A quintessential Chinatown – winding narrow streets packed with people, motor vehicles and wooden carts, the ornate red and gilt gate, the smells of grilled meat and steaming soups, the sellers of dragon fruit, dried strawberries and grilled bananas, whole plucked chickens and spotted eggs, smoked ducks and dried fish, sunglasses, Apple iPods, Nike logo T-Shirts, apartment size refrigerators. Expect this isn’t part of San Francisco or New York; this is in Chiang Mai, the Kingdom of Thailand’s second largest city.
The Chinese have been investing in Southeast Asia long before its current economic boom. Since the 13th century they have been a major presence in the city on both sides of the Ping River. The market on the west bank is jammed with hundreds of vendors both in large indoor markets and nearly every square inch of the sidewalks selling literally, just about everything.
Chiang Mai, like many Southeast Asian cities, offer an abundance of shops offering custom-made clothing and shoes. Often high quality clothing can be made within 24 to 36 hours. Shops offering “2-hour” service make me question the quality of the product. The best shops offer a sizable selection of high quality materials and well designed clothing displayed on many mannequins giving you that essential “gut” feeling of confidence. The process of cloth selection, design choices, measurement and a minimum of two fittings, as well as good craftmanship, takes time (and if the store’s good they’re also busy). I was not aware that most of the sewing is accomplished using treadle machines – real hand/foot-made. It makes sense in a region of the world where power outages can be common and demand for the products are high. High quality custom hand-made clothing can frequently range 60 – 75%less than comparable ready-to-wear clothing in North America or Europe.
new Penguin treadle sewing machines for sale
No Southeast Asian city has only one market and that is certainly true of Chiang Mai. Starting at the Thapae Gate and running the length of cobble stoned Ratchadamnoen Road through the heart of the Old City, Chiang Mai’sSunday Night Market is a major attraction for both locals and visitors alike. The street is closed to traffic its entire length from 5:00 PM to midnight, but that does not mean a lack of congestion, except this time its only people.
Although touted as a venue to find quality handmade crafts I did not find this true. Most of the “crafts” were the same low quality souvenir trinkets found in abundance everywhere albeit with some imaginative displays such as the heart made of rice with inexpensive earrings on top. The market is more important as a citywide social gathering mixing expats, tourist and all age groups of locals. There’s traditional street food foods grilling and simmering and deserts rarely found on North American Thai menus. Try creamy sweetened steamed rice blended with banana, melon or pumpkin wrapped in a banana leaf cone (bottom center) or (bottom right) Kaw Tom Mud – sticky rice with sweetened coconut milk and banana or soy bean paste wrapped in a banana leaf package. Both are delicious. Most restaurants on this major Old City road are open late and become part of the market scene considering that with warm/hot evenings outside seating is common. Some of the oldest Buddhist Temples are open and beautiful to see at night.
Lights, live music and lots of sounds, aromas, colors, children scurrying about, yet there are poignant reminders of wars that past generations endured. A group of elderly musicians, playing traditional music. were raising funds for victims of land mines. The soft music and chants were in sharp contrast to the riot of noise in the market, but the real impact was the reality that the musicians were all land mine victim survivors. The yin and yang of reality, it’s all in the Sunday Night Market.
The Night Market is 7 days a week 5:00 PM – Midnight (not trafffic free) and is the real center of northern Thailand’s handmade crafts. Occupying a permanent space on the west bank of the Ping River just a couple blocks south of the Iron Bridge (great night-time views walking over the Ping River – there are sidewalks on the bridge), the market space has permanent shops, stalls, open air restaurants and live music on a central stage. Fine quality silks and decently made cotton and linen clothing are in abundance (I bought a pair of well made linen pants and a linen shirt – $10US total). Wood carvings, marionette puppets (a beloved craft), cut leather art works, some imaginative jewelry, an eclectic selection of old and new decorative art, lots of bright lamps, more smoked ducks – a lot of goods available. Of course there’s the food, and at the Night Market, fish and seafood are a specialty.
Giant prawns – as large as lobster tails – sea snails, calamari, oysters, a variety of fresh fish – many still swimming – Pacific lobsters and crabs are all available. A customer chooses exactly the specimen and quantity they want and pay by weight. The cost? Less than a third what it would be in North America or Europe. The preparation? Grilled with garlic and fresh herbs, steamed and added to an entrée salad with cucumbers, tomatoes and fresh herbs, stir-fried with fresh vegetables and/or a variety of mushrooms, deep-fat fried tempura style – you can decide, you can create. Add an ice-cold local beer and enjoy the warm night.
After dinner perhaps you’ll want a massage – outdoors (I didn’t so I can’t comment on their quality). A foot massage may cost $2.00US (30 – 60 minutes) whereas a Thai massage – more like an hour on the rack without death – does limber your muscles and may cost as much as $7.00US/hour. Gentler Swedish or Shiatsu methods are available if you don’t want to plunge too soon into a Thai massage. Or how about tiny little fish nibbling on your feet and legs? I didn’t try it – return trip – but devotees swear that it not only feels terrific, it’s more effective than a pumice stone – and I guess fun…
(Next: Chiang Mai Part 3 – attractions in the countryside)
PS: (1) spicy chicken feet are akin to chicken wings and summer b-b-q season’s soon.
