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Bird's Blog

Poetry, musings, observations, commentary, rants, confessions...and who knows what else!

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Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Teacher, writer, poet, grandmother, lover, wine-drinker, chocolate eater, beach comber, hiker, traveler, Giants fan, San Franciscan. All work on this blog is copyrighted material.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Luang Prabang, Laos

A note on the pictures: My traveling companions and I do not appear in any of these – a desire for anonymity and privacy prevent me from posting our images. Of course, I feel no compulsion to protect the identities and privacy of the Laotians, Thais and other Westerners I took pictures of… double-standard in full operation here. Whenever possible, however, I did ask and receive permission before taking pictures.

And my apologies for the writing – not my best – but I am just eager to get this post up!

I am not starting at the beginning, but rather near the end of the beginning, before the middle, with my side trip into Laos. A short trip – two or three nights I think. To put things into order – my flight path took me from San Francisco to Taipei (for a 4-hour layover) then to Thailand’s capital, Bangkok (an hour’s layover) and then north to Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand and where my friends have a townhouse. Spent a few days in Chiang Mai and at my friends' farm (about a two hour drive from Chiang Mai and outside the village Fong). We returned to Chiang Mai to catch a propeller plane northwest to Luang Prabang. The plane was filled with an array of Western, Chinese, and Thai tourists.

Although Vientiane (south of Luang Prabang) is the capital of Laos, we chose Luang Prabang because it is as of yet less-developed than Vientiane and happens to be a UN World Heritage site. Laos, a third-world (the layers of meaning for that word are patently absurd), developing nation (another term that implies other nations are already developed - but does that mean we can stop developing?) is actively establishing an eco or green tourist industry, and Luang Prabang is a big piece of that effort.

But what the heck does that really mean? It means the natural environment as well as the traditional lifestyles of the people are the tourist attraction. That’s why tourists come. Theoretically, green tourism will help local people keep their way of life, yet prosper. And it will help preserve the natural beauty and resources of the land. I should add that some of the local activities (weaving, making saa paper, etc.) have been developed into a cottage industry not just to support green tourism, but as an alternative to the poppy-growing business. Laos has worked aggressively to reduce the number of hectares of opium fields. They claim to have eliminated all the fields.

Some concerns arise with green or eco tourism - one of which is planned development and Luang Prabang may well struggle with that. There is no parking available in the town – not really. Tourists can take vans and other conveyances from the airport into the main part of town. I prefer this – it would be great to keep traffic to a minimum in this town. But at some point, as one of my traveling companions remarked, the local merchants, hotel owners and managers, and restaurateurs will begin to prosper and purchase cars – and there is no place for them in the town. What will be removed to make way for parking lots and how will that affect the local community? Or will the town develop an efficient and green-friendly public transportation system for the locals? And how will that system affect the town and its tourist industry?

Our guesthouse in Luang Prabang was lovely. No phone in the room and a short walk from the main hotel lobby; it offered an enticing view of the Mekong River (more on the Mekong later). The French once colonized Laos, so the architecture is somewhat French Provencal, or to me, a bit reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans (though I’ve not yet been to “Nawlins” – seen pics though).

Above is our guesthouse - my room is the window above the door. And to the left, is the window as it appears from inside the room.

On the left, is the view from my room looking north; on the right, looking south. The Mekong River is just on the other side of the trees.

After we arrived, checked-in, and freshened up, we strolled about the town. I snapped pictures of the local children and various street scenes.

Boys planning som
e mischief.

Brother, sister, and dog playing on the stairs leading to the wat (temple).

Same stairs, different view, different little

girl. Note the monk climbing the stairs.

We came across racks of sticky rice cakes drizzled with honey, drying in the sun, and shortly after the racks, the “factory” where these women were making the cakes and cooking

them in a huge pot over an open fire. The cakes are dried out before boiling. They smelled quite delicious.

