Feb. 6, 2013 06:14

Lush Landscape

Travel through Luang Prabang for eco-minded tourism and religious traditions


5:31 a.m.

Through barely open eyes, we spy a silent, steady march of orange figures just below our window. An army of not-dead Kennys have come to visit us in our fuzzy dream state. But they’re not Kenny, and we’re not in South Park.


One Day Earlier

We find ourselves standing on a peninsula where the Khan and Mekong rivers meet, and thinking, “Weird, this kind of looks like Los Angeles.” Or at least, like a French-inspired outdoor mall somewhere in the county. But we remind ourselves that we’re in Southeast Asia, and this place—Luang Prabang—predates any tweener hangout by at least a hundred years.

Once the political capital of Laos, Luang Prabang now holds the more relaxed title of cultural capital. It is home to gold-leafed Buddhist wats (temples), traditional Lao stilt houses, teak-trimmed French colonial architecture, lush green landscape and some of the most laidback locals you will ever meet.

We start our day with an elephant ride just outside Luang Prabang. As a rule, elephants pressed into the service of man usually get a bum deal. But at the Elephant Village Sanctuary, abused pachyderms get a second life. As a bonus, local employees learn trade skills, and eco-minded tourists get a short ride atop nature’s Monster Truck of mammals.

After a 60-minute jungle stroll, during which our beloved elephant decided to tear her own route back to the village, we were transported by boat to the nearby Tad Sae waterfall. Now, we love waterfalls, but Tad Sae appeared strangely fake. It is a stepped limestone waterfall, but looks suspiciously like a theme park contractor decided to build foam pools for blue dye water. We were assured they were real, and then were promptly whisked back to Luang Prabang.

We dawdled the rest of the day away in prime tourist manner—wandering the quaint streets, practicing English with young Laos at Big Brother Mouse, getting wicked foot massages from steel-armed local women—until the night market finally opened.

The night market is the place to get all sorts of goodies: wax-lined paper parasols, Buddhist prints, “I Heart Beer Lao” T-shirts, whole fried fish on a stick and, of course, green stuff. Cannabis is readily available from tuk tuk and moto-taxi drivers, and is clearly wild grown. Quality is generally good, but seeds can be a problem.

On paper, Laotian law treats drug possession very seriously: possession of up to 22 pounds of marijuana is legally punishable by a maximum fine of US$2,500 and 10 years imprisonment. For quantities over 22 pounds, punishment is death. In reality, practicing discretion should keep you safe, and if not, a steep bribe should set you free.

Early the next morning, we witness an endless column of orange-clad monks shuffling quietly by our balcony. This is tak bat, or the Theravada Buddhist tradition of silent alms giving. Every morning, the monks leave their monastery, lined up with the most senior person in front, and travel along a set route through Luang Prabang, silently receiving small offerings of food—usually sticky rice—in their bowls. Through tak bat, the monks get their daily meal rations, and the givers earn merit (the religious karma kind, not the Boy Scout kind).

There are definitely rules: men can stand, but women must kneel or sit, and both must be respectfully lower than the monks; don’t wear shoes, shorts or tank tops; don’t touch the monks; and, for heaven’s sake, shut up. This is a silent tradition.

Rejuvenated by alms giving, awesome French baguettes and Laotian coffee, we rent a motorbike for the day. Our first stop is the Pak Ou caves, about an hour’s ride north and full of Buddha statues, followed by the Kuang Si waterfalls. These are the impressive big brother of the Tad Sae: larger pools, taller falls. You can even climb 200 feet to the top of the main cascade, stand in the rushing water and look over the edge. Yeah, we thought of death too.

Our day ended with a minor crash and a rushed repair job. We were certain our passports would be withheld . . . until we heard the singing. It was our motorbike vendor, happily buzzed on Beer Lao. Motorbike and passport were exchanged with a smile, and we watched him ride off, steady and loud, into the beautiful Lao night.

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