Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Oye Vey!

I apologize for those who are tracking my movements via my blog, but in all honesty I did write a post a few days ago that could not be posted due to the internet cafe I was at being crappy.  However, that aside, I'm actually glad that post didn't post because I have a much better appreciation for what it was I was trying to say then now.  Having just spent 11 hours going 220 miles by bus (no I'm not lying my average speed was 20 miles an hour today) I saw much more of the countryside than I had originally imagined.  However, before we get onto that, I should fill you in on how the last few days have gone.  In a simple word, awesome.

Luang Prabang is an amazing place.  The feeling, the people, even the tuk tuk drivers are great.  The city is a place that I feel will reside in my memory for a very long time.  I now understand why Time magazine had it listed as the number 2 place to visit in Asia if not the world the past couple of years.  The place is just gorgeous.  The historical center which is a UNESCO World Heritage site is a peninsula bordered by two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan.  This area is filled with Wats (temples), Cafes, restaurants, and more Wats.  At night the place also holds a Hmong (hill tribe people) Night Market.  This is the first market that I have ever been at where I wanted the people to charge me more money.  Haggling is an art, but everything is handmade in their villages, and you want to give these people your money.  Also located in this night market is a night food market.  Talk about awesome food for dirt cheap.  I was having authentic Lao dinners for 3 dollars (large bottle of beer included).

However, I believe what makes Luang Prabang amazing is the feeling you get while there.  The city holds only 50,000 people and feels like a small town.  All the major sites can be walked to or biked to in a short period of time.  The people everywhere, whether they be tuk tuk drivers, shop keepers, or market workers are polite and smile.  In fact everyone is so polite, even the guys offering to sell me drugs were polite.  It also helps that the city has some exceptionally beautiful nature surrounding it.  The waterfall at Kuang Si is one of the most beautiful places I have been, and even the drive there (yes I rented a scooter and scooted myself there) was beautiful.  Well, except for the man eating pot holes that would surprise you every now and then.  Also nearby are the caves at Pak Ou.  Pak Ou is a small village located at the confluence of two rivers.  Across these rivers are two limestone caves where hundreds of Buddhas are stored and gather dust.  It is a temple of sorts, but these caves are only accessible by boat and a rather rickety dock system that consists of floating bamboo.

With all of this, still, it is a place that you feel content in.  There is no rush in Luang Prabang, there is no necessity to plan every day to the max.  If you want, this is a place to spend in cafes people watching.  It is a place to spend time haggling with Hmong women over hand made Lao Lao (rice whiskey), quilts, bibs, shoes, books, drawings, etc.  While many of the things follow the same pattern, none of these things are made by mass production.  The country simply doesn't have the infrastructure to mass import trinkets from China to sell.  I think that is the point of a place like this.  It is a place to come and relax, to slowly let yourself experience exactly what it is you're looking for.  Everyone I knew who had been through there said that it was an exceptional place.  I went in with high expectations of a place I knew almost nothing about.  It exceeded my expectation with ease.

However, today was another matter, and in fact quite a different step for me.  I have been in poor places before.  I have been to countries and to locations where I make a really good living compared to the locals.  However, I have never been in a place where outside the cities, and there are few of them here, where the poverty was so pervasive.  All along the highway we took today, and by highway I mean a small horribly maintained two lane mountain round with countless hairpin turns and no guardrails.  For a better idea think going camping in the mountains and the drive it takes to get to the camp grounds.  That is their main artery of support.  However, I am getting sidetracked rather easily right now all along this road, perched on top of, or the side of mountains were small villages.  These villages look like throwbacks from another time.  A lucky person has a house built of cinder block.  Most of the homes are built of thatch and have thatch roofs.

There may be a small water pump in the middle of the village that is used for bathing, drinking, and all other water needs.  Most the children play on a small strip of dirt maybe two or three feet from the road and maybe 5 feet from a 100 foot fall.  It was a tough ride, not because of the length of the trip, but simply because I realized just how lucky I am and have been throughout my life.  In this country I earn 30 times more per year than the average person.  30 times.  In the villages I probably earn 60 times as much, especially some of these villages which might have one or two cars stop a day at them.  Yet, even in a world that most westerners would find degrading and impossible to deal with, everywhere we went, and everywhere we stopped we were greeted with smiles and hospitality.  I know what you're thinking "oh they just want your money."  Well, at some of the places yes, but when we were stopped because a truck was hauling huge equipment nobody got off the bus.  Nobody bought anything, but still, the locals who were already watching the big equipment were smiling and waving at us.  Enjoying if only for a few minutes the bus full of foreigners who were smiling and waving back.

I know to many people who take it all for granted.  They take for granted everything they have earned or everything they have been given.  We are lucky to have been born in an age and a world where what we find normal and necessary, a lot of the rest of the world sees as opulent.  Imagine trying to live your life making 1000 dollars a year.  Imagine not having a television or a computer or an iphone.  Most of you, and me too would probably shrivel up and run screaming for the nearest Starbucks and Burger King.  Here, they don't have that option.  I know that I am only passing through, and will soon find myself back in Korea and the first world, but I cannot deny that this country is changing me.  I find myself far more grateful for my life, and the small things that nobody ever thinks about.  I find myself here, hoping that life continues it slow tick upwards, and that these people, who have been kind and welcoming to me can continue their slow march into the second world.

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