(2) take normal precaution eating raw foods in a hot, humid climate.
Actually the Buddha never visited Chiang Mai no less move there, but legions of his devotees have over the centuries from around the world – India, Laos, Vietnam, China, Australia, France, England, Canada, America. Not all of these expats are Buddhist. Hinduism from India arrived first, a few thousand years ago, followed by Buddhism somewhere around 500 AD, and all had no real issue with local Animist practices, Confucianism brought by Chinese merchants and Christianity when Europeans arrived after 1500 AD. After all, what we know today as Chiang Mai has been an important city since its turbulent days as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, wars with its arch-enemy Burma, Japanese occupation during World War II, its rise as the cultural heart of ancient northern Thailand and even the onslaught of overfed Western expats looking for a low cost of living and cheap facelifts.
As flexible as Buddhism is, modern Thai’s have few issues with Starbucks, cell phones or even fat expats, but the shorts for sale in the upper right picture are strictly for foreign women (unless you want to be a Thai woman with a tarnished reputation) and no Thai guy would go shirtless unless at the beach – which is no where close to Chaing Mai. That said, Chiang Mai is not an attractive city. Many of its old teakwood structures are found scrunched tightly among mold stained concrete buildings of more recent vintage. Like most Southeast Asian cities, sidewalks crumble under persistent floods of the Ping River during rainy season, their primary use as motor bike parking lots and spontaneous “stores” for sellers of everything from sunglasses to spicy hot chicken feet.
Like most of regions of the world with hot sunny weather, walking would seem to be the obvious choice to see the city, but this is Southeast Asia. Although many people do walk – certainly far more than any American city – “pedestrian friendly” is a concept that’s not part of Asian consciousness. With few walkable sidewalks, one shares the often narrow streets with cars, trucks, motor bikes and other forms of public transportation in a devil-may-care free-for-all. Chiang Mai has few traffic lights, except in some places on the modern expressways in the new outer parts of the city, and fewer police to calm the constant rushing traffic. To cross the street a pedestrian simply crosses the street into the traffic which frequently comes from all directions. Although daunting at first, this is exactly what the on-coming traffic expects as it, usually, avoids both pedestrians and other vehicles with deft agility. The worst action a pedestrian can take is to get spooked and hesitate halfway across several lanes of traffic – that’s when the cars and motor bikes get spooked and “problems” occur.
Most Thai’s without their own transportation ride the Songthaews – converted small trucks that carry up to a dozen people at a fixed rate along fixed routes like buses. They’re cheap at about $.35 – $.70 US a ride. The Saamlors and Tuk-Tuks are for short distances especially within the Old City and its immediate surroundings. There is no problem getting a Saamlor or Tuk-Tuk because their drivers “believe” that no one wants to see the city by walking. They are everywhere, and you’ll be asked by nearly every one during your walk if you “want a ride?” “where are you going?” and “one hour to see the city?” The trouble is that there are no set rates and no meters and the “one hour tour” is to any number of shops selling items you do not want but for which the driver gets a cut. To say there is a “sliding scale” on the rate is an understatement. Locals know the game quite well and the distance. What will be quoted to a local frequently is 50% – 75% less than to an obvious foreign visitor. If one does not haggle over the fare before the ride expect to pay as much as the driver believes you’re gullable, or guilty enough, to pay and be asked about “a tour” or “a good shop…” (Actually you’ll be asked this even if you do settle on a price but just be firm because the shops are rarely ones you would visit on your own.) Never expect to pay the same rate for any two rides to or from the same place. Yet in 95 degree (F) heat at 3:00 PM you might not care about the fare. On the other hand, any fare over 100 BHT ($3.00 US) to just about anywhere within center city is too much. Taxis with meters exist but your hotel must call them. They’re rarely available to flag down.
So why visit such a chaotic city? The people for one thing. The average Thai is friendly and gracious even if they’re scamming you or you’re not buying something. They’re so industrious – and I’ll add the Laotians, Cambodians and Vietnamese – they make the average workaholic American seem lazy. Nearly every building is a store with family living quarters in the back or above. Motor bikes and bicycles are movable stores or “freight” haulers. Where there isn’t a motor bike parked on the sidewalk there’s most likely someone who has set up a “café,” or selling jewelry and T-shirts, or water and soda, or even making fresh dumpling pot stickers. Whether the nation’s a monarchy or a “socialist” republic, Southeast Asians can’t count on a pension (unless they’re the favored few that work for large corporations) and “social security” is an unknown concept. The extended family is one’s social security and the ability to be creative with work.
There is the beautiful green countryside with villages, farms, mountains, waterfalls – and tourist traps (oh well…). It’s not surprising that as a national medical center (and for an American inexpensive care), slightly lower temperatures than steamy Bangkok, especially November through February, along with a cost of living less than half that of North America and Europe, Chiang Mai attracts one million tourist a year, over 10,000 permanent expats and numerous seasonal residents. Like everything in Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai’s an experience worth a return visit.
