Adventures in Laos (and a Tale of Two Sandwiches)

We arrived in Luang Prabang late in the evening and were promptly charmed by its little shopfronts and romantic night lights. We stayed in a little guesthouse jammed between the river and a reggae bar that boasted a pool table and an enormous dead beehive hanging over its front door. Since we had flown in from Siem Reap, about 1000 km south, the temperature dropped a few degrees so we started digging through our backpacks for some sleeves (after we remembered what those were). The following morning, we woke up to a typical San Francisco morning *SOUND OF RECORD GETTING SCRATCHED*  Wait – what??

Oh look: it's a mini-Golden Gate out of bamboo! Minus the gales :-)

Oh look: it’s a mini-Golden Gate out of bamboo! Minus the gales 🙂

Yes, weather in Laos’ second largest city was eerily similar to our own abode. Dense fog enveloped everything in the morning, so we went for breakfast on the Nam Kha river and watched the tendrils of mist unfold over the banks, slowly revealing them to be green and lush. A few coffees later, around noon, the fog burnt off completely and Luang Prabang offered itself for exploration.

Gorgeous view of the Nam Kha with Laos' mountainous landscape unfolding in the back. It all begged to be explored on foot...

Gorgeous view of the Nam Kha with Laos’ mountainous landscape unfolding in the back. It all begged to be explored on foot…

Here’s what we found out: The touristy part of Prabang is mapped along three main streets, one along the river Nam Kha, which is a tributary of the Mekong and meets it in the city’s Northeast – that’s where the expensive spas and boutique hotels are all lined up; one along the Mekong, rife with little restaurants and Khmu massage places; and a middle street where most of the city’s shops offer intricately woven silk scarfs, filigreed silver jewelry and countless artsy objects, everything from horsehair painting brushes to beautiful silk tapestries.

Gorgeous silver jewelry and handicrafts everywhere on display. The Hmong tribe in particular really have a way with metal.

Gorgeous silver jewelry and handicrafts everywhere on display. The Hmong tribe in particular really have a way with metal.

The mulberry tree is a big theme in Laotian art, with heart-shaped leaves twisting and turning in golden brushstrokes on paintings everywhere. The leaf of the mulberry of course is the preferred food of silkworms and its berries are delicious when ripe and stain like no other, which makes them perfect for natural dyes; in Laos, tea made from the bark is also widely consumed – talk about a multipurpose plant!

Prabang is a charming city and spent over five decades as a French “protectorate” (colonization-lite, if you will, sending tin, rubber and coffee to French factories and shops) and French influence certainly shows in its architecture.

Architecturally Luang Prabang is a little jewel of a town; it's literally how you would imagine the perfect vacation destination to look in Southeast Asia. But one cannot help but feel that behind this facade of adorable quaintness hides the local's hard struggle for a better life.

Architecturally Luang Prabang is a little jewel of a town; it’s literally how you would imagine the perfect vacation destination to look in Southeast Asia. But one cannot help but feel that behind this facade of adorable quaintness hides the local’s hard struggle for a better life.

Lovely villas housing restaurants and cafes line the banks of the two rivers, many of them in a sparkling state, and almost all charging exorbitant prices – by our Cambodia-spoiled purses. The tourist population also seemed to skew away from backpacking to flash-packing and even moderately luxurious travel. Fellow travelers we encountered in Prabang were somewhat older (with the exception of a pack of teen Californians with bike-rage) and well-off (aka – not displaying any visible signs of sticker shock).

The Khmu is one of Laos' largest minority ethnic groups. Many of the cheaper spas in Luang Prabang were sporting signs boasting Khmu massages. This is a pretty typical look for Prabang storefronts: lush and exotic, but also inviting.

The Khmu is one of Laos’ largest minority ethnic groups. Many of the cheaper spas in Luang Prabang were sporting signs boasting Khmu massages. This is a pretty typical look for Prabang storefronts: lush and exotic, but also inviting.

Laos PDR (People’s Democratic Republic or tongue-in-cheekishly, Laos Please Don’t Rush) is a nominally communist country ruled by a single party according to Marxist principles – you can see the red flag with a sickle and hammer everywhere – although according to local intel Laos is more of a “communitarian” society.

We visited several gorgeous buddhist temples and even found evidence of Buddha's passage through this realm!!

We visited several gorgeous buddhist temples and even found evidence of Buddha’s passage through this realm!!

Buddha's footprint. 'Nuff said!

Buddha’s footprint. ‘Nuff said!

Sadly a third of this landlocked country’s population lives below the poverty line and in Luang Prabang the income disparities are shocking. It’s easy to stick to the well-lit tourist streets, eat at the posh restaurants with fancy cocktail names and shop for souvenirs at the abundant craft night market; but as soon as you stray from that lovely perimeter, you become aware of how the locals live and it’s a sobering sight.

