Lao(s)

Perhaps this isn’t news to you, as it was to me, but apparently the “s” is “Laos” is silent. So, about Lao(s):

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View of Luang Prabang from Mount Phu Si in the center of town

Despite its sleepy-town, no-worries attitude, Luang Prabang is hardly a hidden gem (about a week ago, the Times published a “36 hours in” article on the town). In the five months I spent in the offices of a travel guide company, I don’t think I ever heard the words “Luang Prabang” or “Vientiane” (the capital) mentioned, but apparently every backpacker in the Northern Hemisphere is familiar with the slow-paced Laotian town.

Luang Prabang has achieved the impossible; it’s a grungy backpacker town that somehow isn’t a total disaster. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Luang Prabang in its entirety is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (here we go again) so the historical facades still line the street(s) of the “downtown” area. The town isn’t in perfect condition. Shutters hang off hinges in slightly catawampus windows; paint is chipping off decades-old wooden sideboards; and the streets aren’t exactly clean, but for a town that has only recently become somewhat affluent, it’s pretty well taken care of.

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Recent history in Laos is not particularly pleasant. Luang Prabang was the capital of the country for more than 1,300 years under various dynasties and the monarchy managed to survive the violence of World War II, though the king acted under the control of the French. The Ho Chi Minh Trail passed through Laos and as a result the U.S. intensely bombed the country during the Vietnam War. For various political reasons, Laos has not received the same amount of war reparations and economic aid from the United States since then. In comparison to Vietnam and Cambodia, two countries that have received financial support, the stunted development as a result is starkly obvious.

During the Vietnam War period, a communist guerilla force known as the Pathet Lao gained power and overthrew the monarchy. Because of government censorship, the story in Luang Prabang, as they tell it, is that the guerillas “took the royal family away” to the northern part of Laos and, what do you know, none of them have been seen since the coup in 1975. This, among other issues, prompted a 22-year civil war.

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Former royal palace, now a museum

Laos is definitely not a wealthy country, nor is it one with a tremendous amount of stability. As puzzling and frustrating as the Vietnamese government could be at times, the communist system in Laos is particularly cumbersome and problematic. An expat I met who does business in Laos talked about international money transfers simply disappearing from banks as a not unusual experience.

I’ve been in Southeast Asia for nearly six weeks now and as far as Buddhist temples are concerned, Laos is where I started to fade, but, the Buddhist traditions and culture in Luang Prabang are actually pretty fascinating.

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Haw Pha Bang temple

As popular as the study of Buddhism is in the West, Laos is one of the countries that is largely absent from scholarship about Theravada Buddhism, the most common branch of Buddhism in Southeast Asia (versus Mahayana Buddhism in India and the Himalayan region). Until recently, Laos was a very isolated society due its ongoing civil war, so the Buddhist practices there largely faded from international view. Somehow, a strong Buddhist tradition survived the violence and continues to flourish today even under a strict communist government.

Because the educational system in Laos is less than ideal, monasteries are one of the only ways boys can be educated (girls are pretty much screwed). Most abbots can’t in good conscience turn anyone away, so monasteries are absolutely packed with young novices. Several years ago, a group of abbots in Luang Prabang hosted a two-week spiritual retreat in the jungle and anticipated about 30 novices would sign up; they got 700 applications.

In general, Buddhism is a much more laidback religion than monotheistic practices and the cultural perception of monks is the same. A large percentage of monks who enter a monastery leave sometime in young adulthood, and this is a completely normal part of the culture. Priests who leave the seminary don’t become pariahs, but there’s a sense they have failed in some way. With Buddhist monks, even living in a monastery for a few years is considered a great achievement, and monks who leave and return to the general population are celebrated.

Buddhism is big everywhere in this part of the world, but its traditions and practices seemed to influence everyday life in Luang Prabang more so than in any other city I visited. Every morning, monks from the five temples around the city head out before sunrise to collect alms; in other words, they have to go out and get donations so they have something to eat for breakfast. Many of the novices are only 9 or 10 years old and follow the head monk through the streets, collecting small offerings of sticky rice and other food from tourists and locals who come out to feed them. Barefoot, they file past lines of people who place the rice directly into their bowls, which they wear on straps over their shoulders.

The alms giving ceremony is a perfect microcosm of the tourism conundrum in Asia, particularly in the less wealthy countries in Southeast Asia. With tourism comes a lot of money and a lot of crap, and there’s this constant push-pull between development and “authenticity.” The alms giving ceremony is a great example of this. During high season in Laos, there is a huge influx in participation due to the number of tourists and as a result, more monks are able to participate in the ceremony and will even donate excess food to a local orphanage. This helps sustain the practice and preserve a part of the culture.

