Sunday, September 20, 2009

Strolling in Luang Prabang.

Between the mountains covered with jungles in north-central Laos lies the city of Luang Prabang. It is situated where the Nam Khan River flows into the Mekong River, well over 400 kilometers north of Vientiane. Every dawn, lines of monks dressed in orange robes walk through the streets to collect alms, and along with the Buddhist temples and the simple concrete buildings, the atmosphere seems to resemble that of its neighbor Thailand at one glance. Even the language is very similar to that spoken in 'Isan', the northeastern part of Thailand. The cuisine is similar too; Tam Mak-Hung (papaya salad) is basically the same as Som Tam, and they eat that with Khao Niaw (sticky rice), and it even goes along with Kai Yang (roasted chicken).

However, if you look carefully, the decorations of the temples are different, architecture reflecting the days of French colonization still remains in many houses, and most of all, its social systems, including education, health care, and welfare is like those of its neighbor decades ago. Education is essentially free for public primary school (five years), junior high (three), and senior high (three), but the percentages of children enrolled are 84.2%, 54.4%, and 34.2%, respectively. And, since the country does not keep track of personal identification records, the actual age a child gets enrolled varies. The number of years for university education varies from two to seven depending on the majoring subject, however, none are free. Free health care is not available, but government aid may be issued if you travel all the way down to Vientiane and ask for it.

I paid a visit to this landlocked country in the Indochina Peninsula in August. Registered a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1995, the compact city of Luang Prabang is a nice and calm place to spend a couple of days. Besides the symbolic temple of Wat Xiengthong and the hill of Phousi, where you can get a picturesque view of the entire city, there are many so-called 'speed boats' that take you up and down the Mekong to various nearby villages and the buddha-adorned caves of Pak Ou, while 'songthaews' or 'tuk-tuks' (same nomenclature as Thailand!) can take you to the beautiful waterfalls of Tat Kuangsi. At night, nearby villagers, including the Hmong, come out to sell various goods, creating a bustling street market scene.

The recent influx of tourists to this economically underdeveloped nation has given birth to a plethora of bed-and-breakfast's and restaurants that satisfy a westerner's taste buds, however, this happened after restaurants catering for the locals came in, ironically. Families were and are still not too used to eating outside the home. So, it wasn't easy for me to find local food with a local taste at a local cost. Even the packaged foods, most, if not all of them, are imported from Thailand. People say that the more north you go, the more products from China and Vietnam you will find. But basically, there are only a few mass-produced goods (not to miss the famous Beer Lao!) packaged on Lao soil. What I personally liked the most was the Khao Soi (different from the Thai cuisine with the same name) I found being served at a 'street picnic table' right beside the Mekong. I even went for a second on the following day.

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