By Steve Bergsman
The alarm went off at 4:45 a.m., giving my wife and me about 15 minutes to get ready. The monks would be parading the streets of Luang Prabang, Laos, and we would be joining the local citizenry in the daily ritual of feeding the dedicated.
A spot near a local temple had been made ready for us with a small carpet (remember to take off the shoes!), a squat stool and a basket of sticky rice. As the monks walked by we would grab a small handful of the rice and deposit it in each one's special bowl. This was an important ritual as central Luang Prabang, where we were squatting, boasted 35 Buddhist temples, while the city as a whole counted 70 temples. That's a lot of monks to feed.
They were probably hungry as they began their day at 4 a.m. with chanting and meditation. When day broke we heard the wooden bell and in single file came a line of monks with shaved heads adorned in striking orange robes. Both the old and the very young earnestly trudged past, and we were hard-pressed to keep up with the flow, grabbing the rice and depositing.
Despite the hour and the toil, this was a very good way to start the day.
When we decided to come to Luang Prabang, touted as one of the prettiest cities in Southeast Asia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I decided to see what Dr. Siri Paiboun had to say first. Paiboun, the protagonist in Colin Cotterill's detective novels, is Laos' national coroner and all-around crime-solver. Although he mainly worked Vientiane, he had a high regard for Luang Prabang and journeyed there in the second book of the series, "Thirty-Three Teeth." Cotterill wrote, "Luang Prabang was the Royal Capital and birthplace of his wife, and a very scenic spot ... it was the historic seat of the Lan Xang empire ... and some fifteen degrees cooler than the steampot he was in now."
The plot of "Thirty-Three Teeth" involves caverns and, ironically, our first adventure outside of Luang Prabang was a boat ride north to reach a series of small caverns carved from the ancient rushing waters of the Mekong River. The place was called the Buddhist Caves because they were adorned with more than 4,000 images of the Buddha, mostly in the form of statuettes. All the statues arrived after 1600 because that's when the Laotian king demanded the tribes convert to Buddhism from animism.
The first cave was just above the water line, although markings indicated the Mekong River historically rose higher than the entrance level. A second cave was a mere 200 steps up the cliff. The steps were carved and in good shape, but the air was stifling and humidity beyond endurance. By the time we got to the cave we just wanted to dive into the coolness while catching our breath and saying hi to the thousands of Buddhas.
The Laotian boats that work the Mekong are long and slim. The picturesque floats usually boast well-polished teak interiors. They are a pleasure, which is good because the journey to the caves from the city is about an hour. Our guide broke up the trip by stopping at a village on the way there and back. Each village seemed to have a specialty. The first one was nicknamed "Whiskey Village" because of the local moonshine made from fermented rice — very tasty but with not quite the kick of Tennessee hooch. One other difference: Tennessee moonshiners never fermented giant centipedes or a king cobra in their liquor, which was one step beyond the scorpion fermented tequila I once bought in Mexico.
I didn't purchase any booze, but I did bargain for a fake antique opium pipe — and the merchant took my price. On the return we stopped at a village that specialized in silk and my wife did a lot better, ending up with a beautiful scarf.
In an affecting passage of "Thirty-Three Teeth" Paiboun wanders by the old king's palace in Luang Prabang and ends up talking to a man clipping trees. Paiboun returns with a bottle of spirits and the two men drink until he passes out. When he awakens, the other man, who it turns out was the deposed Laotian king, has disappeared.
Today the residence of the royal family is the Royal Palace Museum — a highlight of a trip to Luang Prabang. Indeed, change happened so fast when the Pathet Lao (Communists) took over the government that the royal family's residential quarters were left standing and today are exactly as they were when King Savang Vatthana was evicted in 1975. Many items from the former royal family are exhibited, including the king's stable of automobiles that consisted of two Lincoln Continentals and an Edsel.
The king, the queen and their older son were sent to a remote camp to be re-educated and disappeared. Officially they died of malaria, but nobody knows for sure.
WHEN YOU GO
No big hotel chains or resorts in Luang Prabang. We stayed in a beautiful boutique hotel, the Maison Souvannaphoum, which was well located and served good food: www.angsana.com.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
The Buddhist temple complex welcomes visitors to Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo courtesy of Steve Bergsman.