yeah, right), the concrete postbox stencilled 'Boites aux Lettres' (and with what looked like a very low security lock on the metal plate at the back to allow the letters to be collected), the man exercising his two goats, each on a piece of string, the fact that around 90% of traffic is motor bikes and it's possible to cross even main roads without too much trouble, the amount of new building, all of 'classic' reinforced concrete pattern, using remarkable amounts of bamboo or wooden props to support the floors whilst the concrete is hardening.

Take a side road, and the relative sophistication of the main tourist areas falls away and you can see evidence of much simpler life-styles, side by side with better properties, often the ones including shops and, as I commented earlier, with the incongruity of a smattering of satellite dishes.

The first temple I looked at was Wat Mahathat. Just one tourist followed me onto the site. A tiny cat was fast asleep in the sun on the temple steps. Next, I looked at Wat Ho Sian, the entrance steps from the road protected by fearful looking Naga Snakes - a seven-headed mythical snake present at a number of temples. There were plenty of tourists waiting outside the site, but I only saw young novices around the temple grounds. Just opposite was the Post Office, so I had a quick look inside. It's a fairly modest affair, so it did not detain me long.

I continued along the main street which had held the Night Market, noticing the frequent triple 2-pin sockets set low on the wall to power the lighting. The non-weatherproof fittings were charred and burnt from the heavy use. A quick glance again at Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham and a nicely-proportioned colonial building opposite (now tourist shops). At the foot of Phou Si Hill, Wat Pa Huak offers free admission (the more popular monasteries charge 20,000 Kip entry fee). Built 1860, it features some interesting wall paintings internally and a 'Trust Box' for the purchase of various items intended to support the restoration project.

We're now in 'Tourist Town', where most of the faces you see are European and the services offered are exclusively offered to appeal to tourists. I suppose it's inevitable when a country embraces tourism as a way of improving the lot of the indiginous population, but when I passed restaurant 'Tat Mor' I couldn't help feeling the name was somehow symbolic. I passed the old French school, echoing to shouting children and topped by a rusting corrugated iron roof.

Eventually, when the the guest houses and restaurants and travel agents petered out, I came to Wat Sensoukaraham, a tray of rice cakes drying on the wall. I noticed the skin at one end of the big ceremonial drum was torn - I bet the drummer got a ticking-off for that.

Then I came upon the blissful tranqility of Wat Khili. In addition to the usual monastic buildings, there is a doll's-house of a building, half-timbered, currently housing a temporary exhibition of photographs regarding the Manuscript Preservation Programme of the National Library of Laos. I'm reluctant to move on.

I've now reached the end of the peninsula, with the Mekong on my left and its tributary, the Nam Khan, flowing in from my right. A single fisherman is at the water's edge, checking his lines or nets. Another fisherman in a small boat is working near the confluence of the two rivers. Now the flood levels have gone down, the foreshore is rich in nutrients amd a number of vegetable patches are being prepared in the fertile ground. I decline various offers to charter a boat (although I'm tempted).

I make a second, brief visit to Wat Xieng Thong. This time, the main temple is crowded with novices eating their lunch and local worshippers. Then I come to Wat Nong Sikhounmuang. In addition to the Monks' quarters and the highly-decorated main temple, a second temple is being built (reinforced concrete, naturally.

More walking takes me to Big Brother Mouse's first shop in Luang Prabang. They tell me that the American volunteer adviser (whom I met a few days ago) is at their newer shop, a couple of blocks away. My increasingly weary steps take me to the newer, larger Big Brother Mouse shop and I chat to Sasha for a few minutes before starting to retrace my steps along the main street. This time, I do a deal with one of the 'Tuk-Tuk' drivers and return to the hotel.

I spend the afternoon writing in the hotel and indulge in Afternoon Tea on my own balcony. At 5.40 p.m., along with two youngish couples, I take the hotel 'Tuk-Tuk' down to the Night Market, walking round the as-yet quiet handicraft stalls, then exploring some of the stalls for locals. Near the main crossroads there's something of a 'bike jam' as a number of people make 'drive-through' purchases from the roadside vendors. There's a small group of stalls selling DVDs. They all appear to be popular music, appealing to the young people milling about.

There's a shuttle bus back to the hotel at 7.00 p.m. and I'm the only passenger. Having enjoyed Afternoon Tea, I've only space for a plate of the hotel's wonderful watercress soup. Tonight, I must pack because I'm being picked up at 6.30 a.m. to go to the airport.