Virtual meanderings

Tag Archives: Luang Prabang

Laos | Vang Vieng

          Back in Thailand I often saw foreigners wearing T-shirts “I did the tubing in Vang Vieng” or, the braver kind – “I survived tubing in Vang Vieng”. Which makes one wonder… no, not at all what on Earth tubing was, who gives a damn about that… but you cannot help asking yourself, where on Earth is Vang Vieng. Well, in Laos.

          In my earlier post I could not help mentioning that hammer and sickle flags were everywhere in Luang Prabang. Not just in front of public buildings – private houses, private guesthouses, internet cafés, shops (as well as inside Utopia).

Some Government Building Some Government Building

            One evening I even saw two young guys at a newly-opened internet café (which was probably theirs), trying to fit the two flags (the national and the hammer&sickle) above the café entrance. One was standing on a ladder and would put the flags, say, a bit to the left – then the other watching from the street would examine the result and say something in Lao. Then the guy on the ladder would move them a bit to the right – and process would repeat. They were clearly enjoying the task

           Yet, at Vang Vieng, to my surprise, I did not see a single hammer & sickle flag. Let us call this observation “observation one”. Now, observation two: in Luang Prabang the majority of visitors were middle aged French and German couples on their summer holiday. Observation three (I am rushing a bit with this information, but here it is): in Vang Vieng the visitor crowd was 95% young British, American, Australian and Dutch boys and girls.

            Was there a connection between those observations? Hmmm, I’ll leave the answer to you.  What Vang Vieng had, however, was the most gorgeous scenery around I’d seen so far on my trip – even better than current favorite Luang Prabang.

Vang Vieng View

Vang Vieng View

            And now, let me go back a bit and start from the beginning – how we got from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. We left Luang Prabang at about 9am in a van. It was nine of us inside the vehicle and the ticket cost 105,000 kip per person ($13). The van, however, could fit eleven people. By Lao understanding leaving those empty and not monetizing them would be a mortal sin, and every time the driver had a chance, he would pick up Lao people from the side of the road and collect the money into his pocket.

Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng (Google Maps)

The long and winding road.... Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng (Google Maps)

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Utopia Awaits!

        We wound be winding the evening down at Utopia. “We”, as in “the people I wrote about in one of my earlier posts and I”. But what about Utopia?

        As many a folk knows, Utopia was the name of a fictional island invented by Thomas More in 1516, and is commonly considered to come from the Greek words “ou” (not) and “topos” (place), hence – “Utopia =  a place that does not exist”. Eventually it acquired its modern meaning of “a perfect place” (a fact, strongly implying that no one actually read the book).

        But – and that was new to me – a third meaning should also be considered, according to Wikipedia (or rather Thomas More himself).

In English, Utopia is pronounced exactly as Eutopia (the latter word, in Greek Εὐτοπία [Eutopiā], meaning “good place,” contains the prefix εὐ- [eu-], “good”, with which the οὐ of Utopia has come to be confused in English pronunciation).This is something that More himself addresses in an addendum to his book Wherfore not Utopie, but rather rightely my name is Eutopie, a place of felicitie. (Quote: Wikipedia)

        But what about bar Utopia? Would it live up to its name? It was already dark and we only had a rough idea where to look for the place. We asked a couple of people and we soon found a street sign “Utopia – this way – 100 meters.” “Great,” we thought, “almost there.” We followed the sign, and 100 meters down, instead of a bar, there was another sign pointing away from the main road into a little side street – “Utopia – 50 meters.” We followed it – and to our increased amusement we arrived at another sign. This sign made no distance claims – it simply pointed into another side street.

        It took three more signs and us going deeper and deeper into a labyrinth of inner streets before we found the coveted spot. It was at such a location, that no bar seeker would bother going for if the original street sign told the truth – “Utopia – 500 meters.”

        Utopia, “a place that one begins to doubt whether it actually exists”- check!