The next morning, we rose early to witness oneof the traditional activities in the town, and a major tourist attraction, the procession of the monks shortly after sunrise to receive their daily foodfrom the good people of Luang Prabang. I admit it felt very odd photographing this event – the monks were the tourist attraction – but as you can see – this is what all the tourists do – this is our part.

The monks

walk through the town, the people feed the monks,

and the tourists snap pictures. It’s quite strange.

But that is part of
a green or eco tourism proposition. The worry of course is that other aspects of the local tourist industry

(the restaurants, guesthouses, treks, etc.) will overwhelm the traditional lifestyles and crowd the local townspeople out (or they will prosper so that they will develop suburbs and leave) – and then there will be no one left to feed the monks and of course, they will have to relocate their temple. And then one of the main attractions that draw tourists to the area will be gone.

I have mixed feelings about the monks and this ritual. At first, watching them as they walked through town, I thought – and what do they give back to this community which provides them with food? My traveling companion asked me to look closely at the monks and take note: most of them are very young. They become “monks” to receive education at the temple (and that doesn't mean they stay with the temple as adults - they are not, in that sense, beholden to the temple and their teachers. So in some ways, the community is feeding their young and their teachers – that’s the arrangement. But there is someone, a particular group of young people, missing in these pictures of young monks who are being educated and feed by their community: there are no girls. There are no young women or girls fostered by their community and educated in the temple. I grapple with this. I resent this. And I resent that I am considered, in this Buddhist tradition, as unclean and unchaste – and thus, I am admonished not to touch a monk – nor can any woman – yet the monk can receive his daily ration of food from such an unclean, unchaste hand. It’s a conundrum for me. For I wish to understand and respect this point of view, but I detest it as well.

Don’t be misled – I was not an ugly American. I respected the local traditions, refrained from touching monks, and made my critical comments only to my traveling companions.

While staying in Luang Prabang we took what in Thai is called a song dtang, which is essentially a small Izuzu pickup truck with two (song) benches in the back covered by a canopy, to a village outside the town. The village has a thriving silk dying and weaving industry.

We drove down a rutty, dirt road (along the way waving at a boy and his buffalo) to the village.

We explored the village a bit, asking

permission to take


We came across a pavillion of looms

and a young woman hard at work.

And this woman is rinsing the dyed silk. This, to me, was one of the best parts of the trip - being able to go into the villages and see how these green, cottage industries operate. The women were friendly (though you can see the weaver above is concentrating quite a bit).

More to post later… this is just the tip of the iceberg.


Blogger Karen said...

Great photos. Lucky you for going on such an adventure. Thx for sharing! :-)

August 20, 2006 7:04 PM  
Blogger Jack K. said...

Ditto, what Karen says.

I am reminded of my tours in Viet Nam. Somewhere, close by I have some black and white photos of those times. Perhaps I should figure out a way to post them.

You may have started something good.

I do enjoy your photos and comments. It is indeed an interesting conundrum about the place women are kept in Asian cultures. I am just about finished reading The Kite Runner and have learned quite a bit about Afghanistan. If you haven't read it yet, I recommend it. It is a riveting story and gives some clues as to the male dominated view of the world.


August 20, 2006 8:39 PM  
Blogger Mr Q said...

Thanks for sharing your trip. If this is your first time outside of America (the continent), then it must have been quite an eye opener as far as how different our own species are worlds and hours away.
Tell me Birdie, if you'd like, has anything changed on your mind after going there? Did you get a sense that laotians are under "bad" rulers and a corrupt government? Was there suffering on women's faces because of the way they are treated and the place they are given in their society?
Could they continue to exist as people for another 1000 years without changing a thing on their culture or lack of? Or was it all irrelevant?

August 21, 2006 8:09 AM  
Blogger Aunty Belle said...

Hey Bird Beauty!--thanks fer stoppin ter tell me I went ter the wrong post!!Whoo-ee! THis is fine--love yer pics. MErcy, but youse been on an adventure, wow.

Course now, I does have a thought or two on yer own musin's. I doan know how ter think of "tourism" in the sense of making way for masses of folks from other cultures. I liek the idea of sufficient transport of laotians to other laotian cities, regions.