Question: “If we follow the Eight Precepts of Buddhism, especially the one that prohibits having sex, after 100 years the human race will become extinct.”
Response: “As a matter of fact, this question is asked about something impossible and it is quite useless to discuss about such an absurd subject. But to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, we may do some guesswork about it. Of course, if all human beings on Earth observed the Eight Precepts and abstained from sex, mankind would become extinct within 100 years. Even if that happened, there should be no cause to lament or to worry unless you were the only human being that remained and lived alone in the whole world.” (from Questions and Answers In Buddhism, Professor Saeng Chandngarm, Mahamakut Buddhist University, Lanna Campus, Chiang Mai, Thailand)
The Eight Precepts of Buddhism
Refrain from destroying living creatures.
Refrain from taking that which is not given.
Refrain from sexual activity.
Refrain from incorrect speech.
Refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.
Refrain from eating at the forbidden time (after 12:00 noon)
Refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, using perfumes, and beautifying the body with cosmetics.
Refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place.
Whow…that’s heavy – no sex, no drinking, no drugs, no dancing – no FUN! No…not exactly. “Refrain” actually means “resist” – it does not mean “Thou shalt not…” Semantics? Only in the Judeo-Christian sense – and actually, only in the Middle Eastern ancestry of the Christian sense of absolute “good/evil.” Otherwise, Buddhism recognizes humans as merely one of over 30 life forms searching for the ultimate release from the cycle of life – reincarnation – through enlightenment. When’s that ultimate release? It’s up to you. Now THAT’S heavy!
To Westerners, people walking around in saffron robes is intimidating, yet we’re use to Catholic priests, nuns and Protestant ministers wearing odd clothing. Clothing, obviously, does not make the person and Chiang Mai’s Buddhist Temples and monasteries have intelligently created time within the day for the Monk Chat. It’s a chance to sit down with these men and discover that, OMG, there just like us – Apple laptop and all. At two different Temples – the magnificent Phra Dhatu Chedi Luang and the unique Silver Ubosoth – we had the opportunity of conversing and deepening our knowledge of this 2500 year old religion.
The all-inclusive Buddhist lifestyle and, to the Western tradition, its seeming contradictions, have always been an enigma. In a classic, and somewhat humorous manner the monks patiently explain a way of life that baffles many people. “Life” is not just human life and even that concept does not mean that animals and plants are simply sacred. One’s life encompasses millenniums of reincarnation through many forms – hence sacredness – before, at some point, in a human life form, the soul, through the Eight Precepts, achieves enlightenment and nirvana.
So every Buddhist Monk will achieve nirvana? Hardly. Male children as young 7 years old can enter the monasteries and receive a free education until 20 – first few years of university. For poor children this is truly a “god-send.” At 20 they may choose to study further for their university degree and ordination as a monk. At that point it’s a life-long committment? No. A novice and a monk may leave the monastery any time they wish. They may marry, have children, become a farmer or a banker. Do they then go to “hell” when they die? No. Buddhist do not believe in that concect of retribution – they believe in reincarnation until the achievement of enlightenment and nirvana. A former novice or monk (if married they must now be a widower) may reenter the monastery at any time – and may leave again if that’s their wish. We were told that many people will enter the monastery for a year or two as an adult, like a sabbatical, just to enrich their personal and spiritual life, and then return to their business life.
The Lord Buddha’s attitude toward women…a sticking point among modern Western thinkers. Buddhist nuns are, like in the Catholic Church, not equal to monks and are cloistered. I will turn once more to Professor Chandngarm’s explanation and make no claim, as a Quaker, that I fully understand the concept.
“According to the monastic rules, the most important rule for monks, as well as for Buddhists, is to keep celibate. Since womanhood is the natural opponent to celibacy, so women are a stain for chastity. The Buddha did not keep women in a lower level or in inferiority than men. He only recognized the differences between men and women. Monkhood in the Buddha’s time was very hard. Right after ordination, monks would be sent away to live and practice alone in caves and forests, in the wilderness in deserted huts. He had to eat whatever. sometimes they were beaten and robbed, or didn’t eat for days. The Buddha hardly expected women to do that. When monks and nuns live close together another kind of trouble breaks out – and you can imagine what it is. Not because of women’s evil, but because of man’s natural weakness and the overwhelming charm of women. As far as intelligence and attaining Enlightenment, the Lord Buddha saw no difference between the two genders.”
Have I now told you everything you need to know in order to understand a belief system that affects the lives and politics of more than a dozen cultures, governments and millions of individuals? I hope not, or else you will not want to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to chat with these intelligent and gentle monks in the 2,000 year old spiritual and Royal center, Chiang Mai (of the Lanna Kingdom and Thailand).
