Monday, January 05, 2009

Land of a Million Elephants


Luang Prabang, Laos – There seems to be a persistent smell of sewage wafting throughout this upriver city of nearly a half million inhabitants. There are no streetlights. But much has changed here. Three years ago, many of the side streets leading from the main street to the river were dirt. Today they are all concrete, lined with guest houses and red brick curbs, smartly lined on edge, landscaped, and gutters leading downhill to the Mekong.

New lodging construction is going up on the former debris-cluttered empty lots, with carpenters and stone masons literally working around the guest house tenants. Every place of accommodation is full, with late flight arrivals humping huge backpacks down the street, looking for a room. Tuk tuk drivers line the streets, hawking city tours and riverboat passage to the waterfalls and Buddha caves to the coffee shop and eatery patrons.

Everything seems to accommodate your money, just like capitalistic societies.

Among the many restaurants and Lao handicraft shops on the central avenue are two new ATMs and a host of ticketing agencies offering bus and plane tickets to Vientiane, Chiang Mai, Hanoi, and all points south. There are no trains in this mountainous country, and never have been since the French attempted it one hundred years ago, laying narrow gauge track into the Plain of Jars. It was never completed, nor attempted again.

The city is packed with pulpy foreigners, mostly French, Italians, Canadians, Russians, and Australians, and each night the main street is blocked off from motorized traffic for five blocks, filled elbow-to-elbow with vendors lining both sides of the street, selling goods on plastic tarps and quilts under florescent lights connected to a common electrical line. There are row upon row of amazingly beautiful hand-woven hill tribe productions, the women stitching skirts, scarves and wall hangings of all sizes as we speak.

They produce anything you can make from cloth, from tiny little newborn slippers and dazzling handbags, to wall hangings, bedspreads, tablecloths and quilts, all in the distinctive hill tribe style. All for dirt cheap. You give me ten thousand dollars, we could turn it into fifty, easy, maybe a hundred. Is there a Lao hill tribe store in your town yet?

There is silver, silver everywhere. Wooden carvings of elephants and everything imaginable. Lao trinkets and t-shirts. Antique bone carvings, buddhas, baskets of all sizes, music CDs and souvenirs. Everything is geared for the onslaught of tourists. There’s a lady squatting in the street, selling fresh roasted squid on a stick from a portable charcoal-filled barbeque pot.

At the end of the exhaustive and repetitious pedestrian mall, where five streets meet and traffic resumes, there is a used clothing bazaar selling exclusively to Lao, and an all night fruit and food vending market stretching two blocks to the river.

Let’s see…it’s January 4th…I had to ask today. That would make it the Christmas and New Year’s holiday for everyone here. It could be any time for me, sitting up here on the raised stone plaza surrounding Mt. Phousi temple, twenty feet above the street, looking down on everything, a good view for looking up and down the block.

Nobody sees me, except for the guy who came up to take a piss in the shadows, and another two girls who came up later for the same reason. There’s another five or six hundred steps to the top, where you can obtain a grand view of the entire city, but I’m not interested in the climb tonight, despite the vista it promises.

We sat out here last year, when the activity was considerably slower. The night market has expanded by a factor of ten. It was much quieter, and an old man played classical Lao folk music on a two-stringed instrument…like a violin…I just sent a guy from Ireland, a young man, thick head of red hair to go find out.

Here he comes. A ‘So-o’…it’s called. And just now, I had the most intense déjà vu experience.


Just up the street, a monk pounds a bell at Wat Thatnoy, marking the late afternoon call for the novices to come pray.

A vendor lady wipes the face of her new infant, cooing to the child, their warmth and closeness oblivious to the thousands on the street. The lady turns the squid on the charcoal burner. The vendor smiles a greeting to another customer. The weaver threads another stitch.