In the following posts I offer “virtual visitors” a chance to travel along with Susan and me as we visit new places, learn new things, and experience cultures other than our own. I will try to make them more entertaining than Uncle Ed’s slides about his trip to the Ozarks.
As time and Internet access become available, I’ll offer three posts based on a delightful visit to the country of Laos. It is admittedly incomplete: we visited only one city, near the middle of the country. We did not see Vientienne, didn’t visit the famous “Plain of Jars,” and didn’t go trekking up any real mountains, but we did get a nice taste of the culture, the food, the beauty, and the gracious people of Laos.
In this post I’ll share some pictures and memories from the town of Luang Prabang, much of which has been preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s hard to separate the temples from the town, but I’ll do that in the next post, then close with another that could be entitled “tourism,” as it will include things we saw and did in the countryside and along the Mekong River.
The town exists mainly on a sort of peninsula at the junction of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River. The Mekong is always muddy: in the rainy season, the Nam Khan is a pale orange color, too. At an overlook, we could see where someone had built a bamboo bridge across the Nam Khan, near the junction of the two rivers. The rainy season had just started, so the water was relatively low. As the rains continue, the water will rise and wash away the bridge, but when the monsoons end and the river subsides, someone will rebuild the bamboo bridge — and charge a dollar for each person to cross.
The national currency in Laos is the “kip,” and currently one U.S. dollar is worth about 8,200 kip. This leaves visitors constantly doing mental math to figure out if 12,000 kip for a Coke or 36,000 for a bowl of tom khan gai is too much, or a good deal.
This is especially important when visiting the night market, one of the more popular things to do: vendors come in from surrounding villages and even from the hill tribes to spread their goods on a stretch of the main road, which is closed for several hours each night.
All vendors expect you to bargain with them, and calculators are omnipresent: everyone speaks numbers. You don’t have to have any words in common: just pass a calculator back and forth, punching in the price you’re willing to pay, or for which they’re willing to sell — a nod or shake of the head is all it takes.
A good bargainer could no doubt have gotten better deals than we did: we were generally content with about 20 percent less than the original asking price — but when that price is only $6.50 for a dress or a nice shirt, why try to get them down to a basement price? We liked to think we were helping people who make little enough as it is.
This is especially so when the salesperson is a child, and there were many of them attending small stalls at the market. I think they know their cuteness is a weapon, and can be among the toughest bargainers — like this girl, who sold me several fans but refused to come down more than a dollar from the original offer.
The night market is generally all dry goods, with a sprinkling of fruit smoothie stands, and women making coconut pancakes — a delicious treat that’s more like warm coconut custard you can hold than what we think of as pancakes. At 5,000 kip for a half dozen, they were a steal.
Baggy elephant pants are popular items for both men and women, along with bamboo “iPhone speakers” (see the photo above left) and a wide assortment of bags and baubles, paper lanterns and umbrellas, wooden bowls and carvings. Many stalls offer hand-woven scarves made from homespun cotton died with indigo, along with other scarves or cloth made in the area.
The morning market is all about food. It opens on a different street from about 5:00 – 11:00 a.m., and features a number of items you’d never find at most American supermarkets.
You can buy all kinds of fruits and vegetables there, both things you recognize and things you don’t at first, like giant leaves of aloe and oddly shaped squash. While walking down one street, we noticed the price of large home-grown pineapples growing from three-for-10,000 kip (about $1.25) at the first stall to 5,000 each mid-market to 7,000 each near the end, a more popular location.
You can also find less common fare, like fried crickets, live water beetles, or large wasp nests filled with fat juicy larva. You can get live chickens with tied feet, crawling snails, and any cut of meat you can imagine, from the innards to the head. Meat salesmen typically sat above the street on large tables selling pork or beef with no refrigeration in sight.
You can buy meat raw or often cooked: the chicken is delicious. I didn’t try the fish (having seen the river as well as the fly-ridden fish stall) or the chopped grilled chitterlings. Dried foods are also common, often laced with sauces or spices. Dried bamboo shoots with dehydrated kefir lime leaves are tasty, as are brown mushrooms with a touch of soy sauce and spice.
The food was fascinating, but the most special thing about Laos, I thought, was the people. Without exception, the people we met were courteous and kind, generally cheerful and unfazed by foreign tourists constantly taking photos with their phones.
In our case, at least, they weren’t selfies.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.