Friday, 29 March 2013

... Indochina: Water Buffalo vs. Fish...?

"... Same, same! But different!" (Laotian saying)

Luang Prabang strikes me as being the epitome of Indochina. There are monks, gilded Wats and an almost mythical air about it. This UNESCO-protected ancient city and former capital will serenely transport you back in time to old Asia.

A quick ride from the slow boat dock across from the Royal Palace Museum (Ho Kham) to my digs in the SE corner of the centre of town gave me time to freshen up before a little exploration. Lao Lao Garden looks like Vegas.... If it were ran by Tarzan.

Still, it has a good looking (food wise) and incredibly thought provoking (information wise) menu. Then there was the drinks menu. Greeted with a complimentary shot of Lao Lao, Laotian rice whiskey which admittedly tasted a lot like Buttercup syrup, this place (and it's drinks) packed a punch. Probably didn't help either that all Laotian "cocktails" were 2 for 1 and laced with this deadly liquid!

Laap, a type of Lao minced meat salad, is regarded as the National dish. The meat can come in the form of beef, pork, water buffalo, chicken and fish. Now seeing as the fish variation is usually raw and the consumption of raw fresh water fish can lead to an infection by Opisthorchis viverrini (Southeast Asian liver fluke), a parasitical flatworm that can live for many years inside the human liver, I decided to forgo my usual Pescatarianism for the evening as I often do when immersing myself in local cuisines. Served with sticky rice, the combination of cooked water buffalo flavored with fish sauce, lime juice, padaek, roasted ground rice and fresh herbs, minced and mixed with chili and mint was heavenly.

The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) has an absolutely fascinating exhibition on the Hmong, Khamu and Akha tribes of Laos and where I found myself after breakfast this morning.

It promotes the ethnic heritage of these people through displays showcasing various ethnic garb and jewelry plus their marriage rituals. It really was quite the gem of a place to visit giving you an insight into the history of Laos. The exhibition is clear and descriptive and found in a 1920s house up the hill from Dara Market with an entrance fee of 20000 Kip.

One of the most spectacular sights associated with Luang Prabang is Tat Kuang Si, a series of waterfalls about 30KM/18 miles south of the town. You can either rent a bicycle or drive out there. I chose the latter primarily because it was destined to reach 42 degrees (108F) today. The ride in itself was magical. Why? Because at one point as you journeyed down the road you became surrounded by thousands of butterflies. They flew around you, landed on you and basically made you a part of their winged frenzy all the way to the Falls.

This was a fantastic way to spend later morning/early afternoon. The trail up was hardish work due to the heat, but so worth it. It is also home to the Tat Kuang Si Rescue Centre, a sun bear sanctuary, which is fascinating and informative. The bears are in such good condition with plenty of space.

The waterfall has many different plateaus and in three of them you're able to swim. It was wonderful, if a bit slippery. Wear a pair of footwear that you can go in & out of the water with, although the little fish will still try nibbling at your heels. The jade coloured water was cold but not unbearable and a nice cool down after the hike up the fall. I even embraced my inner child and jumped off one waterfalls into the pool below, praying that no part of my bikini floated to the surface before I did. It was well worth a visit, and so peaceful.

Upon my return to the town, it was time to get a massage... May be after a quick nap! After catching up on a few zzzz's I visited a small family run place just off Sisavangving Road. One hour and a measly $5 later I had been pummeled, bent and twisted in all the right places, not to mention walked on by a tiny Laotian lady who would probably be able to kick some serious arse should the need to ever arise.