He’s about four feet tall and looks like any one of a hundred classic poses of the Lord Buddha. He rests behind bars in an exterior open gallery with a twenty-something female guard sitting at a desk (no guns). Photos are forbidden. Because Laos’ a Communist nation? No… the statue’s a cultural icon, it’s worth a zillion dollars and the Luang Prabang National Museum would like visitors to buy a postcard. The statue is THE Golden Buddha – the Phra Bang – of Luang Prabang, and it’s 90% solid gold. For centuries it sat in an inconspicuous corner of Wat Ho Prabang on the Palace grounds in this city of over 40 Buddhist temples and monasteries until someone noticed it after the 1975 revolution.
For nearly a thousand years Luang Prabang, in the northern highlands at the confluence of two great rivers, the Nam Kahn and the Mekong, served as capital for the kingdoms of Lang Xang, Luang Prabang and, finally, Laos. The French, under their “protectorate,” built the 1904 Royal Palace (now the National Museum) for the revered national hero Sisavang Vong, King of Luang Phrabāng and Laos for 55 years (1904- 1959). Ironically, in 1975, it was at the same palace that Prince Souphanouvong (the “Red Prince”) arrested his half brother, KingSisavang Vatthana sending him, the Queen and Crown Prince to die in a “reeducation camp.” Prince Souphanouvong became the first President of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. It’s a much more peaceful city today.
In 1995 Luang Prabang was rightfully declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and today is the most popular tourist attraction in Laos. The city is gorgeous, at least the old historic core and the stunning surrounding countryside. Luang Prabang is a classic Southeast Asian provincial city and one of the few remaining – villas next to woven bamboo houses, residents cooking in the alleyways on charcoal and wood, aging French colonial buildings and 600 year old Buddhist stupas with monks everywhere, backpackers from Australia and Europe, people in business suits in Toyotas and motor bikes and fisherman throwing nets in the river. For me the preservation of this wonderful collage is what I hope the UNESCO designation will maintain, although there are an increasing number of upscale hotels and amenities geared to the well-heeled Western and Asian tour bus crowd which could alter this reality.
What to see? Wander into any number of the Buddhist temples and monasteries. At first sight “they all look the same,” but fix your eyes on each one’s decorations – gold leaf stencil on teak wood carvings and walls, enamel and mirrored murals depicting holy texts and everyday life, young novitiate students in saffron robes talking on cell phones while taking a break from temple chores, the beautiful sounds of temple drums and the monk’s devotional chanting several times a day.
Discover the hundreds of Spirit houses with individualistic statements – the elephant manifestation of the god Ghanish next to Japan’s “Miss Kitty,” sticky rice, glasses of water, incense and candles in trees, on walls – all of nature is sacred. Unfortunately, the much vaunted morning ritual of offering food to the monks at dawn has devolved into a mere tourist attraction/photo op. Local people now simply bring food or make cash donations directly at the Temples. (In other areas of Southeast Asia, especially in the rural countryside, this tradition is still strong.)
Climb the 350+ steps up Mount Phousie in the center of the Old City passing dozens of Buddha images – the seven daily Buddhas, a magnificent Sleeping Buddha – and a rusting anti-aircraft gun emplacement left over from the Vietnam War era – to the small 1804 That Choms – one of the city’s most revered sites. If lucky, the temple fortune teller will be present. It’s the highest point in Luang Prabang with a panoramic view of the city and countryside, even if there is a humid haze in the air caused by late winter burning in the surrounding mountains (both controlled burning of underbrush in the teak forests and clearing land for Spring planting). You can purchase, for a pittance, flowers in cone shaped banana leaves, sticky rice and incense as devotional items to leave after your prayers. Women sell pairs of small live birds in bamboo baskets that you carry to the top of the hill and, after saying your prayer, release from their cage. They will take your prayer to heaven.
At the base of the Mount Phousie is the small but exquisite museum Traditional Arts and Technology Center. The artful displays detail the ethnic groups and spiritual influences that comprise Laos. The gift shop sells excellent and authentic handmade crafts and will advise as to the best shops in town. The café offers a stunning seven course set menu consisting of classic dishes from all of Lao’s ethnic groups. There were dishes I had not seen on any menu. The cost was $12.50 for 2 people – the menu doesn’t say “for 2,” the Lao’s assume no one person would stuff themselves (don’t even try to eat everything yourself).
There are numerous eco-tourism companies that offer excursions into the beautiful surrounding hill countryside. The best is Tiger Trails – it seems every company slaps on the moniker “eco-tour” these days so make use of the internet and do some research. There are a host of “made for tourist” attractions in the area that are really not worth your time unless you’re in town for a few weeks – the “Whiskey Village,” the “Silk Village,” the Pac Ou Caves – and simply want a diversion. Whereas the Elephant Village – a non-profit that rescues abused elephants from the lumber industry – is a must see excursion.
Luang Prabang is a Mecca for well made high end silks, art, jewelry and furniture representing both traditional northern Lao and contemporary designs (prices are still a fraction of what they’d be in Europe or North America). The best shops are in the compact Old City, which is easy to navigate on foot. Do not purchase antiques since many “antique” stores sell fakes knowing full well it’s next to impossible to remove genuine antiques, and even contemporary fine art, without a difficult to obtain export license for each item.
