Vacation in a Vacation (20060703)
When travelling in a country surrounded by people who unhurriedly go about their business, Luang Prabang is clearly the place to let it all unwind. There really isn't much to get stressed about in Laos. Everything's cheap, almost everybody's friendly, and the food rarely sucks. It's not exactly the culinary adventure that China is, nor does Laos have the touristic appeal of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Cambodia's got Angkor Wat, Vietnam I've heard is a bit of "China-lite" in the north and "Cambodia with infrastructure" in the south, and Thailand has a couple of beaches. Still, there are the occasional stresses about Laos life. The roads are more pocked than a teenager's face, making getting anywhere a bumpy and ass-swelling experience. There are, as we here at Big in Japan know all too well, malevolent skeeters and other bugs that one must watch for at all times. Mosquito nets with holes, mosquito coils that don't burn, torrential downpours that blink in and then wink out of existence as if they were never there: truly, it's a hard-knock life travelling in Laos. Sarcasm aside, it is a great place to Just Chill Out. Nobody cares if you don't want to go see the caves of Pak Ou, and nobody cares if you sit in their restaurant drinking fresh fruit smoothies all day. Sometimes, when running around from one site to the next, it's hard to keep in mind that despite the hardships of travelling, it is a vacation. In Luang Prabang, after seeing the temples worth seeing and walking around the parts of town worth walking around, just what can you do there? There's the aforementioned bookstore L'Étranger, which overcharges for its books but allows customers to take a book upstairs and read in their lounge/bar area. They also show free indie movies every night. There are a string of places along the Mekong that offer cheap fruit smoothies, a perfect compliment to the hot breezes that come off the river. Any one of them will do; the FMA and I jumped for the cheapest one and were pleasantly rewarded. There's a lot of "foreign" food in LP, as well. French cuisine dominates, of course, and a four-course French meal can be had for as cheap as ten bucks. The markets, though, cater to locals, and are consequently far cheaper. Water buffalo paté steamed in banana leaf costs the same as a whole chicken breast grilled before your eyes - 10,000 kip, or merely a dollar. And if you're really, really cheap, there's two different locations offering a vegetarian buffet for 5000 kip. Any discussion of relaxing in Laos would be lacking with mentioning Beer Laos, one of the cheapest and best-tasting beers in all of Southeast Asia. A 750-mL bottle costs between 7000 and 10,000 kip, usually, and is only bad when you drink it right after brushing your teeth. Interestingly enough, Laos is the only place you can get it. It's possible that LP is like Jaisalmer, in India, where tourism brings in so much cash, the locals can afford to be polite and friendly. Except that in Laos, everybody is like that. Yet it seems unlikely that there are any problems in Luang Prabang. As a World Heritage site, not to mention just being beautiful, the place is assured an ever-growing stream of tourists. The money comes in, poverty in the form of begging is rarely seen, and book exchanges and Internet cafes are plentiful. Surrounded by jungle, mountains and two rivers, a short finger of land jutting into the brown waters of the Mekong, yet popular enough to sustain the conveniences of a city, Luang Prabang is the perfect place to do nothing for a while.