Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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On my seventh day of seeing the sights of Luang Prabang, I rested. For the past week I’d rushed around, visiting temples and museums, attending cultural events and scouring the night market. Finally, satisfied that I had seen all the most important sites that the historic town had to offer, I plopped down at a street side table in the open air Lao Lao Garden Restaurant for a leisurely lunch and settled into the gentle flow of Lao life.

Lao Lao Garden Restaurant in Luang Prabang, Laos

Lao Lao Garden Restaurant in Luang Prabang, Laos

Eschewing my normal penchant for bitter black brew, I stirred sugar and milk into my Lao coffee and sipped the savory nectar as I gazed out on the lazy street. A produce man pedaled by, hesitating ever so briefly as he called to the owner, offering the green, gold and crimson vegetables heaped in upon his wooden cart. Getting no response, he glided away. The rice cake lady arrived next, seated side-saddle on a purring motorbike, laden down with freshly fried treats wrapped in pretty pastel cellophane tied with pink ribbon. Having sampled her wares several days earlier, my mouth watered like one of Pavlov’s dogs.

Between transactions and breast-feeding her infant, the owner somehow found time to prepare my Padsapao, a traditional dish of tofu or meat stir-fried with Lao-style veggies, herbs and spices. At my request, it was served with a helping of sticky rice, which arrived in a small round wicker basket. Popping of the lid, I dug out a chunk of rice with my fingers and pinched it together with with some of the Padsapao, eating in typical Lao style. The lightly fried vegetables and crispy herbs were “sep-lau” – very delicious.

Traditional Lao Padsapao with sticky rice basket

Traditional Lao Padsapao with sticky rice basket

My one hour lunch became two, then three hours long. Young boys dressed in matching jerseys rode by in the back of a pickup truck, sounding an ah-ooga horn and hoisting a golden trophy aloft. Nothing was lost in translation; the joy of victory was palpable. Thunder rumbled and dark clouds rolled in, creating midday dusk. Boys carrying crates of Singha beer on their shoulders strolled languidly down the sidewalk, despite the fat raindrops that began to fall. Two girls puttered by on a motorbike, the rear passenger holding a purple umbrella over her driver. And still I sat. Three  hours stretched into four. No one asked me to leave or even pay the bill. Except for the massage I had scheduled, I might have stayed well into the evening.

Can’t view the above slide show of sites in Luang Prabang, Laos? Click here.

On my seventh day in Luang Prabang, I emerged from my tourist chrysalis, spread my wings, and once again metamorphosed into a traveler.

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Some travelers wouldn’t even think about eating street food while traveling overseas but I salivate at the prospect. In Bangkok, I snack throughout the day from vendors that line the major avenues and in Pokhara, Nepal I patronize steel food carts that prepare everything from Tibetan momos (similar to Chinese dumplings or pot stickers) to Indian chat, a casserole of salty/spicy beans and potatoes topped with yogurt sauce. Not only is street food usually delicious, the price is cheap beyond reason.

Since Laos is one of the poorest nations in the world I had expected to eat on a budget but in Luang Prabang the price of restaurant food was surprisingly high. Instead, I went in search of street food but found none, a puzzling situation in Southeast Asia. It took me a few days but I finally solved the riddle. Every evening, the main street of Luang Prabang is closed off to traffic from 6 to 11 p.m. for hundreds of handicraft merchants who sell their wares from blankets spread beneath portable canopy tents. On the far south end of the night market, tucked into a tiny alley that runs perpendicular to the main road, scores of food vendors line both sides of the narrow lane, leaving barely enough room for two people to pass.

Sisavangvong Street is closed off to traffic each night for a handicraft market

Sisavangvong Street is closed off to traffic each night for a handicraft market

Traditional Lao weavings

Traditional Lao weavings

Women set out hair clips and buttons for sale

Women set out hair clips and buttons for sale

I pushed my way through the crowd and ogled tables heaped with Lao delicacies, nearly paralyzed by the choices. At a booth stacked with gleaming red tomatoes and giant cucumbers a woman shaved green papayas and chopped chillies for Som Tam, the famous spicy salad found all over SE Asia. On the opposite site a hefty woman hacked a roasted pig’s head to pieces with a Read More

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The Royal Ballet Theatre troupe in Luang Prabang achieved the impossible on the evening I attended a performance of Phra Lak Phra Lam, the Lao version of the sacred poem known as the Ramayana. Dancers in monkey masks sat on their haunches, scratching the backs of their necks. Tall men wearing hawk-billed masks and elaborate silk costumes glided around the stage flapping their arms. The dancers were so thoroughly in character that reality was suspended; I believed they were monkeys and giant birds of prey.