        So when we crossed under the entrance arc and got ourselves in a hallway, we were thinking “it’d rather be worth the walking.” And it actually was. Part-open air, part covered area. Dimly lit. A relaxing music not too loud. Hammer and sickle flags. Two American or Japanese heavy motorbikes. Sand volleyball playground. Lao vegetation that would just make every place look great. Bamboo couches overlooking the Nam Khan river underneath (it was dark so the river could not be seen, but we could still hear it).

In earnest

In earnest

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Babel Eurotrip Until the End of the World

          In the evening in Luang Prabang I watched “Babel” at the hostel’s “movie room”. If I am not mistaken, the movie even won an Oscar (starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett). The plot is a mix of several stories unfolding simultaneously in Morocco, US, Mexico and Japan. As I was headed for Japan myself (eventually), I paid extra attention to the movie’s Japanese part to petty things one normally does not pay attention to – like the tables and chairs inside bars, the street signs, the little details on the buildings, etc.

           “Babel” had me thinking about films whose plots unfolded in several countries and I came up with two more: “Eurotrip” and “Till the End of the World” by Wim Wenders. Putting these three side by side seems to make little sense – a hilarious but dumb teenage comedy, a true modern classic of European cinema and an US-major-disguised-as-independent…  but they did have something in common in the way national stereotypes were used in their plots – each in its own right, of course.
To make my point clear an old joke comes handy: “Heaven is where the French are the chefs, the Italians are the lovers, the British are the police, the Germans are the mechanics, and the Swiss make everything run on time. Hell is where: the British are the chefs, the Swiss are the lovers, the French are the mechanics, the Italians make everything run on time, and the Germans are the police.”  With that in mind, let’s dissect the three movies.

Babel (2006)  is about
an American family struggling with marriage
a Japanese emo teenage girl and some weird Japanese story (with underage nudity)
a Moroccan goat herder + careless shooting and police brutality
a Mexican nanny in the US (+ a US/Mexican border story)

EuroTrip (2004)  is about
 Football hooligans (from England)
Debauchery and marijuana (in the Netherlands)
Poverty and cheap drinks (in Slovakia – a proxy for all Eastern Europe)
A German truck driver who… oh, well…nevermind
And in the Vatican…nevermind that too…

Until the End of the World (1991) is about
The movie was shot in 1991 but the actual story takes place in 1999 – which gives it a kind of sci-fi touch. Director Wim Wenders (being a true master) was not just playing with stereotypes – he was projecting those in the future. Italian gangsters, African traditional singing, Japanese box hotels and pachinko slots, Australian aboriginals – and – in line with the movie futuristic touch – Indian nuclear satellite and Russian military computer search bot – appearing as a talking 3D bear.

Babel (Movie) - starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett EuroTrip movie - teenage comedy Until The End of the World, Director Wim Wenders

No stereotypes were harmed while shooting in these movies.

           But when will we see a movie about an American nanny in Mexico, a Japanese goat herder, a Moroccan family struggling with marriage, and a Mexican emo teen girl?

Going social

         People visit far away places to see a new culture, relax and have fun. If they went on an organized tour, that is. When venturing to travel on one’s own a journey is as much a discovery of a new place that it is a discovery of your own self. But there is one more component to complete the picture – and that is the other travelers you meet along the way.

         Here is a batch of stories starring travellers I met at Luang Prabang – basically the same people with whom I visited the Kuang Si waterfalls on my second day of my stay in Laos + one more guy.

The Australian

         The guy from Australia was talking about the neighboring Laos countries. I took the chance to mention that after Laos, I wanted to stop in Vietnam and then China (both are Laos neighbors).

         Then the Australian went on a rant about China being a non-democratic country, using prisoner labor, and – above all – polluting the world with its coal mines and inefficient economy.

         I tried to put this into some perspective and explain where the country was coming from – telling him about the Opium Wars – of which he knew nothing, and the Japanese occupation – of which he also knew nothing. Of course, none of that had any effect. Past is past and we’d better talk about the present – was his argument.

