Thursday, November 7, 2013


Laotian paddles traditional boat on Mekong River at Luang Prabang

This afternoon I'm strolling through the historical neighborhood of Luang Prabang, in the old capital of Laos. Walking downhill, I arrive at the famed Mekong River. Having been on it before, it's as though I’m reunited with an old friend. It doesn’t disappoint; I’m treated to another fantastic view. The majestic Mekong flows before me, and beyond it are ancient forest covered mountains. Since the sun has returned the colors are bright, and the intense green colors of the jungle blanketed hills really stand out. 

There are no tourists around this serene scene, so I find a walkway down from Khem Khong Street to the riverbank. There are no speedboats here, like everything else in Laos, movement on the river is slow. There’s no bridge either, any one crossing uses their own small boats, or takes the ferry. With the ferries docked, river traffic is light. The only sound is the putt-putt of one longtail boat chugging upriver.

Buddhist monk by Mekong River, opposite Luang Prabang. This side of river was once part of Thailand.
Far downriver is Vientiane,  but unlike in the south, the Mekong is not an international border here. The bank on the far side here is now Laotian territory, but it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the land west of the Mekong was part of Thailand. That back and forth change of frontiers led to border battles further west in the 1980’s. But all is calm now; the far bank is now home to quiet ethnic minority villages.

I head further down the Khem Kong river road, behind the royal palace. This was once the royal pier, a miniature port where the world’s dignitaries arrived by boat for official visits with the king. Back before there was a decent road between here and Vientiane, the Mekong was the main highway of Laos. 
Long houseboats lined up on the riverbank
With the rise of roads in Laos, river traffic has dropped, but there are still some boats that carry passengers up and down the Mekong. This area has become a passenger port for journeys on the river. A whiteboard outside the booking house promotes a two day boat trip to Huay Xai, a town upriver bordering Thailand. It claims that the trip is by ‘VIP boat’. I let out a chuckle, since I spoke with some travelers that dispute that classification. They arrived in Luang Prabang on that same river route, and the boat they traveled in was far smaller than they expected.

“It was so crowded, full of cargo and passengers, there was little room to spare,” a young lady complained. “We only slept a little, and that was in hammocks.” Well, when those backpackers travel, they like the true local experience. They certainly got one. 

I look down towards the river bank now, and there some passenger boats, but they are outnumbered by much larger craft. There are more than 20 blue houseboats, all lined up on the bank, one right after 
A family lives on this houseboat
another. This part of the shoreline has been transformed into a floating residential area. I’ve never seen houseboats like this before, long and narrow, most are more than 80 feet in length. This makes for affordable housing, in an exclusive neighborhood. These boats are docked next to the most expensive land in northern Laos, and their rent to dock here is  probably quite low. Some of these families seem to do well; a number of the rooftops are adorned with solar panels and satellite dishes. 

Still, this isn’t a very sanitary lifestyle. I see a few children playing about, and laundry is drying in the windows. The laundry water and the bath water both come from the river. Unfortunately the river is also the neighborhood toilet. 

Leaving the river I go to check out more of the town’s commerce, so I walk up the hill into the heart of this historic town. I notice Laotians walking into a market resembling a barn, and I follow them in. Inside is a market not for tourists, but for local folk. Booth after booth is selling cheap clothes, costume jewelry and pirated DVDs. 

Old basketball court is now a market
The ceiling is unusually high for a local market, and looking up, I notice familiar hoops hanging from each end. This barn-like building wasn’t originally a market at all, it was a basketball court. Given that basketball is an American game, I wonder if these old backboards were installed when pilots of the CIA's Air America used to be here during the war. Since most Laotians are fairly short, they don’t have much use for a game favoring tall people. At least they’re putting the building to good use with the market. Not to miss a place to display their merchandise, one vendor has hung her colorful t-shirts from the far hoop. 

Leaving the market, I turn onto the main street of the town’s old part, Sisavangvong. Passing the palace I visited earlier, I reach the best preserved section of town. There are French shophouses, cafés, popular restaurants, and stores selling works of local artisans. And yet, there is a distinct, un-Laotian feel to this street. Also occupying these old buildings are travel companies and internet cafés. The foreigners have invaded.  

Looking around, I see Laotians on Sisavangvong have been outnumbered by white foreigner tourists. Walking down the busy street, I hear German, French, Swedish, and various English accents. In 1995 Luang Prabang was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, which helped to preserve the old French colonial houses. After the war Laos was a forbidden land for foreigners, but they have come back to Luang Prabang in droves. 

Passing one tour company, I pause to read the elaborate placard out front. It advertises elephant rides in the countryside, a favorite of foreign visitors. Ride an elephant for a couple hours, or all day. For those who want to spend even more time with the great Asian elephants, they advertise a mahout school for $140. In learning the mahouts ways, you are taught the basics to be an elephant driver, or handler. The introductory course takes three days. 
Local vendors set up for Night Market in Old Town Luang Prabang
Or if you prefer an old fashioned jungle trek like the colonial explorers used to do, you can take a four day elephant caravan into the Hongsa Forest. That will only set you back $800 a head. 

Walking on, another elephant tour company advertises this: “Three days trek to visit old opium fields”. 'Old' opium fields? Really? Are they saying that there aren’t any more new ones? 

I head back to the guest house to rest, but there's more coming in the evening. Sisavangvong is known for its night market, and I return later to check it out. 

This is actually my second time to the night market; I had seen it five years before. It was a unique night market back then, the street was closed to traffic, and each vendor had their wares laying out in the open on the roadside. There were no tables, their goods were laid out on the ground on top of colorful woven blankets. Each lady vendor had only a small light bulb to brighten their merchandise beneath the moonlight. 
Lady vendor smiles at customers in Luang Prabang Night Market
Many ethnic minority women came in from the countryside to sell their goods, some of them working with a baby still strapped on their back. There was a wide selection of Buddhist statues, incense and silver jewelry of traditional designs. The best wares were the hand woven fabrics and traditional clothing. These weren’t just cheap tourist souvenirs, this was real craftsmanship. Almost everything you could see was made by hand.

In the years since my last visit, I return to the night market to find it has expanded exponentially! There are now so many vendors here that they don’t just line the roadsides, they are crowded together out in the street. It'ss no longer open to the skies either, most vendors have erected pop-ups for the rainy season. They're all packed so tightly together on the road, that there isn’t much space to walk through. To make my way down the street through the pop-ups, I'm forced to duck up and down repeatedly like a target in an arcade game! 

2005: The Night Market before it became swamped with tourists

Having Luang Prabang declared a world heritage site has been a mixed blessing here. The old buildings have been preserved, that’s true, and business is booming. 

But I fear Luang Prabang’s old district has become a victim of its own success; its romantic allure is fading. The high season now has mobs of tourists here, with most businesses catering solely to foreigners. 

This historic street is losing the old world charm that made Luang Prabang a world heritage site in the first place. 

No comments:

Post a Comment