Ornate costumes and masks worn in the Lao version of the Ramayana

Ornate costumes and masks worn in the Lao version of the Ramayana

Beautiful Lao women perform perfectly syncopated dance steps

Beautiful Lao women perform perfectly syncopated dance steps

That the Phra Lak Phra Lam is even performed today is something of a miracle. Unlike the brutal repression of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which killed thousands of monks and destroyed monasteries during their reign, the Pathet Lao communists in Laos attempted to influence Buddhist clergy to achieve political goals. As early as the 1950’s, when the Pathet Lao began to emerge as a political force, they discouraged religious practices deemed counter to the communist philosophy, such as making large donations to monasteries, the tradition of alms giving, and many cultural festivals and activities. When the Pathet Lao officially came to power in 1975 the Phra Lak Phra Lam, which had been performed for members of the royal court for 15 centuries, was banned.
 

Can’t view the above YouTube video about the Royal Ballet Troupe in Luang Prabang, Laos? Click here.

Surprisingly, in 1979 the communist government began easing restrictions, resulting in a gradual resurgence of Buddhist institutions and practices, and by 1993 a committee had been appointed to revive performances of Phra Lak Phra Lam. The theater reopened in 2002 at the National Museum in Luang Prabang, located on the site of the old Royal Palace. The 1.5 hour show, which is  every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 6:00 p.m., is well worth the $10 price.

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I’ve eaten my fair share of diet foods over the years (I tipped the scales at 275 pounds at one point) but by far the worst was rice cakes. Hoping to make them more palatable, I envisioned a svelte, sexy body each time I chomped into one but they always just tasted like cardboard. Rice cakes are not fit for human consumption; I’m not even sure they should be fed to hogs. So when I happened upon racks of rice cakes drying in the sun on the banks of the Nam Khan River in Luang Prabang, Laos I wasn’t the least interested in sampling the goods, but I was intrigued.
 

Can’t view the above YouTube video about making gourmet rice cakes in Luang Prabang, Laos? Click here.

Across the street I spotted additional racks leaning against a dilapidated wood fence surrounding a tin-roofed open air compound. Curious, I stepped inside the dark enclosure. In one corner, steam billowed from wicker baskets set on giant cookers, turning the pseudo-factory into a sauna. A few feet away, a woman scooped golden rice cakes out of sizzling oil and dumped them in jumbo wicker baskets to drain. Behind me, baskets of cooked rice waited to be formed into cakes and two women squatted on their haunches, wrapping the finished product in acetate. I was nonchalantly eavesdropping as a local tour guide explained the process to his clients when one of the tourists offered me a sample. I accepted only to be polite, took a bite, and then another; it was the most scrumptious rice cake I’d ever tasted. Light and crispy, each delicious bite melted in my mouth! For the next week I binged on the gourmet snacks and stuffed every square inch of extra space in my backpack and duffel with rice cakes when I left Luang Prabang. They were soon gone and I went into withdrawal. Golden temples aside, I’d go back just for the rice cakes.

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After the final packets of biscuits and dollops of sticky rice had been dropped into the monks’ pots during Luang Prabang’s daily alms giving ceremony, I followed the saffron robed procession through the rear gate of Wat Xieng Thong. A bold sun rode majestically into a robin’s egg sky, igniting the gilt facade of the chariot house on one side of the courtyard. On the other side, sparks burst from a colored glass mosaic tree of life that adorned an entire wall of one of the temples. Squinting in the dazzling light I wandered around Wat Xieng Thong, the Temple of the Golden City, reputedly the most beautiful temple in Laos.

Tree of Life mosaic on wall of Wat Xieng Thong

Tree of Life mosaic on wall of Wat Xieng Thong

Carriage House at Wat Xieng Thong

Carriage House at Wat Xieng Thong

The monks vanished into their quarters and alms givers melted back into their hotels and houses, leaving me mostly alone. I fought the temptation to go back to the Luang Say Residence and slide beneath the silky duvet on my enormous four-poster bed for a few more hours of delicious sleep, deciding instead to make the most of the morning light by touring some of the city’s historic temples.