But somewhar' along the way I'se wondering if "eco-tourism" ain't some western invasion all gussied up in UNspeak? ya know? Looky, I doan know--I am ignorant about Laos & Thailand--I am sincerely askin': Why does a nation need ter be developed along western models? Was it starvin ter death when it was a "third world" nation rather than a "developin'" nation? Do it need ter appeal ter western tourism themes ter develop?

All in all, I'se gald ya got ter see it, and I'se real itnerested in yore ideas on these questions.

So happy youse home safe!

August 21, 2006 1:39 PM  
Blogger K9 said...

hallo vogel,

a travel van schoonheid it seem to be. in some way ik denk is sad. a display van cultuur like a creature in a pen. i not to intend for you vogel. ik wens dit for simple to live also. you fodographie is goede! was a trouble to posting i hered. i have been missed to you. i to come here again in de avond.

vaarwel vor nu,


August 21, 2006 2:15 PM  
Blogger CROAK said...

Great photos
Just sent your link to my daughter-in-law who with our son have come back from there a couple of weeks ago...They visited Laos and Cambodia last year.

More please

August 21, 2006 7:08 PM  
Blogger Bird said...

Karen - thanks for dropping by.
Jack - I started Kite Runner, but never finished. ANd at some point, I'll post about the Mekong RIver and the Vietnam War - as it was strange in some ways to think about what we did (bombing Laos) during the Vietnam War and then be there - in Laos. And to see the river, in a different perspective as well.

Mr.Q - you ask great questions ... it would take quite a lot to answer them all - but for the skinny - i've been abroad before - thailand two years ago, also to china and mexico (baja and tijuana - a different mexico of sorts)...

changed - me? hmmmm... i know i come to any situation with my biases and preconceived notions - but i really went to laos without expectations - and with a lot of curiosity - so i had nothing really to change per se - just stumbled about, open-eyed, slack-jawed, observed, wondered, pondered - the change may come after i've fully absorbed what i saw and figure out more completely waht i think.

i wonder about the people and how their countries, their cultures, their communities, will cope with the changes that are happening to them, around them, and which they are participating in as their governments "develop." i understand their desire for development, but fear that by copying the West, they will also copy our less-than-desirable traits...

as far as the laotian government- it's socialist and seems, by what i know, well-intended, though i don't know a lot about it.

i saw no suffering on the women's faces - no. but i think that's irrelevant when it comes to equality and education. whether they suffer or no, whether they know there's a different way to be, i don't like seeing a human being restricted because of gender (nor race, etc.).

could these communities exist as a people? hmmm... the world is pressing in on them, one way or another. their life is impacted by the march of progress - if that's what it is. certainly literacy, health is progress. but i am still musing these things over.

i can say that usually when i travel - yeah i change because of it. i think i have to think more fully on my trip before the"change" sinks in.

AB: hmmm. now let's not throw every UN program out the window - Laos wanted that World Heritage Site designation - it brings them money via tourism. many of the regular people want their piece of the pie, so-to-speak. and yes, there a hungry people in laos, and people who want clean water, medicine for their children. and to learn. and regardless, without education and understanding, they are at the mercy of other cultures and governments.

they are particularly right now, in laos, at the mercy of the chinese - who control the mekong river. not exactly good neighbors - the chinese have damned the river - they control the floodgates. sometimes that works out well - as it has provided more predicitabilyt to the flow of the river during the rainy season, but it also impacts the heighth of the river during other times - and the Mekong is a major road for commerce...

Freya - so glad to see you. Yes, it was weird sometimes, snapping pictures of folks as if, well, I sometimes felt like a crazy tourist and sometimes felt like i was in a zoo - not a good feeling, i'll tell you. but i did get permission from most folks, though not all. i didn't have permission to snap the photos of those children and i tried to do so unobtrusively - but still, i am aware, i stole something, in essence. there's probably a post on that too.

croak - i hope your daughter-in-law and son visit and comment - i'd be eager to get their impressions.

i have more photos and impressions to post, but must take this a bit at a time.

