Thursday, February 07, 2008

Wheels meet straps in Luang Prabang

The tourist world can perhaps be fairly divided into those who trolley their baggage along behind them on little wheels and those who hoist a Bunyan-like burden onto their backs, attached with straps. Both types merge and overlap in Luang Prabang. The wheelers fly in from Bangkok, Vientiane, Chiang Mai and elsewhere in propeller-driven aircraft: the strappers arrive by land and river. In this charming town, they join into a stream of humankind flowing along roads and alleys, among cafes and markets and off on treks and excursions. There are more strappers in the food market and more wheelers in the chic restaurants overlooking the Mekhong but, for example, on today's trek and kayaking trip (excellent btw, especially the kayaking, white water and all) we strappers met and thoroughly enjoyed the company of a New Jersey couple who had just flown in and were next off to Bangkok, Siem Reap (for Angkhor Wat) and Bhutan!! And these are American liberals who agree that the last 8 years have been a living nightmare for all right (left) thinking Americans. And in our hotel - at $25 a night hardly a bank buster - very few of the clients carry their bags on their backs and yet the wheelers don't seem to eat children for breakfast.

Why/how is Luang Prabang so charming? Location: remote, among forested hills, between two rivers (one being one of "the great rivers of Asia"); character: Northern Lao mixed with French colonial, untouched (largely) by local wars, unspoilt by OTT developments (i.e. nearly all buildings just 2 stories and all new ones must be); facilities: most of what a travelling westerner might seek plus a variety of activities both cultural and recreational. If you knew or can imagine Chiang Mai 30 - 35 years ago but with curbs on buildings and transport (no large vehicles in centre, for example) and add the grace and charm of the Lao (and a flavour of old colonial France), you have it.

And yes it is hard to leave! I could blame sore arms and wet clothes post-kayaking, but in reality I could be leaving for Luang Nam Tha and northern trekking tomorrow but I've put if off for one more day. Also, I could plead, it's one more day for the weather pattern associated with the blizzards in China to move away ..... As it is, I can't believe the place will ever be as charming again, with a new Chinese-Lao airport project in train which will allow much bigger planes to land - and then how will this place cope? Another golden-egg-laying goose slaughtered? Let's hope not!

The picture is of a little girl in a village deep in the countryside we passed through on our trek today. No TV or electricity but a school with two teachers and, apart from passing tourists, at least two flourishing handicrafts operations. The girl was completely oblivious of us but was engrossed in playing with the simplest of toys - something like two round stones set on an axle.


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