Saturday, August 29, 2015

Photo Diary: Best of Luang Prabang

It's no secret that I hated Luang Prabang, so maybe instead of a "best of..." photo diary, it should be named, "not the worst of..."

But seriously, if you take the people out of Luang Prabang, like, all of them, this is a beautiful town. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lao Airlines from Luang Prabang to Vientiane

During this trip, I have endured the strange misfortune of booking plane tickets on airlines, only to have a plane go down days or weeks after securing my ticket with the airline.

When I booked travel on Malaysian Airlines for my flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching,  MA flight 370 and  MA flight 17 happened weeks later.
When I booked travel on Air Asia for my flight for my flight from Siem Reap to Chiang Mai, flight QZ 8501 went down days later.
But when I booked my flight on Lao Airlines from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, the 2013 crash in Pakse was fresh in my mind. 

I was nervous, but an $80 one-way ticket from was too good to turn down, especially considering that the alternative was a 12+ hour bus ride.

Fortunately, my flight on Lao Airlines was excellent. It lasted a mere 45 minutes, and I got a free drink and delicious fruit chips. Most people on the plane where other foreigners, but there were a handful of locals as well. I knew they were Lao because their carry-on items were all large quantities of vegetables. I sat next to a bag of cilantro. Thank god I love cilantro. 

View over the mountains. 

Comfortable seats

My seat companion, a bag of cilantro. 

The best chips ever!!!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Real and Imaged me: Thoughts from Laos

Real sunset on the Mekong


Suppose this scene occurs: I'm flying from one part of Asia to another and I meet a stranger on the plane. He tells me that he lives, not in his home country, but in Laos. He runs a bed and breakfast in a quiet river town on the edge of the Mekong. I’m sitting there listening to his story in the cramped economy class of a plane taking me from one concrete metropolis to another. So the idea of watching the sunset on the Mekong sounds mystical, mythical, romantic, exotic, even adventurous. I say I would like to visit him sometime, maybe stay for a week or a month and live the slow life. Watch the sunset every morning, cook my own food, befriend some villagers.

But the fact is that I’ve been to that bed and breakfast on the rim of the Mekong, I’ve seen the sunset in that town, and I’ve met that man, though not on an airplane. And I don’t want that life at all. Not even for two days. I couldn’t wait to get out of Pakbeng or Huay Xai, and even Luang Prabang failed at maintaining my interest. So what was once only an idea, image, or story is now a reality. It is an experience, and I have had it. Spending the night in Pakbeng was like living the fantasy, only I swiftly realized it was not what I wanted. I became disillusioned.

But the illusion was not the stranger, nor town, nor river, nor the bed and breakfast.
The illusion was me.

From an airplane, or at my desk at work, or in my living room, that life on the Mekong may say sound like something I would enjoy, but when thrust into it, I found the opposite was true. I had made an inaccurate assessment of myself, not of the situation. Surely the situation may indeed be magical and romantic to the man at the bed and breakfast, or to someone else, but not to me. Only by learning more about myself and by gaining perspective from being in different situations was I able to gauge what is mystical and romantic to me.

I thought living in Japan, too, would be a dream come true, and for many foreigners it is. But for me it was better as a dream than as a reality. When I got there and realized I didn’t like it, it was because I had misread myself, not the country. I am a character in my own imagination, and my imaged self is different from my real self. Imagined me loves roughin’ it, wakes up early and goes to bed late, can befriend anyone within seconds. Real me thrives in a city, is shy in groups, would rather spend all day reading, writing, or talking at a coffee shop. Real me loves contained adventures, but not tour groups. Real me avoids risk.

It's time to stop imagining and start planning. But plan for real me, not for imaged me.

Monday, Dec. 15, Saffron Cafe, Luang Prabang, 3:26 pm

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Cafes of Luang Prabang

I was surprised to find a few good cafes in Luang Prabang, since I hadn't read anything about it on the internet. I discovered these by merely walking around the town, but pinned them onto Google maps. 

