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Luang Prabang, Laos

Written on: Monday December 11th, 2006

A journal entry from: Southeast Asia

Right now we're in the town of Luang Prabang in northern Laos. Got here by a slow boat - 4 of us and two boatmen - six hours down the River Ou to the muddy, meandering Mekong River. It feels very civilized from where we have been. Actually had a BAGEL for breakfast!  Even the smallest things can be such a delight - white crisp sheets, a baguette, a western toilet. Each day continues to bring such incredible WOWS with new sights - markets of hilltribe women selling their wares or crops (including dead squirrels, dehydrated rats, larvae...) or the wonder of different customs, landscapes, and the meeting of people from all over the world.

Luang Prabang is a quiet, peaceful community.  Never a voice is raised or an aggressive or competitive gesture witnessed. People smile, stroll, speak softly. The town is asleep by l0:00 to awaken again at 6:00 am by the procession of monks receiving their gifts of food.  Laos has been termed the"landscape of abandonment" - a nation that tries to forget  but is surrounded by memories. The French have left a legacy of beautiful colonial buildings with long upper verandas, shuttered windows, large entranceways, wrought iron fences and lovely brick and stucco work.  It's a difficult place to leave - there's a real soul to this place.  We keep meeting our friends on the street after having said our goodbyes, only to find us all still there the next day.  This place captures you somehow. "You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave..."

The French established Luang Prabang as a French protectorate in 1893 and all of Laos by 1904. Then the Japanese occupied Laos during WWII to become a French protectorate again after the war. Resistance to French rule grew and by 1949 it became an "independent associate" state of French.  By 1950 the growing dissent brought support of the Chinese and North Vietnamese and for the next twenty-five years there were lots of political reactions. The Pathet Lao party was formed - the Vietnamese supported liberation movement in Laos.  In 1953 the French were defeated and many French elite fled.  Then the U.S. got involved "secretly" - increasing aid to counter the North Vietnamese involvement. Apparently the CIA rigged elections, hired Hmong tribesmen as recruits, supplied ammunition and from l964-73 the U.S. had air bases in Thailand that sent bombing missions over Laos to North Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  B-52 captains would release cluster bombs over eastern Laos - some of which stills lie waiting to be exploded by some unsuspecting farmer.  By 1973 the communist Pathet Laos controlled most of the country and the Laos People's Revolutionaly Army became the ruling party. Their first two years of rule was harsh! Thousands fled, particularly the intelligentsia. "Accelerated socialization" prevailed and 80,000 Loas were sent to "reeducation camps" and 30,000 were imprisioned for "political" crimes.

Today everything seems peaceful, however, party officials claim that no non-communist party members will ever be allowed to govern.  Many foreign countries are aiding Laos in the restoration of buildings and wats and as you wander around town you can see relics  of disrepair as well as fully restored French colonial buildings.

Today we rented bicycles and enjoyed exploring the surrounding area. We found a small village of weavers and paper-makers.  We learned how paper is made from bamboo or even elephant dung, how silk is dyed from many natural objects and watched weavers at work.  Later we visited a man who is trying to set up a "storefront" school to help build English literacy.  Tomorrow I start my volunteer work there.  Met some people who asked us to join them and have some "medicine"  (lao-lao) to cure any ailments  we might have.  VERY interesting people - passionate about keeping the true village art of weaving from being exploited into "night market" hybrids.   We had some lao-lao with them while trying to solve the problems of "globalization".  Yesterday  we hired a driver to take us (Kevin, Tanya, Galen and some others) to a waterfall.  There we found cages of "sunbears" that had been saved from poachers and a beautiful tiger. Hiked up to the waterfall and had a swim in the pools. Have also visited the Royal Palace - not a word written about the fate of the King, Queen and Prince who were "reeducated" in a cave in northern Laos and died of illness and maltreatment in the early 80s. 

I have started volunteering at a store-front school organized by a very devoted American man who wished to improve literacy. Every morning I bicylce to the school and meet with interested "students". Today there were 12 novice monks who wanted to talk and play games to improve their English.



From Bryan Rite on Dec 14th, 2006

Great job on adding all your map coordinates! It looks like a great trip so far!

From Lindsay Wik on Jan 8th, 2007

Marilyn, sunbears are something i've always wanted to see... i've watched documentaries on them and it broke my heart to see what poachers are doing to them! The school you are volunteering at sounds amazing, it's neat to hear that people there willingly volunteer themselves to learn a little english. I am fascinated with all of your journal entries, and I can't wait to read more!