There is the MorningMarket (4:00am – Noon) that’s a serious food emporium. Discover hundreds of foods Westerners never would think could be used in the kitchen – I will detail this market in a future blog. The lively Night Market (5:00 PM – Midnight), unfortunately like so many in Thailand and Cambodia, has devolved into a tourist attraction offering the same old cheaply made clothes, crafts and souvenirs you’ll find in any tourist shop – obviously factory made and, despite labels, probably not even in the country you’re visiting. Yet for prepared street food, the Luang Prabang Night Market is fantastic! One can feast on freshly grilled meats and fish, create a salad using dozens of greens, fresh herbs and produce or add them to savory soups and stews. Along with a refreshing Beer Lao you’ll have a banquet that will cost anywhere from a couple of dollars to maybe $5.00.
Accommodations range from $20/night guest houses (many have A/C even at that price) to boutique hotels (fortunately – cross fingers – there are no large chain hotels) surrounded by lush gardens tucked away all over the Old City that range from $55 to $155/night. Many in the $55/65 night range are just as beautiful and comfortable as those at the higher end. It’s not always easy to find these gems on the Net. I did use a good booking site – Agoda – but since hotels subscribe to booking sites it’s hardly a complete list. TripAdvisor is another good source but since it lists only ones reviewed by members, it does not have a complete list as well. My advice for anyone traveling to Southeast Asia is to book a hotel for the start of your stay in each city through a booking site and then check out what’s available. If you are pleased with the booked hotel, inquire if they’ll extend your stay at the same rate – booking sites are always discounted. If not, you can just move down the street. We stayed at The View Pavilion at over $90/night but, although it had a terrific staff, the hotel needed maintenance from its absentee owners. (Following my own advice for a change, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at The Rimping Village Hotel they willingly extended our stay at Agoda’s discounted rate after they proved to be a mini-paradise – more on that in another blog.) Lao courtesy and concern with customer comfort is so effusive they would be insulted if you did not ask them for help making dinner reservations, advice on excursions and making the arrangements as well as securing a taxi or tuk-tuk and negotiating the fare. Take advantage – it makes them happy.
Laotian cuisine is neither as sweet as Vietnamese nor spicy hot as Thai – although they still love their chilies. This allows the abundant use of basil, cilantro, mint, green onions, garlic, roasted vegetables and dozens of flavorful greens to shine through their masterful dishes complimented by grilled and steamed fish, pork, beef, chicken, frog, prawns and many other forms of protein. Like the rest of Southeast Asia, they use a number of vegetable/herb/meat pastes, freshly made with mortar and pestle, to add additional layers of flavor. Fermented fish sauce, which in my experience the average Westerner finds disgusting, adds subtle flavor to most dishes and was/is a salt substitute. Fish sauce – of which there are many varieties – does smell vile to the Western nose, but when added to food, that smell dissipates and actually results in a slightly sweet under taste. (I will be writing an article on a wonderful all-day cooking class offered by Tamarind restaurant.) Like most Asian dining, a number of dishes should be ordered – depending on the size of the party – with all diners sharing. We found, for our own dining comfort that for two people, three dishes – along with steamed or sticky rice – was enough. One cold salad, one fish/seafood dish and one meat/poultry dish was satisfactory. Soups are usually substantial consisting of noodles, greens and protein and can be part of a main course. It is easy for a vegetarian/vegan to eat well anywhere in Southeast Asia, but don’t expect this to be the norm among locals. Dishes will be served as they are ready not in a Western order (appetizers first followed by the main course, etc.) Two people in even the most expensive restaurants in Luang Prabang would be hard pressed to spend more than $40/couple, and it is easy for most meals to cost less than $10 – $15/couple. (Note: adding a bottle of wine will more than double to triple the cost, so don’t bother unless you can’t live without wine.)
My top picks for traditional and fusion Lao restaurants in the Old City are Tamarind and Rosella Fusion Café both on the Nam Kahn river front. The Australian/Lao owned Tamarind is probably the best in the city, and it is moderately priced serving imaginative dishes (lunch or dinner for 2 $15 – $30). Reservations are essential for dinner. The young Lao staff of Rosella Fusion Café serve much better than average traditional Lao dishes at low prices ($10 – $15/couple) while you sit at attractive teak tables surrounded by orchids at the edge of the high banks overlooking the Nam Kahn. Tamnak Lao, on Sisavangvong Road (the main street) in a classic stucco and wood Lao structure offers tasty traditional Lao dishes, also at moderate prices, while Joma coffee shop on the Mekong side river road has great French coffee and imaginative thin-crust pizzas. Ignore most hotel restaurants. Although many are in attractive surroundings, they serve food geared to the tourist palate – mediocre – at high prices (unless you really crave your Angus beef steak).