According to legend, the Buddha smiled when he rested for a day at the sire of present day Luang Prabang, prophesying that it would become a rich and powerful capital city. The prophesy came true; for hundreds of years Luang Prabang served as both the capital of the powerful kingdom of Lan Xang, whose wealth and influence can be attributed to its location at a crossroads on the Silk Route, and the center of Buddhism in the region. The city lost its capital designation in the 15th century but remained the seat of the royal family until the communists took over in 1975 and dissolved the monarchy, and is still considered to be the spiritual and artistic center of Laos. More than 30 of the town’s original 60+ temples have been preserved and are scattered across the narrow peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers that forms the heart of the city. Reflecting diverse architectural influences that range from an era when neighboring Thailand invaded to the French occupation in the 19th and 20th centuries, most are easily seen on a walking tour around neighborhoods where traditional Lao huts stand shoulder to shoulder with stately French colonial mansions. In addition to Wat Xieng Thong (above) the more spectacular temples in this UNESCO World Heritage town include the following:

Wat Visounnarath (also known as Wat Visoun or Wat Wisunarat)

The deceptively simple exterior of the sim (chapel) did not prepare me for the collection of centuries-old bronze and gilded Buddha statues house inside, all clustered around a behemoth gold Buddha that smiles benignly down on visitors. Built in the earliest Lao architectural style, Wat Visoun is the oldest functioning wat in Luang Prabang and is unique for the sloping front roof that covers the entrance. However it is most famous for its lotus stupa, which Lao people call Makmo or watermelon stupa due to its rounded dome, the only one of its kind in Laos.

Wat Souvanna Khiri

Near the end of the peninsula, where the Nam Khan River makes a sharp bend before entering the Mekong, I wandered into Wat Souvanna Khiri, the Monastery of the Golden Mountain. Interesting for its melange of architecture, which combines an early Lao style sim and outbuildings with French colonial mansions that are used as residences for the monks, the real fascination at this temple was a note tacked on the wall about chanting ceremonies with the monks, held every afternoon at 5:30 p.m. I returned later that same day and sat cross legged at the back of the tiny chapel, letting the soothing drone of the chants wash over my body and settle my mind. Read More

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In the grainy gray light just before dawn I stole from my suite at the Luang Say Residence and walked the silent streets of Luang Prabang to witness Binthabhat, the daily practice of giving alms to monks in Luang Prabang, Laos. I was conflicted over this event. As a photographer I desperately wanted to take photos of the spiritual procession but as a Buddhist I wanted to show my respect for the sangha, the community of ordained monks. I compromised, shoving my camera into my backpack with a commitment that I wouldn’t take a single photo until I had first participated in the alms-giving ceremony, believed by Theravadan Buddhists to be a means of earning merit that may lead to a better next life or lessen the number of times they must be reincarnated before achieving nirvana.

My peaceful morning was shattered as I approached the edge of the historic district. Women rushed into a wooden shack lit by a single flickering bulb, loaded wicker baskets with sticky rice and spring rolls and bustled back out, carrying the food on long bamboo sticks hefted across their shoulders. One of them locked and loaded on me like a heat-seeking missile. Before I knew what was happening, she had spread a woven mat on the sidewalk, shoved me into a kneeling position, and slapped a basket of food in front of me. I looked up just in time to see the first procession of monks emerge from the gloom like a ghost ship on foggy seas. “How much?” I asked anxiously. “30,000 Kip,” she said curtly. (about $4 U.S.) There was no time to negotiate; the monks were steps away, already sweeping aside the shiny silver lids of their alms pots in preparation for receiving my donation.


Can’t view the above slide show of monks receiving alms in Luang Prabang, Laos? Cllck here.

Being careful not to touch their pots, I carefully dropped a scoop of sticky rice and spring roll into each as the monks glided past and effortlessly melted back into the gloom. Just as I was about to run out of food my eagle-eye vendor so artfully deposited a second basket at my knees that I didn’t miss a single pot. When the last saffron robed Read More