August 21, 2006 8:06 PM  
Blogger Bird said...

ps to freya - glad to see you, but where is the dog? this post really only happened because he barked at my heels!

August 21, 2006 8:07 PM  
Blogger Mr Q said...

Thanks for entertaining my queries feathered one. You gave me a very honest and direct answer, I appreciate that.

August 22, 2006 5:21 AM  
Blogger Bird said...

dear mr. q -
your questions are helping me reframe my thinking and reflect differently on my trip. i actually hope to write, in blogger terms, a substantive and well-crafted piece furture post as a result - though ya never know.

August 22, 2006 6:37 AM  
Blogger K9 said...

/bark bark bark

boydie! the pix are excellent!!! i'll be back later to comment further. hell day ahead. im jealous of your trip. i need an adventure desperately!!!!!
your friend's farm? are they full time there?


August 22, 2006 9:20 AM  
Blogger Mayden's Voyage said...

Bird...great post.
Your pictures bring back lots of memories of my South Asia trip 5 years ago- the areas are very similar.
The things I noticed that made the biggest impression on me was 1) the poverty- but not squalor and 2) how content everyone seemed with the very little they had.

That definitely changed me. I came home mid-September, just as everyone was beginning to plan the holidays...and I saw the excess of how we live in such a different light. No Christmas has been the same since for me. That was a good thing.

Big heavy "Sigh"...how I long to go back. I loved the Asian people I was with.

August 22, 2006 3:20 PM  
Blogger Pete Bogs said...

beautiful... thanks for sharing... those wat steps make me think of Col. Kurtz a bit, though... "You're looking at the heads... sometimes he goes overboard... he's the first to admit it..."

August 22, 2006 4:02 PM  
Blogger CROAK said...

Daughter-in-law read your blog and would love to discuss some of your observations as she saw them differently, especially about the monks...
Interesting discussion could ensue, though she is working two jobs in South Korea so is stretched for time.

In the future, maybe!

August 22, 2006 8:50 PM  
Blogger Bird said...

dawg! hell day eh? must be working on a project huh? eager to hear your thoughts on this, the first post of my trip. i'm working on other posts - and sorting pictures and rummaging through my travel journal...

my friends - a long a story - here's the short: one is american expat, runs a factory in china that makes "stuff" (think of the products that are in the sharper image catalog). the other is thai. they both run a wholesale export business. that busines is run out of chiang mai, where they live and keep a townhome. but they also have a farm about 2 hrs. south. they are growing lichee, coffee, mangoes (yum) on the farm. the thai fellow - his family runs the place when he's away. i thought of you and your agrarian interests when we were there - unfortunately i was laid low while there with a horrid sinus infection - so didn't take many pics at all.

mayden, where in south asia did you go? i'm very curious about your trip.

bogs - funny you should mention the col. he is showing up in my journal musings about the Mekong River - as is Williard, of course.

croak - i would so love to hear your daughter-in-law's perspective. mine is really just one piece of the giant puzzle.

August 23, 2006 9:49 AM  
Blogger boneman said...

don't take so seriously the blindness of men, for, even with our eyes wide open, we can see less than any woman alive.

Did you not notice that the inequality you speak of flows in most lands? Very few exceptions.
Our own, here, is quite hidden, though....
Not if you view the income records of male/female, however. And, to compound that, there are still several states which turn a blind eye to inequality on all levels of employment....

Any defense on the matter, men? I think not.
Better'n the Afghanis? You bet. From Afghanistan to Egypt, it remains legal to toss an adulterous wife into a dry well.

On the other hand, an odd bit, this.
One of the countries that had held off on equality for so long is now a world leader of same.

How "equal", you ask? Well, women are allowed to walk about Toronto and province shirtless.
(does that count?)

Still, I respect y'all, and if y'ever need a hand out or a touch (I do great massage) call on me.

August 31, 2006 4:01 PM  

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