Wednesday 4 April 2012

In Praise of a Lonely Planet-less Trip

Greece was the furthest I had ventured from home before, and then it was a four day Classics trip with my school, full of clipboards, roll calls and hats sporting the school logo. Therefore the prospect of flying on my own across the globe and spending six weeks in the little town of Luang Prabang in Northern Laos was both daunting and exciting.

Laos is a beautiful country, completely landlocked by China, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Consisting of predominantly mountains and thick forest, the country has a variety of beautiful towns, the best known being Pakse in the south, and Luang Prabang in the north. The latter is the second biggest in Laos, and although hasn’t yet been graced by a McDonalds or Starbucks, is the most popular tourist destination in the country.

Pocketed between the Nam Kan and the Mekong River, Luang Prabang is a perfect meeting of cultures; though peppered with ornate, golden Buddhist temples, lasting tributes to the Land of a Million Elephants (Lan Xang Kingdom – from the 14th-18th century), it still shows the effect of its colonisation (ending in 1949), with numerous cafes and bistros lining the streets under arching French balconies. 

My uncle had lived out there for twenty years and the plan was that I would work in his hotel, at reception and on the bar. This was a wonderful chance for me to immerse myself in the town’s life and mix with the wonderfully, friendly locals. From the monks clad in their orange robes to the little old lady who sold me dragon-fruit in the morning, I received wide smiles and chirpy Lao-chatter (on their part) wherever I went.

This welcoming national character could be seen in the locals my uncle employed at the hotel, who were to show me the ‘real’ Luang Prabang, the side that is so often missed. I would feast on the barbeques in the cramped alleyways behind temples; play badminton in the red dusk on the crumbling school playgrounds and drink in their bars and nightclubs.

Their willingness for me to get involved was evident from the outset when, in my first week, I was invited to two engagement parties and a wedding. More nuptials than I’d ever been to in my life. At these events food was forced upon me from every side, bits of which I would tentatively place into my mouth, not knowing – before, during or after – whether it was fish, fruit or desert. The staple food in Laos is ‘sticky-rice’, which you can roll into a ball in your hand and eat with sauce or maybe a piece of dried seaweed. This I got used to, though the raw egg and clotted ox blood was a challenge to adapt to.

At the parties, it was the dance floor that was the real snake pit. What I assumed was free-style dancing was in fact a very pr├ęcised routine involving specific twists and turns depending on the song playing. My embarrassed partner would blush and bow their head in shame as I grinded across the tent in complete cultural-naivety and after one too many bottles of BeerLao.

My memory of Luang Prabang that stands out above all others was the night my co-barman Onn, took me through the mountains circling the town, to the home village of his girlfriend. We were going to what he called, her ‘Initiation Ceremony’. It turned out to be not nearly as sinister as it sounded. She was leaving the province to become a teacher and this was to be her goodbye party. On the back of Onn’s scooter, we chugged up and down the tracks snailing over the yawning blue mountains for about 40 minutes until reaching the little village, consisting of a small collection of wooden huts where faint candle glow and low murmurs of voices escaped the walls to us below.

I remember walking into the biggest hut and being greeted by thirty dark and beautiful faces staring at me with an intensity that I had never and have never since experienced, none of them having ever seen a ‘falang’ (foreigner) before. They weren’t smiling at me but their faces were welcoming; perhaps more through their eyes than their expression. There was no sense of awkwardness or threat whatsoever.

Sitting down on the rugs Onn handed me a glass of dark brown liquid which I gulped down. I had assumed it was a type of tea, and asking him what it was made from he told me that it was just water, and thoughts of dysentery and early flights home crept into my head.

There was food going round and also a large vat, the size of a bedside table with four bamboo stalks sticking out the top. It was a local whiskey made of rice and drunk warm. Onn and myself were the last to receive it and telling me that it was rude to leave any, we got sucking for the next 20 minutes, by the end of which I lay back on the floor and began to fall asleep.

When looking back on this night it’s hard to rationalise the nervy thoughts I’d been having on the flight over to Bangkok. Save for my uncle and the guests at the hotel, I barely spoken to another westerner in the six weeks I was there and this is what made the time so special. I got to know the locals, homes and families and have a peak beyond the Western bars and tourist ‘must-see’s’.

I would now always urge anyone strapping on their walking boots and backpack not to whip through as many locations as they can but to spend time in one place. There is always more to see – I could have lived in Luang Prabang for a year and still missed things – and it was always more interesting when you peak beyond the Lonely Planet to what’s really there. I was lucky in that I had a contact in the town, but even without one, the inner life of a place is always accessible, if you’re willing to look that little bit harder for it.

I remember a couple of ladies from Florida checking in and asking whether they should try and tick off their itinerary the sunset trip up the Mekong or the tuk-tuk  ride to the Weaving Village. To their shock I told them I wouldn’t know as I had done neither.

‘But honey, you’ve been here for a month! Don’t you want to get to know the real Laos?’ I didn’t reply to this but smiled and showed them to their room.
Bertie Digby Alexander
Liverpool 2010

Originally published in Ellipsis Issue 2 Spring 2011 -

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