#22 Wats, Baguettes and Smiles

Sent: Tuesday, February 05, 2002 6:31 AM

It has been a little while since a huge cock has played a defining role in Sausage's and my early morning routine, but the noise generated by a tenor cockerel outside our bedroom window, firstly at 4.38am and then with persistent irregularity throughout the day means that we find ourselves having an early, groggy, stiff-limbed breakfast as an introduction to Luang Prabang

A small, green, spacious town surrounded by mountains sitting at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers Luang Prabhang was described in it's citation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as 'the best preserved city in South East Asia.' It offers lots of Wats, French Colonial architecture, the Royal Palace Museum and a rush-hour that consists of orange-clad teenage Buddhist monks on foot and schoolchildren on bikes

Most of the sights are to be found on a peninsular, 1km long by 250m wide with two riverfront roads and a long central high street. Outside of this area the roads are laid out in broad city blocks and the architecture is a mix of Lao and French. It is easy to imagine dissolute French Administrators holding court amidst the faded grandeur of the large colonial houses at a time when the now decrepit ponds were filled and the dragon fountains spat water

Wat Xieng Thong is everything that Wat Phra Thon Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai wasn't, being noticeably decrepit but carrying it's decay with great dignity rather like Ralph Richardson in a smoking jacket at 95. Lao Wats are different architecturally, decoratively and doctrinally from their near neighbours in Thailand. The roofs have more tiers, the decor is less strident, more folksy and all the better for it and the Theravada doctrine is an older, simpler, more introspective approach to Buddhism than the Mahayana schools found in East Asia and the Himalayas

Our first couple of days in Laos are filled with comments between us about how quiet, withdrawn, even surly the local people appear to be. But as we acclimatise to the understated way of life and gear our responses to those of our gentle hosts we start to apreciate that the Lao are the kindest, gentlest, most easy-going people we have met so far. The kids are fantastic, the happiest we have met without a shred of acquisitiveness and wanting to exchange only a smile and a laugh

The impossibility of fitting a reasonable understanding of Indian history into my head is a frustration that need not be repeated here where the much reduced geographical scale limits events to a comprehensible level

Laos is a country the size of Great Britain but with a population under 6 million people. It has always been a buffer between the Kingdoms of Siam to the East and Khmer to the West and found itself similarly sandwiched between the USA and Vietnam in the second half of the last century. No matter how hackneyed they seem the statistics bear repeating: between 1964 and 1973 the US dropped more bombs on Laos than they dropped globally during the Second World War, 580,944 sorties all carried out in secret while the US Administration denied being active in Laos. But the Americans suceeded only in driving the Lao into the arms of the Vietnamese who provided huge support in the creation of the Lao People's Democratic Republic. The years of peace since the creation of the republic in 1975 represent the longest period of peace in the history of the area, and this must account in part for the forebearance of the people for one of the few remaining Marxist-Leninist states. Whatever a Marxist-Leninist idyll would look like this isn't it, this is capitalism with Marxist window-dressing, the re-education camps (an important feature of Marxist idylls) are closed and 'jintanakan mai' or 'new thinking' has seen an end to collectivisation and the growth of private businesses. The Politburo, Central Committee and Party Congress continue as does the battle betwwen the older, Vietnamese trained hardliners and the younger, more pragmatic seekers of distinctly Lao national indentity and direction

Yes, yes I can hear you say, very interesting, but a bit dry. But this a place through which we travel with a strong sense that it is in some way 'other', and the arid contextual stuff is by way of trying to make sense of it

Each evening the local youth patrols Luang Prabhang on their mopeds. Traffic is so light that they ride around in packs at about 4mph all chatting away. One pack of 6 pass us in such strictly regulated pairs that I am convinced they'll be back in a couple of minutes escorting a presidential limosine

On our third day we finally locate the strangely elusive hill called Phu Si. How can a hill be elusive? Well this 100 metre hill dominates the town when viewed from the West and the South but is completely invisble from the North and the East, where we spend all our time, catching very occassional glimpses of it but then faling to find a way up it. Having finally found the steps from the top the town looks very green, the many cocnut palms painting the scene with a strong green wash that isn't nearly so noticeable at ground level

On our last day in Luang Prabang we visit the Royal Palace Museum. The Royal Family seem to have been pragmatic in the extreme as their names continue cropping up in the political history of the country even as the prevailing politik swerved to the left, although one King and Queen did pay with their lives in the 1970's. Construction of the Palace started in 1904 but much of the interior decoration dates from the 50's and 60's. The Throne Room is glitzy in a showy kind of way that strives to make an impression but looks rather more nightclub shiny than regally lavish