         Fair enough, I agreed. And I told him that China is already the world leader in renewables – producing and manufacturing and installing the greatest number o solar panels, photovoltaics, wind turbines. Starting from scratch several years ago, it was currently number two in renewable capacity installed, soon to be number one.

         He was so amazed to hear such contradictory facts to his imagined view of China, that he plainly refused to believe me.

         And now comes the irony of it. I asked why he was so concerned about China if the biggest polluter in the world was in fact… his own native Australia? Read more of this post

Rise and then Fall (Luang Prabang Kuang Si)

      A traditional Lao water mill

      I got up at 9 o’clock in the morning. Outside the room in the hostel yard I heard some people talking about – maybe – going to certain nearby waterfalls outside Luang Prabang.

      The hostel manager was quite glad to help such a good idea (he could arrange a ride for us to the place and back for 25,000 kip each, e.g. $3). It suddenly felt like a plan for the day – a close encounter with Lao nature was too tempting to refuse. Yesterday had been the day of getting to know a bit about town, today would be the day of getting to know a bit about its surroundings. Everyone else felt the same way.

      Our means of transport soon came – a covered multi-purpose pick-up truck. It reminded me of the ubiquitous Chiang Mai red trucks, albeit one notch less sophisticated. All five of us waterfall prospectors hopped in and off we went. Who was in the back of that track? First, there was Ashley – 27, an African-American (in fact the only AA traveler I saw throughout the journey). Then there was Diego – a PhD student studying in California who said he was from Colombia (but was traveling on an US passport). Then one tall Australian guy, and a blond Irish (whose names, unfortunately, I am not able to recollect). And last but not least – myself.

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Luang Prabang Main Street Transformations

         Bustling with people, merchant stalls packed together, thousands of items for sale that the foreigner cannot even recognize, agressive marketing and noise. If there was ever a cliché about Asia, it would be markets.

         Luang Prabang, too, is famous for its night market. I would not know it – markets are really not my love affair – but this time I did not go to the market. The market got to me.

         Since the times of French philosopher Rene Descartes we’ve become accustomed to think about a location in terms of two coordinates – X and Y (or X,Y, Z if we want to express all three spatial dimensions). Yet, to locate Luang Prabang’s night market, you’d need to use Einstein’s theory of relativity which integrates space and time into a single continuum, thus adding a forth dimension – time.

         OK, this was my fancy of saying that the Luang Prabang’s night market is open from 6 to 10pm on the main street. And I mean that literally – on the asphalt just in front of the former Royal Palace. So you can only hit it then – neither earlier, nor later in the day. At 6pm the city police just close the street for motorized traffic and merchants with bags start appearing from all around (as if they were hiding in the neighboring streets).


Luang Prabang Sisavangvong Road

Courtesy:  lacest20 @ flickr

and after…

Luang Prabang Night Market

Luang Prabang Night Market

Courtesy: Lazy Hiker

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Ho-Lao-Graphic Image

        I came across the “Laos National Museum in Luang Prabang” by accident. Not that there was any chance I’d walk by it and miss it, once I was on the main street – I just mean to say that I did not know it was there and I was not looking for it on purpose. On the main street I was doing the usual first rites for a new country – changing money, getting a new SIM card, having a lunch. It was truly a beautiful day – perfect for strolling. And this is how I ended up walking by a high wall with an open gate behind which one could see a big building with a beautiful garden.

        I am the first one to agree that reading an account of a museum visit is as interesting as watching the grass grow (the one thing more boring is writing such an account, actually). Yet here follows a post – a long one, yet really the shortest I could make it! – about – yes, a museum visit.