There are excellent French restaurants in this Communist nation where road signs are still written in Lao and French, bilingual schools are common and the French government funds many projects. L’ Elephant is in an elegant art-deco building offering classic French and French Indochina cuisine at prices in the very high end. Unfortunately, it’s become popular with tour groups as well. Café Ben Vat Sene (my favorite) has the feel of a French bistro in the “colonial” tropics – which it is – and too small for tour groups. Under the slowly moving ceiling fans, sitting at rustic tables with brightly colored Lao fabric napkins and placemats, eating such classic French country fare as Pommes de Terre Savoyard (au gratin potatoes with smoked ham) and freshly made Tarte au Citron(lemon tart), don’t be surprised if you conjure images of Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Jean d’Estray at the next table enjoying an absinthe. Orchids, the tropical evening and fine food do that to you – give in.
The baritone sounds of the giant drums resonate calling monks to prayer. Soft chanting can be heard in the stillness of pre-dawn. In the near pitch blackness dozens of men and women jog, walk and exercise on modern machines one sees in any American gym except these are free and in the park. In front of the Vientiane Times, men are stacking rolls of the daily newspaper on their motor bikes for delivery. French bakeries are opening for business. There is barely a car in sight on the streets at 6:00 AM. The air is still cool and moist before the sun raises the winter temperature to 90 degrees (F) by midday. Welcome to the reincarnated city of Vientiane, capital of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic
On the South Korean financed and constructed 2.5 mile long Mekong River Promenade/flood control wall (completion by 2013) stands the largest political monument in Laos – a Pathet Lao leader? A vitriolic monument to Western imperialism? No…it’s a memorial to an early 19th century national hero, the martyred PrinceAnouvong (KingChaiya Sethathirath V: 1767 – 1829)last ruler of the Kingdoms of Vientiane and Lan Xang. He led a failed war against their enemy, Siam (the Kingdom of Thailand) who had occupied Vientiane, and he died in captivity.
After 400 years as the on-again/off-again capital of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (Land of a Million Elephants), the city of Vientiane was utterly destroyed in 1827 by Thailand and remained a wasteland until the arrival of the French in the 1890’s. They rebuilt Vientiane as the administrative capital under their colonial “protectorate” and many structures retain early 20th century French colonial designs. Where are the memorials to the 1975 Communist revolution? They exist in only two places – the former Royal Palace (National Museum) and at the former American compound of the USAID/CIA outside of the city that became the home of Kaysone Phomvihane (1920–1992) co- leader of the Pathet Lao along with the “Red Prince” Souphanouvong (brother of the last King of Laos). Thus is the complex history of this beautiful country with its stunningly friendly people, as well as an indication that modern Lao is still the traditional, conservative Buddhist culture that has been its history for over a thousand years.
Vientiane, like so many Southeast Asian cities, is undergoing an economic and building revival unheard of since the end of Western domination (the Vietnam War) in 1975. It still retains vestiges of a relaxed colonial town that has to deal with tropical weather which rarely gets cooler than 85 (F) on any day – and always humid. I was told that the number of cars has doubled in the last three years and building cranes can be seen in numerous locations. Chinese, Vietnamese, South Korean and European investment money is pouring into this Buddhist nation.
Capitalism in a Communist nation? Let’s get real. Before the creation of the unified Kingdom of Laos, after the French withdrawal, under His MajestySisavang Vong, ( King of Luang Phrabāng 1904-46 and King of Laos 1946-1959) – another celebrated national hero – the nation we know today as Laos – drop the “s” and say “Lao” – was a feudal society of several kingdoms who pledged loose allegiance to the Kings of Lan Xang and, later, to the Kings of Luang Phrabang. The monumental statue on the grounds of Luang Phrabang’s National Museum (former Royal Palace) depicts the King’s right hand in a classic Buddha position for peace and the left hand holding the 1946 constitution.
The current Lao People’s Democratic Republic is not much different, with many of the same families in power, except allegiance is to the Central Committee that resides in Vientiane. Over 90% of all Laotians are self-employed small business entrepreneurs and farmers and always have been. Buddhism and its teachings still remain the greatest cultural and political influence within the nation. There are more Buddhist temples and monasteries than I can count – independent of government influence – and travel within Southeast Asia for Laotians is unencumbered. The excessivly bureaucratic government is considered incompetent and government workers have decent middle class jobs – just like the former Royal Courts. There is a visible lack of infrastructure planning in this developing country.
All of this makes Laos, Vientiane and the ancient northern capital of Luang Phrabang (a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and another blog) a fascinating country. Laos cuisine is wonderful. Less sweet than Vietnamese and with fewer hot peppers than Thai, the dozens of flavors from herbs, meats and spices shine. This will upset vegans who believe Asians are basically vegetarians and are eating more meat due to the influence of McDonalds, but Laotians have always been large meat/fish eaters. I was told by numerous chefs that currently more vegetable dishes are becoming part of the cuisine because of Western vegetarian trends! Laotians eat EVERYTHING – beef, pork, duck, frogs, rats, some dog, river fish, shell fish, all the innards and the blood – both liquid and congealed. (OK, please don’t stop reading – I won’t add recipes.) But they lavish love on their pet dogs and cats – they don’t eat their pets – unlike other Southeast Asian cultures (although this is rarely a part of the modern urban diet).
