French IndoChina: Luang Prabang, Laos February 2016

Luang Prabang is a lesson in cross-cultures and colonial history for me. After a day of wandering I can’t help but notice that more Westerners speak French than they do English, and the Westerners seem to outnumber the locals entirely. It’s … not quite the local experience I might normally seek out, but it does offer a curious combination of foreign cultures and the result is surprisingly comfortable and chic. I had seen hints of this in Hanoi, but ah. So this is French IndoChina.

French IndoChina Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang market street

It’s an easy first taste of SouthEast Asia. There’s a healthy Night Market, plenty of street food, monks walking down every sidewalk all day, colonial and local architecture plus a long list of natural activities like jungle trekking, elephant washing, and swimming in aquamarine waterfalls. The entire town is a Unesco World Heritage site. But there are also signs for wifi everywhere, dozens of cafes prepared with local food, Western tea times and tapas and if you really must…. pizza. 

Kuang Si waterfall Laos

Kuang Si waterfalls

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Mahouts bringing elephants to the tourists for bathing

I had heard Luang Prabang was a sleepier town but it seems quite vibrant to me, from the sunrise markets and ceremonies to the late-night restaurants. Maybe the mistake is mine though, because I book a hotel right on Main Street in Luang Prabang. And this gorgeous wood and old style hotel is worthless at sound dampening.

The next day (probably prompted by my sleep deprived grumpy demeanor) the hotel moves me to an upstairs room which improves things a bit…. except for the Laotian funeral now taking place next door from which no one can escape except between the hours of midnight and six a.m. Led by resonant, resounding drums that one can feel through a palm on the support beam, I had initially assumed it was a Chinese New Year celebration with miserable participants. (My first missed clue that it was not a happy occasion for drums.) It goes on for 3 days. Later, my hotel will take pity on my unraveling and move me to their sister property out of town. 

That morning (awoken by the funeral drums) I rise before sunrise to watch the Buddhist monk alms-giving ceremony. And this is the point where I start to wonder if all the relative security I’ve seen from tourism dollars in Laos might also be harming the people and culture.

Buddhist monks line up at their monasteries and schools and prepare to walk among the Buddhists at sunrise to receive alms and their meals for the day. A crowd of tourists jostle each along the path with so many flash photos that we’ve begun to look like paparazzi – with the monks and participating Buddhists playing the role of the celebrities… or spectacle. As a result, rather than a solemn ceremony this begins to look like a gauntlet and trial of the monks’ composure. I’m equal parts angry with the aggressive Chinese tourists (they’re such easy scapegoats) and embarrassed that I, too, am there and taking photos so I can more deeply share. It makes me wonder how much good cross-cultural exposure is really doing.

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My unraveling composure from sleep-deprivation bubbles up into the mix of shame, annoyance, and confusion at the scene and I reach out and physically pull back one Chinese stranger who’s been told three times by police to get off the path (and each time jumps back on within seconds of the warning.) Even he seems a bit startled to be physically chastised by another tourist. But he stays off the path. Instead of vindication though, my heart sinks lower in confused disappointment – because it was almost certainly my white face that made my soundless warning more effective than the multiple firm ones by a local authority.

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Sunset from Mount Phousi

How awkwardly our races and cultures are knocking into one another here. How obvious the differences are, how uncertain the benefits. How beautiful a country to endure it and continue to welcome others.

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