        In an earlier post about Angkor I played with the idea that inside the complex one could discern – as if it was a holographic image of sorts – Cambodia’s history from the past to the very present. Their markings were right before the visitors’ eyes, yet few seemed to take notice. What about this museum? Well – since here, unlike Angkor, one was not allowed to take photos, it will be more difficult to make a point. But let’s try…


         First some trivia – entrance fee for foreigners was 30,000 kip (3 euros) – by no means a small sum by Lao standards. To make it look like a sweet deal the ticket comprised of three parts – 10,000 kip each – that granted access to separate areas – the museum itself, a Buddhist wat in the garden, and, believe it or not, the King’s Car Collection (hosted in a separate building). Getting a ticket for just one or two of the three? Not possible, of course.

           More trivia: Upon entering I had to take off my shoes – as is commonly done in Thailand and Laos not just when going inside temples, but even when entering shops, etc. (In Thailand I once even had to take my shoes off when entering a bar, as well as – believe it or not – a public restroom). Some places which require you to take off your shoes are so unusual (to the foreigner) that I later set out to find the origins of the custom. Turns out the answer was simple: it was a “relic of the times when taking one’s helmet off meant there was no danger nigh” or perhaps because “in the middle ages garbage and waste was thrown out the window and men would walk outside with very large hats that would catch whatever would be thrown out of the window, so when they went inside they would take their hats off and dump everything out.”

         Oops. Those were in fact the explanations for the Western tradition of taking one’s hat off. As for shoes in Asia – go figure…?!

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Simply Laos!

          I’ll start with something that seems obvious. Blog posts are never an accurate account of reality. When writing about a place or a happening one strives to bring out its essence – using whatever literary tools and talent one commands. This is a process of discriminating and stripping out details. Little wonder then that a picture “is worth a thousand words” – as it preserves much more. Yet, we’ve all taken pictures and everyone knows how often they pale in comparison to the real thing. The magic in the air is so not transferred into the pixels on the screen. Struggling to render the magic, well, you are back to words.

          Laos is one place where there does not seem to be anything exceptional…. Its mountains are not the tallest, its temples are not the most beautiful, its landmarks are not the awe of the world. Except that every non-exceptional detail combined makes the place absolutely captivating and unique. There is a word for this – “harmony”. Only when you are in Laos you will feel it. Photos simply can’t show you how everything just fits here.

      Being landlocked and somewhat isolated has been both the country’s curse and the country’s blessing. It is what helped the Lao people adapt so well to their environment without ruining it. It is what enabled them to develop and maintain a cultural tradition similar to their neighbors’, yet unmistakably distinct. It is what helped them integrate and add a distinct Lao flavor even to French colonial influence, rather than simply imitate it. Laos is a socialist country (still), but  – again – it is socialism “Lao style”, not some copycat imported version.

Luang Prabang - Lao Neo-Fauvism Exhibition

Luang Prabang - Lao Neo-Fauvism Exhibition

     It took the turbo-propeller under two hours to cover the distance between Siem Reap (Cambodia) and Luang Prabang. If I’d gone by land, it would have perhaps taken me three days (mountainous terrain, multiple bus changes, etc.)

       Laos is truly a country with untouched beauty. And what better way to get introduced to it by flying over and landing in – of all places – Luang Prabang. From the air the second largest town of Laos looked more like a big village (a very nice big village, mind you). It was surrounded by spectacular green mountains, hills and rice fields. The weather was sunny, the sky was intensely blue. The town itself fit its environment perfectly– no pollution, no high-rise buildings, no ugly construction. Its streets – following the natural terrain and the curves of the two rivers. Greenery was everywhere. To complete the perfect sight some white cirrus clouds were passing by projecting their moving shadows over the terrain.

Luang Prabang Aerial View

Courtesy: (simply a perfect shot)

Laos - Luang Prabang Airport

Laos - Luang Prabang Airport

      When the plane stopped, we simply got down its staircase and walked up to the arrivals hall – plain and simple. Entry-visa was issued upon arrival ($30 to $40 depending on country, most visitors having to pay $35). There was also an extra $1 to pay “because it was Saturday.” I am not making this up. A note said that it was an overtime fee for the officers, who had to be working rather than having a well-deserved day off. Read more of this post