Dao Coffee
My favorite place in Luang Prabang, and the only café I visited everyday I was there. Lightening fast wifi, abundant seating, the best iced latte and iced mocha I had in Laos.
Google Coordinates: 19.886175,102.136030

Joma Café
A popular local chain with food and drinks. It is a bit too commercialized for my tastes. The wifi was slow and the place is always crowded. Many people seem to enjoy it, but I can’t bring myself to like this place.
Address: Chao Fa Ngum Rd

Saffron Café
A great choice in Luang Prabang. Founded by an American living in Laos, they serve coffee from a local hill village. There are actually two cafes in Luang Prabang, and I prefer the smaller of the two. The drinks were great, but I recommend the desserts, specifically the piping-hot brownie which was exquisite.
Google coordinates: 19.895063,102.138216

Indigo Café
A busy restaurant-café at the main junction of the night market. Wifi and service are both slow, but it’s s suitable option and a convenient location.

   Address: Indigo House Hotel, Sisavangvong Road, Ban Pakham

Friday, August 14, 2015

Tourism has ruined Luang Prabang

Your view from inside the Pak Ou Caves

Laos was the only country in Asia where I really, really felt like a tourist. Now, I have no illusions about me walking through the streets of any Asian country and passing as a local. Being a white woman makes that impossible. I also don’t harbor many illusions about trying to pass as an expat. Not in shorts and sneakers at least. I accept that I am a tourist. A visitor. A guest. I came prepared knowing that I may be sold to or treated as a tourist. But in no country did I feel more annoyed and ashamed of my tourist-identity than Laos.

Maybe this was just my experience. Other foreigners looked like they were enjoying themselves. But I hated Luang Prabang. The only time in which a Lao person would speak to me or even acknowledge my presence was to sell some good or service to me. Let me clarify: I do not feel entitled to anyone’s conversation or kindness. I do not expect total strangers to be interested in me, let alone want to converse with me on a personal level. If this happens, it’s wonderful and I cherish it. But for the most part, I expect strangers not to care about me. But in Luang  Prabang I was offended. Not because strangers didn’t want to be my friend, but because they didn’t even see me as human. They saw me as a walking wallet. Every interaction was a transaction. I understand that there are linguistic barriers, and that people have a job to do and this is their livelihood. But seriously. Leave. Me. Alone. It was so hard to go about my day, not merely as a tourist but as a person, without being sold to relentlessly. 

Your view of the sunset at Mt. Phousi

Another annoying thing about Luang Prabang is that every worthwhile attraction comes at a price. Unlike temples in Thailand, Lao temples charge a fee of 20,000. This is way to much money when you consider the fees that are charged for other attractions and museums. In Myanmar, we also paid to enter the pagodas, but you could see that an enormous amount of money was required to maintain these structures, so I didn’t feel bad paying to see them. But in Luang Prabang the structures are not specially maintained, the fee is designed solely for the purpose of extract money from tourists, which seems to be the sole purpose for the town’s existence.

As if it were not bad enough that you have to pay to enter Phousai mountain or a temple, there are people who await you inside asking for even more of your money! Ever temple and tourist sight has vendors peddling goods. This gets really annoying, because in most cases, they have you trapped. On the street you can walk away and act like you’re in a hurry, but at a temple or monument, they know you are here to stay.

Droves of tourists climbing Mt. Phousi to see the sunset

But the worst thing about Luang Prabang is, by far, the tourists themselves. The comes not as singles or pairs, but in droves. Groups of ten and twenty. They also do very predictable things. If the guidebook mentions it, you can be sure to see dozens, if not hundreds, of people doing it. Like watching the sunset from Mt. Phousi. Too many tourists mean that only photographs you will be taking, are going to be of other tourists’ arms taking photographs. What is supposed to be serene has become a spectacle. Everything has huge lines and crowds of blubbering idiots. It’s like going to the mall before Christmas on a day when everything is on sale. Absolutely horrid.

Before coming here I read the article Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about Luang Prabang. A place “more conjured than constructed.” She said she would never go back for fear of tarnishing her memory of the place. Well, don’t go back Elizabeth, I certainly never will. 

Women selling sandwiches will wave menus at you from the street

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