Preparing beautiful offerings out of marigolds and banana leaves for the local temples. Clueless as we are, we bought bananas to eat from these ladies; sorry bananas who were hoping to make it into Buddha's prodigious belly ...

Preparing beautiful offerings out of marigolds and banana leaves for the local temples. Clueless as we are, we bought bananas to eat from these ladies; sorry bananas who were hoping to make it into Buddha’s prodigious belly …

Living on less than US$1.25 per day means that a lot of the locals share a humble hut with extended family and have little, if any, access to healthcare. Even among expats and returning tourists, the fear of illness and lack of doctors and medical facilities is a recurring theme in conversation. As a grim note on a menu explained to patrons “You don’t see old people in Laos because here, when you get sick, you die.” Also, one Namkhong beer ( 22 oz; and approx. $1.50 ) is “roughly a day’s wages for a common laborer, so you’ll almost never see them drink it.” What they do drink is Lao-Lao, rice wine, of which we’ve had the pleasure to partake in the jungle – but more about that later… wink-wink

These bad boys are a sort of rice and coconut ebleskivers and they are TO DIE FOR!

These bad boys are a sort of rice and coconut ebleskivers and they are TO DIE FOR!

So, imagine my horror when, after an action-packed afternoon of mountain-biking and hiking to one of the local falls, I felt the first tell-tale signs of food poisoning. Ironically, that very morning, in preparation for the picnic, Ed and I chose two different sandwich stands: him, a local cart with sandwich ingredients we couldn’t even begin to guess; me, a fancy stand close to the market that slapped together a pretty-looking chicken-avocado sandwich. The difference between the two sandwiches: mine was four times the price and came with a free extra night of cold sweats and atrocious cramps. But, hey, every true traveler has to go through it at some point in time, and lesson learnt: go for the locals’ food stand!

Cambodia Part II: The Temples

To give you some perspective on Cambodia’s temples: roughly two hundred years before the completion of Notre Dame Cathedral and a full five hundred before the rise of Taj Mahal, in the twelfth century, Khmer King Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat – to this day still the largest religious monument in the world.

Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat (pictured here), Angkor Thom, built by King Jayavarman the VIth and many many others.

Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat (pictured here), Angkor Thom, built by King Jayavarman the VIth and many many others.

Aside from its majestic proportions and intricate bas-reliefs, the best part about Angkor Wat is that it isn’t alone. While it remains the biggest single complex, Angkor Thom surpasses it in overall spread and with its epic Bayon, where the 216 enormous faces carved in stone bear down upon its ghostly inhabitants and khaki-clad tourists alike.

The many faces of the Bayon Buddha, suspected by experts to resemble Jayavarman's own face very closely.

The many faces of the Bayon Buddha, suspected by experts to resemble Jayavarman’s own face very closely.

Further out, Banteai Srei, intricately carved in red stone bests Angkor when it comes to detail work and the clear perfectionism of its masters. Ta Prohm, generally referred to by the locals as the Angelina Jolie temple is mercifully NOT dedicated to the sensuous-lipped actress but happened to be the set for her Tomb Raider movie. Its real beauty comes from a mix of beautiful architecture, atmospheric crumbling walls and awe-inspiring trees that seem to both bolster and slowly cannibalize it.

Here's a funny story about Banteai Srei and a French culture minister: In 1923, French writer Andre Malraux undertook an expedition into then unexplored areas of the Cambodian jungle in search of Khmer artefacts that he could sell to  art museums. On his return, he was arrested by French colonial authorities for removing a bas-relief from Banteay Srei. After his return to France Malraux got involved in politics and became French minister of ... Cultural Affairs for eleven year, between 1958 to 1969. Voila!

Here’s a funny story about Banteai Srei and a French culture minister: In 1923, French writer Andre Malraux undertook an expedition into then unexplored areas of the Cambodian jungle in search of Khmer artefacts that he could sell to art museums. On his return, he was arrested by French colonial authorities for removing a bas-relief from Banteay Srei. After his return to France Malraux got involved in politics and became French minister of … Cultural Affairs for eleven year, between 1958 to 1969. Voila!

Fine details of cornerstones  at Banteai Srey

Fine details of cornerstones at Banteai Srey

The traditional Ta Prohm photo whic is a tourist must-have, as the 15-minute long line for it stands to show

The traditional Ta Prohm photo whic is a tourist must-have, as the 15-minute long line for it stands to show

Preah Khan, Neak Poan, the reclined Buddha at Baphuon — we saw them all in a whirlwind three days with a little help from our tuk-tuk driving friend whom we had hired as our guide and chauffeur, per the local custom.