The King and Queen's Bedrooms have been kept as they were on the day that the monarchs were removed to detention in the far North, large airy rooms with plain cream walls and big pieces of simple plain furniture redolent of the early 60's. The overall effect is both pleasing and surprising and reveals much about my anglo-saxon expectations of palaces, that they should be ancient and lavish

That the Palace is preserved and open as a Museum says alot about the pragmatism of a revolutionary goverment that has reached an accommodation not only with the monarchy but also in respect of religion, allowing the 60% Buddhist majority to practise their religion without going sop far as to actually sanction it

This pragmatism is one of the two major reasons for the absence of significant resistance to the revolutionary regime. The other reason lies on the Western side of the Mekong. Since 1975 approximately 10% of the population have crossed the Mekong to make new lives for themselves in Thailand where they are easily assimilated amongst people who speak the same language. A staggering 75% of Laos' intelligentsia have skipped the country

On our last day we hire bikes. Tragically we can't find Flamingo bikes for hire. Ridden by about half the population Flamingo bikes look like Ladies shopping bikes with low slung frames, sit up and beg handle bars, a basket on the front and the rear carrier replaced by a large comfy seat. The absolute minimum number of passengers is two, a local person on a bike on their own seems likely to be the object of derision. But in the absence of a Flamingo Sausage ends up looking like the Vicar's wife out on her rounds on a huge old clanky sit up and beg number while I climb onto something that looks like a mountain bike but turns out to be the clankiest, wonkiest, most-meccano-like, least oiled, squeakiest pile of twisted metal ever to have been saddled up and called a bike

After four days we climb aboard the bus for the 7 hour journey to Vang Vieng. To our great relief the bus has padded seats and the road proves to be probably the best we have travelled on in Asia. The main two contributory factors, aside from the actual condition of the road are the almost complete absence of other traffic, we see less than 50 other long-distance vehicles in 7 hours, and the gentle approach of the bus driver who handles us like the Brittle Bones Club Summer Outing, which makes a very pleasant change

Luang Prabang sits at 70metres above sea level and we climb much further, up into the clouds, passing village after village where electricity has yet to arrive and people live in simple bamboo huts and wooden houses. In the vicinity of every community the roadside is packed with kids who are incredibly adept at amusing themselves. It is impossible not to hear gruff Monty Python mock Yorkshire accents intoning 'when I were a kid..' as a five year old runs by propelling an old bike wheel with a stick and a crowd of kids scream at a spinning top. The most frequent game though is flip-flop throwing. All you need is a target, a flip-flop, a few mates and hours of screaming and smiling are guaranteed

On arrival in Vang Vieng I suffer another lapse in my critical faculties I have now figured out that after more than 6 hours on a bus I completely lose the ability to assess accommodation. So it is that I go in to inspect the room at the Chandra Guest House and say yes to it without seeming to notice that it is tiny, filthy and smelly. So the next morning we have to up sticks and move to the spacious clean surroundings of Doh Song III where our half-acre room costs 50,000 kip per night (3.60)

Vang Vieng used to be a sleepy market town set next to a lazy river amidst towering limestone karsts. Now it teems with tourists, guest houses, restaurants and internet cafes, although it teems in a very laidback, spread out kind of way. We pass on the inner tubing down the river, everyone who does it says it is great fun but they all look like freshly cooked lobsters after 3 hours in the refracted rays of the fierce midday sun. We do go for a walk to some of the areas's other main attractions, the caves in the limestone karsts, but the scenery proves to be a lot more interesting than the holes in it

At home in London darkness has a definite security implication and it has been very liberating to lose that sense of concern that comes with the dusk. Here darkness implies nothing. Streetlights are unheard of and we wander around in complete safety with nothing to light our way except the lights on roadside stalls and passing vehicles

On our second evening it is clear from the number of traders who have set up stalls around the town's main cross roads that something is going on. Two stages have also been set up and after we have eaten we return to find some sort of cultural bonanza on one stage, a kind of Come Dancing with less make-up while the other stage stands empty except for a meaty PA and a bands' equipment. Lao is a place that goes to bed quite early and it is a habit that we have found easy to fit in with. So we are back in our room by about 10pm by which time the band on the second stage has struck up and a man is strangling a cat right next to the microphone while his mates play funereal pub rock in the back ground. I tell Sausage not to worry, I'm sure the Party doesn't believe in late nights. However, the cat strangler appears to be a big fan of Bruce Springsteen and determined to stay on stage as long as his idol always used to. So it is that he works his way through most of the moggies in town, finally running out at 2.30am

