Getting laid by the local bike
Posted Date: 7/11/20133:36 AM
August 6, 2007
Luang Prabang is lush. I mean that in every sense of the word. Nestled at the confluence of the rivers Nom Ou and the mightyMekong I could barely make it out as we arrived, camouflaged as it is amongst the tropical rainforest. Its the size of a large village, and is an UNESCO world heritage site. The area is inundated with temples, wats and stupas and visitors mingle at ease with young Buddhists monks amongst the crumbing French colonial buildings. Nothing really happens in Luang Prabang which along with its location is much of it’s charm. Most of the activities take place in the surrounding countryside and up and down the rivers. The first morning, to get my bearings, I hired a bike. I’ve never been totally conversant with a bicycle, not having owned one as a kid. My first real experience was at the age of fourteen starting a job as an order boy in Wilson Road in Ely for the Home and Colonial, or was it the Bon Marche or even the Maypole? Well one of those now defunct post war grocery outlets. My inability to ride a two-wheeler was matched by my proficiency for physics because the first thing I did was to place a boxed order in the front basket whereby the bike did a perfect forward somersault. I was sacked within a week.
This bike also had a basket, the masculine cross-bar was missing, and it was a pretty shade of blue. Negotiating the contraption down the narrow streets I felt like a nervous Miss Jean Brodie or a district nurse on her first day. I know I should have checked the brakes first but I did have the presence of mind to apply them at the start of gentle incline before gaining neck-breaking momentum. They had little effect and as I was going too fast to use my feet I veered toward and inviting bush at the side of the road to cushion my fall. The result was me lying spread-eagled in the bush with the wheel-spinning bike next to me. It provided great amusement to a passing group of tourists. The bike was returned after twenty minutes and I reverted to Shank’s pony.
Most people eat and hang out on the main drag which is only about 150 meters long. On either side there are bar/restaurants, and internet cafes/tour companies all within the old authentic buildings. Bar/restaurants along the Mekong are popular too. It’s along this main drag you bump into people you’ve got to know traveling up or on activities. It’s all quite friendly and intimate. Despite a large contingent of young people drawn here by the physical activities of the surrounding province, such as 3 day trekking, caving, canoeing etc…, the evenings are quite sedate without any raucous behaviour. Most people are tucked up in bed by eleven. These young people are thankfully a different animal to those who pollute places like Ibiza and Magaluf.
Apart from the trip up river to the Par Ou caves, I went to the Kuang Si waterfall about a half an hour drive away. The waterfall is situated in thick forest and hence revealed it self in stages from this dense arcadian splendour. At first the turquoise coloured swimming area was spied through the dense foliage at the foot of a six foot waterfall. What wasn’t immediately apparent was this was the first stage of increasingly giant steps to the top of the waterfall a few hundred feet above. There were about six steps in all, three of which provided picturesque swimming areas. Also in the forest was a bear and tiger sanctuary.
I only noticed two beggars in Luang Prabang, one was a smiling appreciative not so old woman with a stick, the other was the scariest Asian I’ve seen since Dr. Fu Manchu. He was over six feet tall which is exceptional by Lao standards and wore little more than a loin-cloth exposing his lean body exhibiting, in a healthy way, not an ounce of excess fat. He just appeared at your table like a spectre. He had an amazing hypnotic face with red searing, piercing eyes and a letterbox mouth that revealed haphazard teeth that looked like a vandalised cemetery. From his elbows his arms were outstretched with his fingers waggling like upturned beetles. He hopped from one bare foot to the other like a long jumper at the start of his run-up. He spoke with his eyes because he uttered not a word. His expression said give me money or I will curse you, your children, and your children’s children. I refused to be intimidated. Each night as I was eating I would sense a presence and there at the other side of the table like the ghost of Banquo appeared this gyrating belly button. I refused to lift my gaze. I saw him tap unsuspecting new tourists on their shoulders and the expressions on their faces as they swivelled around was something to behold. On my last night I planned to give him a dollar for his picture but he failed to materialise. Finishing my breakfast before heading for the airport for my flight to Chang Mai in northern Thailand he granted me a last minute visitation. I took his photo and went offload the last of my Laos kip and the apparition spoke. He said in his death rattle voice, “dollars”. So I gave him a dollar. Seeing Thai baht in my wallet he said “baht.” A witty Australian (a fine example of an oxymoron) said to tell him that beggars can’t be choosers. Without an ounce of gratitude he tottered off. When I checked my camera his and all my other pictures had been erased.
Throughout my time in Luang Prabang I was having a heated debate with myself on the mode of conveyance to my next destination in northern Thailand. After a few beers I lent toward the romantic and adventurous method of the two day boat ride to the Thai border. In a battered old boat a disparate group of travellers would spend two stints of nine hours each side of an over-night stay at a riverbank village. In the sober cold light of day the one hour flight was favourite especially as I had to pace myself for the privations of Burma. There was the fast boat which took six hours. It’s supposed to be quite dangerous and there have been fatalities. Witnessing these options made my decision. The fast boat is like a tin bath with an outboard motor. About eight people are crammed in with their knees under their chins wearing large safety helmets. From the bank of the Mekong I saw such a craft hurtling up stream crammed with the only visible sight of humanity, the eight large helmets. It looked a motorised high-speed amphibious egg carton. No thanks. My trip to the Par Ou caves started in glorious sunshine and if it had stayed that way I probably would have chosen this option as my heart tends to rule my head. But this is monsoon season and after experiencing a couple of tropical storms during the journey in a narrow old wooden junk with no windows I booked my flight as soon as we disembarked.
As a result of trips to Asia I’ve often mentioned the subjugated role of women. In my guest house in Luang Prabang young men in their teens and twenties lounged about watching TV most of the day begrudgingly shifting themselves to collect or hand out a key. They are more motivated when collecting the rent. During my stay a heavily pregnant woman did my laundry, cooked my breakfasts, and was constantly sweeping and tidying up. Thinking back to the old sweats in Phonsovan, the mystery of their attraction to young Lao women, apart from money, is that compared to the locals they must seem like a combination of David Niven and Sir Galahad.
PS As you may have guessed the bit about the disappearing photos was a bit of artistic license.
Source: Dennis’ Blog form WalesOnline.co.uk