Well, after eight hours of some of the most gorgeous scenery in the world, I’ve arrived in Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is the second largest city in Laos–population 30,000. (Which tells you just how rural Laos is!) It’s also home to the second most revered artifact in Southeast Asia, Pra Bang–a Buddha statue made out of gold, in the pose “fending off evil”–both arms out, palms upraised, in the classic “stop” gesture.
There’s some interesting history behind Pra Bang. I don’t remember all of it, and I haven’t got the guidebook with me, but basically it’s been looted, restored, moved around, etc. over the last couple centuries. The Thai, back when they were conquering Southeast Asia, took both the Emerald Buddha and Pra Bang from the Cambodians/Lao. But, after looting the two statues, they discovered that the Emerald Buddha and Pra Bang don’t see eye-to-eye; legend has it that if they ever occupy the same city, disaster will befall that city. So the Thai kept the Emerald Buddha (which is still in Bangkok, in the Grand Palace), and sent Pra Bang back. It eventually made it back to Luang Prabang, which is named after the statue. (I think “Luang” means “town” in Lao.)
I haven’t seen Pra Bang yet, but plan to go up there later today. There’s also a trekking outfit in Luang Prabang named Tiger Trails, and given the name I just can’t resist–I *have* to go out and see what they have to offer. I’m also going to go get a Lao massage–a very nice mix between Thai and Swedish massage. After eight hours on a bus I’m sure I could use a chiropractic readjustment… 🙂
Luang Prabang isn’t a very big town, despite being the second largest “city” in Laos–it has a few paved streets, but the rest seem to be high-quality dirt roads (no washboarding, very flat, probably steamrollered daily 😉 ). Architecture is this odd mix between Cambodian, Lao, and French–there are nagas everywhere and the stonework looks not unlike Cambodia, but most of the guesthouses are renovated French villas. Today I plan to walk through the town, check out the markets, and do my usual hunt for the best restaurants and fastest Internet connections in town.
(I have already found one restaurant that serves a FANTASTIC venison steak…grilled to perfection, $2.20. With a wonderful watercress soup, a pot of ginger tea, and creme caramel, $3.80. The creme caramel is distinctly mediocre, but the steak was fantastic…better than any venison I’ve had Stateside. And grilled to a perfect medium rare. (Yep, that’s right. I ate undercooked meat in an underdeveloped country. I’ll probably die of food poisoning or some sort of horrible intestinal parasite before dawn, but I am utterly unrepentant. It was *very* tasty. 🙂 ))
I forgot to mention earlier that they make great beef jerky in Laos, too. There’s one version that’s particularly good–beef marinated in lime juice, soy sauce (I think), and a little sugar, then cooked/dried over a wood fire. The end result is a little sweet, a little tart, and quite smoky–very good. Those of you who are culinarily inclined might want to try it at home. (I shouldn’t have eaten that either, of course, but after the last time our raft disassembled itself on that rafting trip, the food all got wet, so they had to run out for emergency rations. Just as well–beef jerky and sticky rice was a lot tastier than the boring old chicken sandwiches they *would* have made.)
While on the topic of food, and before I forget it–I got a really funny story from our Wildside tour guide. He doesn’t normally go on tours–he’s their explorer, and his job is to go out and reconnoiter unexplored terrain, so they can open up new tours.
So on one of these trips, he wound up going through a section of river that proved completely impassable–they had to portage their raft up and over a giant gorge no one knew was there. (No one had ever been in that valley before.) Since it was taking much longer than expected, they ran out of food.
However, since they were government-sanctioned, and this particular trip was smack in the middle of unexplored territory in the Golden Triangle (the notorious opium-smuggling area where Burma, Thailand, and Laos meet), the government had insisted on giving them an “escort” of two soldiers armed with AK47s. (Whitewater rafting with AK47s. Why had this simply not occurred to me? 🙂 ) So there they were, in the middle of uncharted territory, out of food, with nothing but two AK47s.
Now, the forests are full of game–deer, giant porcupines, pythons, etc. But, as Mick pointed out, he wasn’t about to go back and say, “Yes, we’re that ecotourism group you just licensed to help preserve Lao wilderness. Based on our work, we can tell you that Lao wildlife is very, very tasty.” 🙂
On the other hand, they *were* out of food. So they sent the AK47-wielding soldiers out into the forest in search of food…where they found, and shot down, a beehive. (“So, what did *you* shoot with your AK47, deep in opium-smuggling depths of the Golden Triangle?” “A beehive.”)
Anyway, there was of course plenty of honey in the beehive (I have no idea what happened to the bees, but with a couple AK47s I’m sure it wasn’t a problem. 😉 ). There were also lots of bee larvae, and since they were quite hungry by this time, they made a fire and ate bee larvae soup, which Mick reports as being quite tasty. (I wonder if it tastes like scorpion?)
Unfortunately, one of the guys turned out to be allergic to bee larvae–his face puffed up alarmingly (and almost instantly), but there wasn’t anything they could do for him. (See previous comments about “dark depths of the Golden Triangle” and “unexplored wilderness”.) Fortunately, the swelling did eventually go down, and they did eventually make it out. But I keep visualizing shooting down a beehive with AK47s. It’s pretty hilarious.
Also in “before I forget”–the January issue of Farang! magazine is out, and guess who’s the cover model??? Whee! A cover model at last. Body paint and everything. (So much for my Presidential ambitions. 😉 ) I don’t yet have a copy of it, but Ben does–and they promised to save me nine or ten copies, so hopefully when I get back to Bangkok I’ll be able to scan it. (You might also watch http://www.farangonline.com –so far they only have the old issue, but I assume they’ll eventually get up a small thumbnail of the cover.)
I saw a copy of last month’s _Farang!_ in Vangvieng, by the way. It’s really weird to think of my photo scattered all over Southeast Asia…I won’t see it, of course, since I’ll be back in Thailand by the time copies drift out here, but, well…it’s really weird. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone’s going to recognize me. 😉 )
Not much to report the last few days–I went rock climbing yesterday, and decided that climbing is both too strenuous and too cerebral for me. Also fairly terrifying–I couldn’t shake the conviction that I was going to fall off and die, despite being on a top-rope climb (where it’s pretty much impossible to do so). Somewhere halfway up the first climb, it occurred to me that rock climbing in a country with no medical facilities to speak of is probably not the best of ideas…but nothing in fact happened, so what the hell.
(In fact whitewater rafting is also moderately dangerous, but I’m much more philosophical about that. I think it’s because, going down the rapids, you’re much too busy to think about what an idiot you are. Climbing gives you much more leisure to contemplate your own stupidity. 😉 )
Anyway, we went up four rock faces, all relatively easy–by the fourth one I was starting to get the hang of it, but I think I need more practice once I get back to the U.S. I don’t think rock climbing is really for me (too methodical), but it’s fun trying to navigate around the face, find handholds, etc. Rather like playing chess.
At any rate, that’s it for now–more later, once I”ve had a chance to explore around town a bit. Laos is way fun–probably the best fun I’ve had in SE Asia, with the possible exception of diving in the Similans.