Friday, March 1, 2013

Sight Seeing in Luang Prabang

Wat Xieng Thong
This trip we let Laos open up before us, more out of laziness than a travel strategy. A major challenge was to understand Laos' history and its current politics. We found two useful resources after we returned to KL. The Bamboo Palace: Discovering the Lost Dynasty of Laos, is not about uncovering an ancient civilization. Rather the author tries to learn what happen to members of the royal family who disappeared in 1975. Laos' politics are elusive. A January, 2013 New York Times article gave some insights into the current government in the context of the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, the retired founder of the NGO, PADECT;  we have followed his case closely with great concern and sorrow.

Palace - neither old nor grandiose
At the Royal Palace Museum (no need to search for it - it is on the main street) we hired a guide to fill in the many blanks in our knowledge (you need to ask at the ticket collector and they will find a staff member for you). The French built the palace between 1904-1909. Only one coronated king, Sisavangvong, who died in 1959, lived in it. He was succeeded by his son, who delayed his coronation until the country's civil war ended so that he would rule over a united country. Instead, when the civil war ended so did the monarchy.

Immediately behind the palace was the garage containing vintage cars, including a Ford Edsel, a gift from the United States. In another building was a photography exhibit, The Floating Buddha, a must see while at the palace.

A dance performance at the National Theatre (on the palace grounds) consisted of short pieces including a scene from the Ramayana. The dancers who played monkeys added a note of realism by scratching fleas and other vermin each time they entered the stage.

They put their masks on to please the tourist photographers, but clearly the cast preferred to be seen as their real selves when it came to accepting applause.

The cast unmasked
At the other end of the city near where the Mekong and Nam Khan meet is Wat Xieng Thong. This is one place where I wish that we had a guide. There was a lot to see, but what we were seeing and its importance was sometimes missed. The Wat's "campus" is large and restful. At the souvenir shop we bought refrigerator magnets and mobiles that cost less than in town.

For those dressed inappropriately
Mosaic on chapel's exterior wall
Carriage & urn to carry king's ashes
Need a guide to know more

The Traditional Arts and Ethnography Centre (TAEC) is a small, well done museum about the hill tribes. I found it particularly informative in describing marriage customs. For the most part the tribes prohibit marriages within a village. Village festivals serve to allow young men and young women meet each other other. The future brides and grooms are both in their mid-teens - no stories of daughters being "sold off" to old men. The museum had excellent videos that told stories to fill in the details. I was disappointed that I didn't see any discussion of death rituals, probably a sign of my age.

TAEC had a small gift shop - the proceeds go the tribal people - and a snack bar featuring regional snacks. While Doug took pictures I chatted with a man at reception. He was from a village and won a scholarship to prepare him for a teaching career. The next logical step would be to return to a village as a teacher, but he planned to continue studying so that he can find a career in a city. A conversation that could be had in both developed and developing countries.

Traditional clothes for sale at TAEC gift shop

Men at work - ticket sellers at TAEC
 Our visit to Ock Pop Tok showed us what community development can achieve. The Ock Pop Tok shop offers free tuk tuk rides to its living arts centre. It was a work place for local weavers. It houses a crafts school (half day and full day lessons), a guest house, a restaurant, and gift shop. The project is impressive and might serve as model for other developing countries. Their website, especially the blog, makes for good reading. We visited two Ock Pop Tok gift shops; they hire retail savy sales staff. At one as I was leaving, having vetoed the selection of purses, a salesman pulled out the perfect item from the pile of sale items. At another a woman's casual glance at a scarf ending up with a saleswoman tying it on her - it looked perfect and she bought it! Doug watched the demonstration carefully and we bought a scarf as well.

Ock Pop Tok workers - silkworms
Think about the difficulty of getting pattern colors right
Making Hmong Batik

No pics for Big Brother Mouse - too bad. as we fell in love with the project as soon as we walked in. They produce and distribute books to children in Lao villages. Included among their staff is an elephant who helps with jungle deliveries. Big Brother Mouse offers donors opportunities to fund the publication of a book, sponsor a village book party, or send an item from its Amazon wish list. Visitors in Luang Prabang can buy books to distribute during their travels, donate a pre-selected package of books for Big Brother Mouse to distribute, or help young people in the community practice English.

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