Help! This tree is eating my husband.

Help! This tree is eating my husband.

The Onion headline woudl read: Romanian Apsara wannabe caught in weird pose at Khmer temple

The Onion headline woudl read: Romanian Apsara wannabe caught in weird pose at Khmer temple

Unfortunately, to be perfectly honest, three days of climbing crumbled steps, taking in photos with bas-relief Apsaras and Nagas and Vishnus and beheaded buddhas eventually all turned into one big blur. All we have now are about two thousand photos to sort through and a handful of amazing moments that will stick with us forever:

  • The self-appointed local guide who walked us though Prasat Banteay Kdei “The Citadel of Chambers” and conjured for us in kind but broken English the sad and the happy stories of that temple, from the hall of dancers that witnessed spectacular shows put on for the entertainment of kings to the pillaging of the Khmer temples during the Pol Pot era, culminating with the beheading of the majority of the buddha statues in most temples; Buddha heads apparently still fetch high prices in the Asian antique black markets to the bitterness of Khmers, who are unable to stop the traffic apparently conducted by their neighbors in Thailand. Our nameless guide also taught Ed how to sit in a particular spot inside the buddha alcoves and tap his chest in order to generate an organic, cavernous sound – troubling to me, but very entertaining to Ed…

    A group of three Apsaras caught in a traditional dance pose. One thing to remember, if you've never seen them in real-life, is that traditional Khmer dance is more of a slow succession of contortionistic poses that ballet per se

    A group of three Apsaras caught in a traditional dance pose. One thing to remember, if you’ve never seen them in real-life, is that traditional Khmer dance is more of a slow succession of contortionistic poses that ballet per se

  • The game of 1-2-3-fiiivee!! (a sort of khmer rock-paper-scissors) with a group of little girls who were taking a play-break from peddling souvenirs at the temples. The children’s sheer joy and the genuine connection we felt with them was a very welcome refresher from the very transactional nature of our interactions with locals around the temples up to that point (i.e.: “You buy banana from me!” “Eat here, cheap food”  or “One dollar, ten cards: one, two, three, four, etc”) We then all shared bananas and first names and enjoyed a joyful moment in the golden afternoon.

Schoolgirls were delighted to pose for us

Schoolgirls were delighted to pose for us

  • The moments spent inside the Bayon on the first day of the new year, worshipping quietly next to locals and other folks who sought both the respite from heat and also to partake in the spiritual atmosphere. We both lit incense and wai-ed to the Buddha, who was majestically clad in golden cloth and covered in marigolds, and received the red thread of the blessing upon our wrists – we still keep them and probably will until the day saltwater eats them through.

When all was said and done, seen and photographed, at the end of three days of temple-ing, collapsed in the coolness of our hotel room, Ed and I conferred about our experience and realized that we were left with two very different impressions: one one hand, Ed, the perennial optimist, was in love with the smiles, the jokes, the easy banter of the locals and deeply appreciated the feeling of humility that the temples had inspired in him. For him, Cambodia was a place of promise, growth, opportunity and hope, but also a place where you were reminded of your own insignificance in comparison with the achievements of the Khmer kingdom – a welcome wake-up call from our Western self-centeredness.

Ed approves of temples.

Ed approves of temples.

In my eyes, however, Cambodia and Angkor, in particular, emerged shrouded in a veil of sadness. Everywhere I turned I perceived ghosts and a sense of loss: the empty scars where once rested beautiful carvings at the bottom of columns in Angkor, decapitated buddhas lying sideways in the dust, slowly relinquishing to the forces of gravity, the sadness in the voice of our impromptu guide when he was speaking about the treasures pried from the walls of the temples and sold abroad… The atrocity of the Pol Pot regime, in addition to killing over a third of this country’s citizens, is the permanent vacuous spaces left from its cultural patrimony being looted and extracted from the country – all this knowledge hung over my experience and weighed it down into a darker plane of consciousness.

Glimpses from inside Angkor Wat.

Glimpses from inside Angkor Wat.

After talking it through, Ed and I suddenly realized that our two experiences only made sense taken together (much like the two of us…) Cambodia, of course, is not just in the eye of the beholder: it is both sad and happy, rich and poor, tormented and serene. The weight of the past pulls on it, keeping it rooted in darkness, but, without trying to be cheesy, like a lotus, this country breaks through the surface to offer us, emerging out of mud, a thing of beauty.

So, there it is. Needless to say, the country fascinated us and puzzled us and challenged us and delighted us and we were not ready to leave it yet. But our next flight was booked and another mysterious place awaited us.