Life is on the street and in the markets – typical of Southeast Asia. The “morning markets” are primarily food (4:00 AM – to mid day.) “night markets” tend to be crafts, clothing and prepared foods and “weekend markets” are a great mixture. At any market you will find fresh frogs and the latest Apple I-Pod – it’s “one stop shopping” – the American dream…
Inexpensive restaurants abound and spill onto the streets. Lunch or dinner for 2 will rarely cost more than US$15 – unless you stuff yourself. A large 3/4 litre bottle of Beer Lao – a pleasant lager – costs $1.25. A few outstanding restaurants exist. The best being La Silapa, owned and operated by a French Canadian with a menu that is an excellent fusion of French and Lao flavors. Lunch for two is less than $30. (Note: wines are expensive anywhere in Southeast Asia. Costs are frequently more than the entire meal.) Nos serves excellent sushi at prices that make a Westerner believe they were in a Sushi nirvana – about $.25/each with salad and miso soup. There are a number of pizza restaurants using wood fired brick ovens and make terrific paper thin crusts. For genuine Lao cuisine eat on the street. Look for the most popular, crowded street restaurants. The rapid turnover means the food is fresh and has not lingered in the heat – what, no ice to keep the food fresh? Get real – I’ve yet to get even the slighest stomach problem.
Poverty, as judged by Western standards, is the norm for most people – especially in the rural countryside – in all of Southeast Asia, but not starvation. For a visitor from the “First World,” luxury is quite affordable – beautiful hotels for less than US$70/night, restaurant meals for 2 with drinks for less than $25 (and this is the average high end.) A person/couple can travel for less than a third of that amount or waste money on ultra luxury accommodations that will run in excess of $650/night. Yet if peace and stability remain in this fabled land they just might achieve the Lord Buddha’s dream of the Middle Path – neither lose one’s self in sensual pleasure nor deny one’s self the gifts of living.
The long-tail boat, as narrow as a canoe, skims close to the water of the Nam Khan River. The verdant green teak wood jungle climbs picturesque limestone mountains. Lining the river bank, farm plots of cucumber, tobacco, corn, banana, papaya and a dozen other fruits and vegetables resemble French formal gardens. In the river women are washing laundry, men are beating the water with bamboo poles to stun fish before throwing out their nets, and boys with scuba masks are bent over peering into the river to see if this is a good fishing spot.
We tie up to a bamboo platform “dock” and climb the concrete staircase at least 100 feet above the river to the six room Elephant Lodge. From the wide tiled terrace in front of our glass walled room we have a sweeping view of all I’ve just described, and more – utter peace broken only by the sound of jungle birds, people working on the river below and, occasionally, the trumpet sound of elephants. Are we in paradise? Yes, at the Elephant Village 10 miles north of Luang Prabang in the north central highlands of Laos.
They consume 600 pounds of food and drink over 10 gallons of water a day. Dogs, snakes and motorized vehicles scare them. Swimming and taking a bath is a thrill. They’re strictly vegan (raw food types) preferring palm leaves, pineapple plants, vines and even the tough woody stems of these plants. For dessert, bananas – skins and all – are a favorite, and their average life expectancy – if not worked to death – is 80. This is a common pachyderm – the elephant. I know this because I was a mahout for a day – well, kind of…
The Elephant Village is not a typical tourist “resort.” Founded in 2003 by Markus Peschke, who was bored with his German civil service job, it has a mission – saving the remaining 1,600 native Laotian elephants from extinction. The ancient name for Laos, Lane Xang , literally translates “land of a million elephants.” That was not hyperbole, until the 20th century it was reality. Human thirst for ivory tusks, hides, meat and work animals for the timber industry decimated the herds to today’s endangered numbers, yet still one-third of the 1600 are “employed” in the life-shortening lumber business. To make them work harder many lumber companies feed the elephants amphetamines.
The Elephant Village owns 12 females, purchased (rescued) from debilitating work and provides everything including 24 hour veterinary care. For 6 hours a day, they give tourists an experience, and then they eat and play in the river and eat – did I mention eat? Sleep averages about 3 hours – then they eat some more. Each elephant has a mahout – their “driver/caretaker” – and they are particular. The elephant must like you, and it will take some weeks before the mahout knows if the elephant will “hire” him – it’s a life-long position.
The Village offers tourists a day excursion and an all-inclusive overnight at the Lodge. Each person/couple has their own guide as well as an elephant and mahout. Our training started with getting familiar with our elephant – stroking her trunk – and then taking a one-hour ride. We sat in a chair behind the mahout, slowly plodding through jungle trails, into the Nam Khan River and then through a poor rural village – one with the fabulous “French garden” farm plots. After the ride the elephant was rewarded with a stalk of bananas which we fed to her – their trunk is an incredibly dexterous limb!
