Langourous Luang Prabang – we love you.
I stole the ‘langourous’ bit from a poet, Oliver Bandmann, who writes here, but it is such an apt adjective- especially on these ‘mid winter’ days of misty mornings and golden afternoons in Luang Prabang.
A town of temples
Quiet, shady streets
Heightened with saffron
The golden stupas glow even brighter, the smoke from small restaurant barbecues twists up through the palms and banana plants, and the long boats reflect like brush paintings in the light on the Mekong River. Along the river banks, new gardens appear daily and another bamboo foot bridge has been built above the lowering water. Little boys swim along on polystyrene chunks, while the little girls cajole the watching tourists to buy bracelets and necklaces- for our school books, they say.
The food is fantastic- everything from Laos fried rice or noodles, made spicy and full of fresh vegetables, to baguettes, fruit smoothies, and pancakes at the markets, to gastronomic extravagancies at the French restaurants. Danielle was perplexed when her hot pot arrived along with all the raw ingredients, and she had to ask what to do next. (cook it and eat it was the answer!)
The Hmong people are the dominant tribal group here and sell their colourful fabric and clothes at the night market. We learnt about clothing codes and marriage customs at the beautiful little Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, which is dedicated to preserving and transmitting the cultural resources of Laos.
A new seal of authenticity , Handmade in Luang Prabang, was being launched with an impressive exhibition of fine arts and textiles. This gave us the chance to see the different methods and designs of different tribal groups. The fabrics themselves are so painstakingly woven or embroidered, but the final designs of shirts, or dresses or jackets are not always appealing to Western buyers, so it was good to see the beginning of new design and marketing initiatives. The silver work is beautiful and desirable, as are paintings and handmade paper (which we cannot bring into NZ as it is full of seeds). Needlework and embroidery is everywhere- women pick it up in a spare moment. I even saw an idle policeman embroidering peacefully.
Ock Pop Tok is a fabulous place to visit. There are three shops in Luang Prabang, selling the best clothing and fabrics I saw. They put you on a free tuk tuk to visit their model production centre, just 2km out of town. Here women spin silk, and weave the most elaborate and exquisite designs, which are sold world wide. The prices reflect the quality and, more importantly, their fair trade practices and wages. Their Silk Road cafe on the banks of the Mekong serves a Persian tasting platter, reminding us of the romance of the ancient silk trade.
Monks by the hundred live in Luang Prabang, at the dozens of temples. You spot them out walking, going to English classes, bathing in the river, sitting in the park talking to tourists, labouring in the temples, and talking on their mobile phones. Most of all you see them before dawn, emerging from the gates of their temples, walking along the street in a long silent line. Local people are ready to offer alms- rice, biscuits, fruit, and the tourists are ready with flash bulbs. Many tourists also take part, by kneeling, feet pointing away from the monks. You do not look up as they go past, but simply place food, or money in their bowl. The monks eat breakfast and lunch, and that is it for the day.
Drums at 4a.m.
Wake all the monks, pious ladies
Who prepare their rice
I had conversations with several monks, at the Big Brother Mouse English classes, and all said they had become novices, to get a good education- much better than in a government school. All spoke Lao, plus their own tribal language, Thai, English, and usually some French or German or Spanish. As well as languages, they learn maths, science, history and Buddhism. The novitiate ends at 19 years, when they can choose to continue as a monk, or to go to University, or get a job. All these boys came from country schools and all had parents who are small farmers, so being a monk is a way to move out of the poverty cycle. It is a matter of great pride to have a monk as a son .
They say Luang Prabang is the most beautiful city in South East Asia- we loved it, and were sad to leave the changing river scapes, the gracious streets, the local people , the colour and energy and kindness, the countryside. Thank you to our friends, Robin and Pam, who told us to stay a while. We did.