The downside of tourism is that it turns what should be a very sacred and peaceful ritual into a zoo-like attraction with people constantly snapping photos and getting in the way of the monks’ procession. But when tourists aren’t around, there is simply less food. (As an aside, it is very easy to participate in the alms giving ceremony away from the crowds if you stick to the smaller streets and wait for the monks there, which helps reduce the chaos for the monks and makes the experience more enjoyable for you).

The more I’ve traveled through Asia, the more I’ve encountered this situation and it’s not a straightforward thing. Tourism both sustains and ruins communities and cultures, and it can be really difficult to draw the line between the two. There’s no right answer to this dilemma, but it’s something to at least be aware of when traveling. I don’t think any tourist has the intention of being disrespectful, but so many people are completely oblivious, so if you can avoid that and simply be more aware, I don’t think you can go wrong.

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Anyway, pizza! There’s a lot of it in a place as backpacker-friendly as Luang Prabang, but the appropriately named Secret Pizza is a world away from the $2 slice crowd. Secret Pizza is not truly a secret—Lonely Planet knows about it—but it feels like a locals-only place, as it’s about 600 yards down an unpaved, unlit alley on the side of town away from most hotels and hostels. Run by an Italian guy and his Laotian wife, the restaurant is only open two days a week in the backyard of the couple’s house. A hodgepodge cluster of tables and chairs surround the open-air pizza oven and a pool table set right on the dirt under a bamboo roof gets a lot of play. Is it the best pizza in the world? No, but for a town of 50,000 in Laos, it’s not bad and the clandestine atmosphere makes the surprisingly high-quality mozzarella taste even better.

Luang Prabang feels like a small town, but the surrounding villages make it utterly seem cosmopolitan by comparison. The people who live in these areas—designated as lowland, midland, and upland Lao society based on elevation—fall in a pretty big range on the socioeconomic spectrum, but are generally very poor by Western standards.

There’s nothing romantic or idyllic about an agricultural, subsistence living, but the people I saw in Laos had a fairly high quality of life relatively speaking, especially compared to some of the rural villages I saw in Cambodia (more on that later). Except for some litter, most of these villages were pretty clean and had electricity. The people who live here have two sources of income, from farming and usually from some kind of handicraft production, and though their plots aren’t big, they own land, which is an important indicator of wealth. I say all this because Cambodia provided a dramatic contrast to this situation, which I’ll talk about in my next post.

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Some villages have a speciality handicraft and all the families produce the same good. This was taken in a basket weaving village about 25 minutes from Luang Prabang.

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I think it’s important to visit villages like this when traveling in Asia if you want to really experience the lives of locals, but you of course run the risk of participating in a kind of slum tourism. When it comes to villages like this, you have two options; you can visit “tourist villages,” which are as crowded and often as cheesy as they sound, but where the locals are paid, or you can find other villages largely untouched by tourism, where nobody makes an effort to show you anything and you get to see how people really live, but the local people are not compensated in any way.

Again, I think this is tricky. Tourist villages can feel like you’re visiting Epcot, but the upside is the people who live there are able to earn a better living as a result of your visit. In these other villages, you see the real thing and while I don’t think I inconvenienced anyone by walking around, I was a stranger in their community and they weren’t getting any benefit from my being there, which seemed a little selfish.

I’m genuinely conflicted on this and don’t have any advice on how to best navigate these kinds of situations when traveling, but as I already said, I think going out of your way to be respectful and not intrusive goes a long way, even though you’re not actively doing something to help these people. You can’t help everyone (and maybe these people don’t even want our help) and this is one of those cases where I think awareness in itself is worth a lot.

Having not been to Vientiane, the country’s capital and the largest city with a population of about 780,000, I can’t give an accurate account of Laos as a whole, but Luang Prabang is one of the least developed places I’ve seen in all of Asia. Not in a small business or tourism sense, but as a country, based on what I saw in Luang Prabang, Laos has a long way to go in terms of financial services, infrastructure, and large-scale business development. But you don’t come here for a taste of high society. You come to enjoy the beautiful scenery that surrounds Luang Prabang and in that department, there’s no improvement needed.

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Somehow I’m already in Cambodia, my second to last stop in Asia, and I’ll follow up with a post about Siem Reap in the next few days.

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