Dinner was something else. A traditional Lao dinner in a local's home. Before the meal was served there was a Baci ceremony where blessings were chanted and white cotton threads tied around your wrists.  In Laos, white is the color of peace, good fortune, honesty and warmth. The white cotton thread is a lasting symbol of continuity and brotherhood in the community and permanence. The Baci threads should be worn for at least three days subsequently and should be untied rather than cut off. Usually it is preferred that they are kept until they fall off by themselves. Not sure how mine will fair combined with DEET, sunblock and sweat but I'll give it a go! The food was amazing and once again I took a day off from Pescatarianism to sample the local dishes. Eggplant, sweet chili sauce, spicy pork Laap, curry paste, river weed, Lao sausage (pork), Lao chicken curry with the creamiest coconut taste ever, glass noodles & bamboo shoots and an amazing coriander/mint based salad. Desert was at the beginning and the end: a fried flower head and a coconut & banana dumpling before the meal and a coconut & green plant thing served in a banana leaf which was absolutely amazing! In fact the entire meal is the best thing I have eaten in long time. Just goes to show what fresh organic (in the true sense) produce and free range livestock can do for your palate. I was stuffed beyond belief. Time to walk it off!

The night market, which runs from 5pm to 10pm-ish, is something not to be missed when visiting this town which I am rapidly falling in love with. It is located along Sisavangvong Road from the Royal Palace Museum. Every evening a kilometre-long stretch of road is closed to traffic and turned into a shopping street whilst the market takes place. It's a magical sight and offers the most extensive collection of handicrafts in the country.

As I type this I have been twice in less than 24 hours and am now the proud owner of some jewelry with a horrific yet amazing background, a change purse, a bag and some wannabe MC Hammer pants which will be fantastic for massaging in.... All for the grand total of.... $20! You could bleed your bank account dry here alone.

There is easily a few hundred handicraft vendors selling their hand-made products here every night and the market showcases an extensive variety of items made by local ethnic groups. You can choose from a vast array of textiles, ceramics, antiques, paintings, coffee and tea, quilts, shoes, silver, bags, bamboo lamps of different shades and sizes, and even rare spices. A lot of these items are hard to find any where else. Best of all they are cheap. The traders quote incredibly low prices considering most of the items are hand made. They are also low pressure and if you ask about their merchandise most will be cheerfully accommodate your query. So even if you're not good at bargaining, you can be sure that you will get good value. However here's a thought.... 10000 Kip is around $1.30 Cdn/USD and 84 pence Pounds Sterling. Don't get confused by all the zeros of the Kip. Stop, think and do the maths before you begin to argue about prices. You will be pleased to know that you are helping the local people when you spend your money. Buying stuff here will not only help the traders to earn a living, but it will also empower the local families who produce goods to further develop their skills and help them get out of poverty. Do you really need to barter a trader down from 35000 Kip for that handmade bag? I did not once barter for any of my items.

During the US bombing of 1964 - 73 some thirteen million tonnes of bombs were dropped on the Indochina region. THIRTEEN MILLION!!!! That's equivalent to 450 times the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb and equates to 256kg for every man, woman and child in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. 580344 missions were flown over Laos and, at a cost of $2.2M USD per day, two million tonnes of bombs were dropped on the country seen as "irrelevant" during the Secret War. Unfortunately at least 30% of these failed to detonate and, despite the start of clearance work in 1994 by the British Mines Advisory Group), only a tiny percent have been removed. This leaves a country still littered with unexploded ordnance (UXO) and it could take 100 years to make Laos safe. To this day Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

My night market bracelet tells a special story. My bracelet is an aluminium Peace Bomb bracelet, an accessory that creates work for Lao artisans and repurposes war debris from the bombs dropped. The result of doing something constructive with this destructive material. The villagers of Ban Napia were originally melting bomb metal and casting it into spoons. You cannot help but be touched when learning these people were transforming bombs dropped onto them so mercilessly into spoons that are useful for their community, which eats a lot of soup! Now jewelry comes in the form of necklaces, bracelets, wraps and charms that combine human ingenuity with non-war and war scrap metal to help local families. For each product sold, Project Peace Bomb donates funds equivalent to the cost of clearing 1 to 15 square meters of land.

A true story of turning evil into good.

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