It seems that with each sucessive leg of our journey we build in ever greater time buffers where possible. Today we arrive at the bus station at Vang Vieng nearly two hours before our buses departure time and we are eventually rewarded with two good seats on the bus. But not until the repeated insistence of the driver that we can't get on the bus and put our bags on a pair of seats is undermined by a Laos guy doing exactly that even while the driver is telling us that we can't. As I immediately climb on and do the same everyone laughs. Waiting for the bus we get talking to Petar and Nichola from Switzerland who have recently begun three months travelling and have made it as far as Vang Vieng without a guidebook, though their planned route through Cambodia and on to Ko Chang involved huge amounts of doubling back on themselves and long sttreches of potholed Cambodian roads. Their revised route and timings almost exactly match ours so we seem likely to bump into them several more times over the weeks to come

As we have meandered South through Laos we have been warned time and again not to expect too much of Vientiane, the capital, and on arrival this proves to be correct. A spacious, quiet place with not too much to do or see, but the same could be said of Laos as a whole which has detracted from our enjoyment not one bit because it is the people and the relaxed atmosphere that have made it so enjoyable. As we stroll around Vientiane an impression we have gained elsewhere is confirmed. The basic unit of commerce in Laos is something called a shophouse. In anything larger than a small village the main road will be lined with shophouses all identical in shape and form but subject to wide interpretation by their shopkeepers

Each is the width of two cars and the length of three and tends to be lit by bright white neon. Whatever the goods or services being offered they are stored and sold from a space which doubles up as the family living room and sometimes bedroom. Those with space will also park their vehicle in the shophouse. So it is not unusual to see a large Japanese made pick-up truck parked in front of some very large uncomfortable looking wooden chairs (imagine Posh and Beck's wedding thrones without the gilt [guilt?]), a TV blasting out Laotian karaoke and sprinkled around anything from groceries to cash tills to lathes to petfood. It is a peculiar sensation to walk along the road in the evening and feel your eyes drawn repeatedly to what are ostensibly shopfronts but contain images of domesticity in a bright neon glare. I keep on wondering who has stolen the front wall from these people's houses, a question that seems even more relevant as evening turns into night and people bed down behind the chainlink rollershutters

Our last day before hopping on the plane to Cambodia we hire a moped and set off to visit Xieng Khuan 23km outside Vientiane. Lacking a decent map and knowing only that Xieng Khuan is next to the Mekong we take every viable left turn in order to stay as close to the river as possible. This proves to be a bad idea as what should be a 40 minute journey turns into a 90 minute vibrateathon along dusty dirt tracks

Xieng Khuan posseses a Buddah Park where a slightly batty guru worked with his followers to produce a bizarre collection of concrete statues that are related to his own personal creed which synthesised Hinduism and Buddhism in a way that, to judge from the statues, involved lots of drugs and late nights

We get talking to two young Buddhist monks and get on really well with one of them, Phet. His jaw hits the floor noisily when we ask if we could come and see him at his Wat. He is perceived as being shy by his mates and if he produces the first Westerners ever to visit his Wat on the outskirts of Vientiane they will be so impressed. So that evening we take the moped out to to the edge of town and sit chatting for a couple of hours with Phet in his room. Having lost his father and his brother before he was 14 years old Phet's decision to become a monk is strongly linked to his desire to bring merit to his family and his devotion to the task is very apparent. Amazingly he has only been learning English for 8 months and has never spoken to English people before, which is hard to credit given the ease with which he speaks and the breadth of his vocabulary. Mind you, he only sleeps two hours a night so he has plenty of time to practise on his own! > Phet meets us for breakfast the next morning and comes out to the airport to see us off. He is 18 and going into a Guest House, ordering from a menu, eating in a restaurant and going to the airport are all new experiences for him, a valuable reminder of the economic apartheid that operates in poor countries

We have skipped through Laos in only 10 days and stopped in only the most touristy places. The sights have been less than fantastic but the people have been the best we have met so far and I would love to come back and spend more time getting off the beaten track.

Lots of Love
The Travelling Sausages