Luang Prabang, Laos
The ancient capital of Laos – Luang Prabang is situated towards the north of the country. The region, like Sayabouri that I described in detail an earlier post is mountainous, with the Mekong and its numerous tributaries meandering along the mountains, deep forests and ancient stepped paddy fields, at places flowing by isolated little towns and villages.
Luang Prabang town, which is an hour flight from the present day Lao capital Vientiane, is a UNESCO world heritage site. Nestled amongst the mountains, it is situated by the banks of the rugged Mekong river, probably the only remaining wild river in the region – a river that has not been dammed yet.
The town’s magnificent natural beauty is matched by its old world architectural splendor and rich, ancient cultural heritage, all of which have been largely preserved because of the town’s relative physical isolation. Since long a flourishing trading out-post between Laos, Thailand, China and Myanmar, Luang Prabang has had almost no contact with non-Asian cultures till the arrival of the French in the mid nineteenth century. The central and older part of the city has remained largely unchanged and in addition to the main temple, royal palace and other imperial buildings meant for the nobles of the bygone era, it has examples of some amazing traditional Lao and colonial French architecture.
Luang Prabang is a major center of Theravada Buddhism and with its 15,000 residents and over 500 Buddhist monks, it is the fountainhead of Buddhist spirituality, learning and culture and serves as the spiritual capital of Laos. It is dotted with numerous exquisite Buddhist temples (Wat) and monasteries – big and small resplendent in their red, green, brown and gold with their equally colorful nagas (giant mythical serpents), gigantic ceremonial drums and gongs, charming traditional Lao and French colonial houses and little animistic shrines. In addition, it is a common sight to see monks in orange or deep brown robes, moving about, either in search of spiritual enlightment or in pursuit of a subsistence, which they gain entirely through alms given by the laity.
All these, dovetailed with its gentle and friendly people and a supremely laid back lifestyle impart a quaint charm to this unusually picturesque little town, which, if you can overlook the ubiquitous backpacker, seems to be frozen in a wonderfully strange time wrap. Not surprisingly therefore, Luang Prabang is often hailed as the best preserved little town of south-east Asia and one finds a sense of cultural and traditional continuity that is not found in any other city of town in this part of the world.
A special feature of the town is the daily alms-giving ceremony that is conducted on the streets early in the morning, before sunrise – a ceremony that is as ancient as the Buddha himself. Long queues of monks in their flaming orange robes, silently walking through the misty morning, receiving alms (mainly sticky rice, fruit and other ready to eat food items) in the backdrop of magnificent temples and little shrines is a sight to behold and feels straight out of a picture postcard. Peace, quietude and sheer beauty, along with its old world charm – all combine to impart a dream like quality to the serene mornings of Luang Prabang.
I shall now leave behind the temples, monks and ethereal mornings and bring you down to a more worldly plane, to a place of transactions and material gratification – to the night market of Luang Prabang. It is this charming night market that serves as the setting for the denouement of my little story.
From five in the evening till eleven in the night, the main street of Luang Prabang transforms itself into a brightly lit, often quite crowded night market, with numerous little shops with bright blue and red canopies and shoppers, mainly tourists, jostling to get the best bargains. Set on a street with the main temple and palace as its back drop, the night market probably has a long history, but in its current form, it has been clearly re-hashed almost entirely for tourists.
Getting back to my hotel late in the afternoon after an arduous field visit to see a few schools that Save the Children has helped set up in remote villages, I have nothing to do and decide to pay the night market a visit.
Like most other street markets, this one too has its numerous food stalls serving the widest possible range of fresh fruit, juices and food that may be boiled or baked or grilled or fried or steamed or curried or roasted of toasted or sautéed or fermented (read putrid) or even eaten just raw. Included in this are traditional Lao food that boasts of a mind boggling range of green leafy vegetables and aromatic herbs as also almost anything that can move on its own and is big enough to be captured and eaten by humans.
The highlight of the market however is on sale the wide range of beautiful traditional Lao handicrafts, particularly ethnic jewelry, baskets and handicrafts of the numerous hill tribes, antiques in wood and metal (more often than not pretty good fakes), Lao silk and cotton, traditional silk stoles and skirts, ethnic embroidery, bed linen, nick-knacks and souvenirs, in addition to the more practical t-shirts, bermudas, harem pants, wrap-arounds etc. Amongst all this is of course the odd shop selling cheap imported Chinese stuff – something that you tend to find almost in every corner of the world these days. Surely, the night market has something for all.
