|Maury and classmates|
I returned home Thursday from an eleven-day visit to Laos.
The ostensible reason for the visit was to celebrate my great-niece's (Maury's) fifth birthday, along with her mother and her grandparents. Maury's mother took a job in Luang Prabang a few months ago, working for a non-profit organization that helps publicize and market locally woven fabrics. Maury therefore began school in Laos for the first time this fall. She's making a fine adjustment.
Maury's Big Five birthday was, as I say, the ostensible reason for my visit. The underlying reason, of course, was that I never turn down an excuse to travel somewhere. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Maury's father and I visited Laos together seven years ago. I loved it, and was eager for this wonderful pretext for a return visit.
Getting there isn't necessarily half the fun. It's a 13-hour flight from Seattle to Seoul, and another eight hours from Seoul to Bangkok. After arrival in Bangkok at 11 p.m., it was a relief to get a short night's sleep at the airport hotel, before continuing for another two hours to Luang Prabang. Coming home simply reversed that process, with the addition of an eight-hour layover in Bangkok, and a 13-hour layover in Seoul. I was exhausted on arrival home, of course -- but in pretty good shape and on adrenaline when I arrived in Laos.
We stayed at a beautiful, small hotel overlooking the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The view of the small boats passing by from my balcony was always entertaining, as were the views from the outdoor café across the street where the hotel served our breakfast. The weather was tropically warm, but quite moderate in the early morning and late evening. Conditions were well nigh idyllic.
The "ancient" section of Luang Prabang is a long peninsula between the two temporarily parallel rivers. Only four streets run the length of the peninsula, interrupted at one point by Mt. Phousi, a sacred hill with a famous shrine on the summit. The old city contains about 34 "wats," or temples, but is largely given over otherwise to the needs of tourists. The commercialism is there, but is always tasteful and never really blatant -- largely, no doubt, because the city is protected as a UNESCO-designated cultural site. UNESCO imposes strict rules on how each building is used and how, if it all, it can be modified. Local officials seem somewhat concerned that their city is being held back as a museum, but with tourism the major source of income, their protests are muted.
The entire old city is easily walkable from one end to the other. When we went beyond this peninsular core, we traveled by tuk tuk -- small trucks used as taxis. Aside from tuk tuks, virtually all the motorized traffic is by motor scooter.
We hung out with Maury and her mother, and attended birthday parties for Maury at her school and at a hotel outside the central area. We spent a lot of time walking, drinking in riverside watering holes and eating in riverside cafés, and visiting temples. Photographic opportunities were everywhere. We made a couple of excursions out of town -- to the Pak Ou caves, two hours up the Mekong by small water taxi; and the Kuang Si waterfall, about an hour ride by tuk tuk.
I spent only eight nights in Luang Prabang, which is a short visit for such a long journey -- but felt as though I'd been there long enough to have a good acquaintance with the city. The Lao seem to be a happy people. The service everywhere was relaxed and friendly -- friendly even beyond the friendliness normally dictated by good customer relationships.
I left Luang Prabang (or LP, as now I familiarly call it) feeling relaxed and pleased with my visit. I'm quite sure I'll be back.