This was followed by a humbling and comic scene of learning how to mount the elephant on the back of its neck like a mahout. With great patience, this enormous animal lifts its right leg like a step to allow you to place your right foot on its leg and swing your left leg over its body and neck. At least that’s what’s supposed to happen. If you’re under 30 or a trained athlete – or a real mahout – it’s easy to swing that left leg up and over her wide body. For the rest of us it’s a humorous crawl up this huge animal. I’m sure elephants laugh, but they have the good grace to do it silently. To dismount, a command is given and she lowers all four legs as if they were hydraulic lifts, but only for a minute – their patience has a limit.
Sitting atop the neck of this mountain of muscle, bareback, while it slowly lumbers is like standing in a rocking boat, yet you do get used to it. They are responsive to the voice commands and pressure from the knees of their mahout sitting right behind me. Within a short time, I relax and understand why these animals were the major form of transportation for eons. We traverse a trail through the teak wood jungle and into the river – presently shallow in the middle of the dry season. As we climb the river bank it’s then I discover their fear of dogs as the mahout had to sternly – with voice commands – prevent this multi-ton animal from bolting at the sight of a 15 pound pet canine. Singing helped calm her down – they love their mahout to sing to them. Elephants really do have an incredible memory for language, their surroundings and, especially, for the behaviors of humans – whether you’re respectful or not.
In the evening, we gathered for dinner under a blanket of stars – four couples from Germany, Holland/Brazil, Japan and ourselves, the USA. Southeast Asia is a mecca for Europeans, and, just like my experiences in South America, very few Westerners venture out of their comfort zone.
After a night sleeping at the lodge surrounded by utter peace and quiet with the full moon shimmering on the Nam Kahn River, we take the elephants for their morning bath. Once more riding on the neck with the real mahout in back, brush in hand, the elephant kneels down immersing itself, and my legs, into the river. I’m still on its neck when the elephant, on command, raises its long trunk and repeatedly slams it down splashing water over itself and me. I scrub its head while the mahout takes care of the back. She definitely is enjoying this, especially splashing her trunk in the water. It’s amazing how long the elephant can immerse its trunk, literally holding its breath while we scrub. It’s fun and the river in the early morning is surprisingly warm. After 10 to 15 minutes, we lumber back to shore and she’s ready for her six hour day of work, giving people like me an eco-tourism experience I’ll always want to remember.
We arranged this excursion through whl.travel who provide outstanding customer service responding to emails with lightning speed. Cost was US$346/couple including transportation to/from Luang Prabang, all meals and the overnight at the Elephant Lodge. A portion of the cost goes directly to help fund the mission of the Village. The tour itself is conducted by Tiger Trails with informative guides.
The Elephant Village, as a non-profit organization, is always seeking donations. The cost of simply purchasing (literally rescuing) an elephant runs US$15,000 – $20,000. For an animal that has populated this Earth for over 60 million years, it would be a monumental tragedy to experience their extinction in such a short period of time. To spend a day and a half with these wonderful creatures is priceless.
“The things they carried…P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits…they carried diseases…malaria and dysentery…lice and ringworm and leeches…and the land itself…the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles…They carried their own lives.”
from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Haughton Mifflin, 1990)
It’s been a quarter century since peace finally came to the lands of Southeast Asia. For centuries it was part of the fabled “spice route” between the eastern and western worlds, yet in the 20th century more than twice the tonnage of bombs were dropped on Indochina than in all of World War II. I’ll be leaving Sunday to spend 43 days in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I’ll have no worries or fears, unlike the brave but misled soldiers of that ill-fated war.
For me who narrowly escaped experiencing the horror of those past times, it feels odd that I’ll enjoy first class hotels, renowned cuisine, stunning scenery, cities and sites that have survived millennia of wars and legendary hospitality. From all my research of the past six months in preparation for this trip I expect to see, or even feel, little evidence (except in museums) of last century’s strife. As a chef, historian and travel writer I’m preparing myself for a flood of experiences that will test my ability to process this trip with all five senses – especially taste. Foods that few westerners ever have the opportunity to see, no less taste, await me, with fusion cuisine developed over centuries of east-west contact – durian cheesecake anyone?
Oddly, I’ll carry some of the same objects listed by Tim O’Brien – can opener (cork screw in my case), pocket knife, wristwatch, mosquito repellant, bottled water, sewing kit and malaria pills (one-a-day for 51 days). I’ll have to still be mindful of bed bugs – carrying bed bug repellant (fortunately I’m already aware of what they look, and feel, like.) Lice, leeches, dysentery are all still present – this is the tropics – which means swimming in lakes and rivers is out. I’ll carry my ignorance of customs – no pointing either with fingers or, especially, with one’s foot. I’ll be ignorant of the languages. For the first time in my life as a traveller I’ll be hopelessly unaware of what anyone is saying (with the exception of tourism workers that speak English). Language will become music, much nicer than the karaoke sounds my research says is the favorite throughout all four countries.
The best thing I’ll carry? A sense of wonder.
My first blog, from Bangkok, will post Tuesday, 8 February.