The night market, for all its hectic buying and selling is a rather sedate place in that you don’t find shopkeepers shouting their wares and the buyers haggling loudly. In the typical LAO-PDR (please don’t rush) mode, it isn’t too noisy a market and one can actually hear the sounds of the occasional gong or of Buddhist chanting coming from the nearby temple. Walking through the narrow space between the stalls I find tourists of all hues – almost as diverse as the fare on sale, jostling their way through. I know what I am looking for and quickly pick up some beautiful ethnic Hmong metal ware.
Being the peak shopping hour, the crowd is heavy and I find myself sandwiched between two very pretty, sprightly, young ladies – rather girls (probably in their early twenties) ahead of me and a French speaking back-packer couple to my rear. The two girls ahead of me, who are of cheerful disposition and are constantly chattering excitedly and giggling from time to time, look like two sisters on a great holiday. Somewhere along the way, one of the girls stops to check out something in a shop, while her companion walks on, keeping up her chatter, not realizing that in the crowd, I have replaced her companion just behind her. It is almost as if she is speaking to me, although she does not quite realize that.
The girl keeps talking, not realizing that I can hear everything she says. I play along for it is quite amusing. I actually don’t pay much attention to the details of the girly talk till suddenly the girl says “Oh my god Emma, we have been trekking and walking so much lately that that I think I have shed over ten pounds. Do you believe it – even my boobs have shrunk and I now need to buy new set of bras!” Now that is something that clearly catches my ear and I cannot resist the temptation. I react spontaneously, without thinking and say softly, almost under my breath – “I do”.
AAAaaaaaaaaaaa !!! the girl almost jumps out of her skin, drops her bags, letting out a loud, shrill and rather comic-hysterical scream that pierces through the air and sends the relative peace of the place shattering, prompting everyone around to stop in their tracks and stare at us. Quite a few jaws drop as well.
“Emma ! Emma ! Where the hell are you”? Cries the girl, “I thought I was talking to you all this while !!”. She then turns to me blushing and said “Oh my god, you haven’t heard everything that I have been saying to my sister, have you”?!
I shrug and confess with a disarmingly amused grin. I say “Well given how crowded this place is, I was indeed within hearing distance you see, and you weren’t exactly speaking softly – so I couldn’t help hearing what you were saying, could I”?
Face to face, I realize the girl is not only cheerful and spirited but also incredibly attractive. She strikes me as the quintessential ‘kind-and-beautiful-princess-fallen-in-bad-times-because-of-evil-stepmother’, the stock figure from many a fairy tales. That bashful smile adds an element of rare innocence, making her even more beautiful and princessly (sic).
Regaining her composure a bit, while still blushing a deep pink and visibly embarrassed and she exclaims apologetically – “Oh my god, I am really so sorry, I thought I was speaking to my sister. I am really sorry for putting you into such an embarrassing situation” and then once again the most charmingly bashful smile breaks out on her beautiful face.
“Far from being embarrassing, I found it scintillating”, I exclaim! So please don’t apologize!” Both of us once again break into uncontrolled laughter, sending more jaws dropping in the crowded market.
Hearing her sister’s hysterical scream, Emma comes running frantically, negotiating herself nimbly through the crowd, crying “June! June ! What on earth happened? Is anything wrong?” Still laughing uncontrollably, June says “Oh no – not at all, wait till you hear what happened”.
We sober down and June says, extending her slender hand to me, “Hi I am June and this is my sister Emma. We are from England, holidaying in Laos. I find that Emma is as beautiful as her sister June – albeit a bit reserved. They are identical twins.
We shake hands and I introduce myself. They are impressed that I work for Save the Children. We exchange a few pleasantries, about Laos and our shopping experience so far. They ask me about my country and tell me that they would like to visit India some day. I tell them that I am from Kolkata – the erstwhile second city of the British Empire, a city they must visit when in India.
We all agree how wonderful it was to have met each other.
We wish each other the best for the rest of our journeys, shake hands, say our goodbyes and go our separate ways. As the twins move away, I can hear June say in an excited voice “You must listen to what happened, Emma ….”
I hear a faint giggle and then June’s voice trailing off as they move further away. I stop and turn to have one last look to find that June and her sister have already dissolved among the crowd of back packers. … I move on…