On the way back to the hotel for breakfast, we walked through the town’s remarkable morning market. The market was filled with the products of local fields and fisheries, with varieties of fruits, vegetables, fish, and spices that we had never even heard of. The most remarkable thing about this market, to us at least, was how the local women pull this enterprise together every single morning of the year, in time for people to visit the market to buy rice to cook for the monks. True, women around Luang Prabang never see the inside of a rice field and probably don’t do much fishing. That’s man’s work. The women get to stay at home in the shade and mind the children, clean house, do a little laundry, cook the meals, and, oh yeah, get up in the middle of the night, heft onto their shoulders a long pole holding baskets of the farm’s bounty on either end, and walk an hour or two into town, where they display their goods for sale in their usual spot for several hours, then pack the remains back onto their shoulders and walk back to the farm, to begin their regular chores. Repeat. Sorry guys, but enjoy this deal while it lasts, because the trend is not your friend.
After a fantastic traditional Lao breakfast, we made a quick stop by the Royal Palace, a beautiful example of French Colonial architecture. It’s now a museum displaying artifacts from Laos’ history as a monarchy, including the sacred Pra Bang Golden Buddha from which the town gets its name, wonderful portraits of the last of the royal line, and even the last King’s favorite cars, 2 old Lincoln Continentals and an Edsel from the 50s. When we asked Doua what had become of the Royal family, he finally owned up in a whisper that when the Communist Pathet Lao took over in 1975 the royals were sent to “re-education camp.” Unlike deposed royals in many other countries, this Royal Family did not flee into exile when the Communists rolled into town. Instead, they honorably chose to stay and help their people adjust to their new masters. I later learned that the “camp” was deep in the jungle and the family was never heard from again. The Pathet Lao was taking no chances. Even now, the people of Laos are careful of what they say – the Government listens into all phone calls and Internet communications. The economy may be free, but the Communists are still the only Party in town.
At about 10am we boarded a long thin passenger boat for a cruise up the Mekong to the famous Pak Ou caves and several villages. The boat could have easily seated 30 people, so the 2 of us had plenty of elbowroom. The muddy Mekong meandered slowly through the jungle during this stretch. Our pilot seemed to have the serpentine path of the channel memorized because he navigated us through the hidden sandbars and the bamboo poles tethered to sunken fish traps with ease, while he chatted with his girlfriend, who was along for the ride. We passed a few villages that peeked out of the jungle at the edge of the steep banks of the river. Monsoon season had just begun, so the river was running at about halfway between its normal high and low levels. We could see the flood point along the top of the bank, about 6-8 meters higher than our boat. We could only imagine what this river looked like at the peak of the rainy season. For the most part, we had the river to ourselves, and we enjoyed the beautiful, if steamy, day and the views of the nearby jungle and mountains in the distance. Madeleine and I drifted in and out of sleep over the next 2 hours until the boat’s engine was cut as we reached our destination. The locals have considered the Pak Ou caves to be holy for at least the past 1000 years. The animist deity shrines were cleared out by the king about 500 years ago and replaced with thousands of—yes, you guessed it—Buddhas. Pilgrims and tourists are still adding to the trove. On the way back we made several stops: first, for a wonderful Lao lunch of Mekong fish along the river bank; next, for a visit to a village specializing in local rice moonshine (delicious, by the way) complete with bottles of the stuff stuffed with King Cobras and scorpions the size of your hand (didn’t try this version); then to a village vertically integrated to produce silk textiles, all the way from the gooey little silkworm to the finished scarf; and, finally, to see the process of making Lao paper out of the bark of mulberry trees. The whole afternoon was delightful and very instructional, although it was sobering to think that the beautiful scarves we purchased, which had taken a single woman 2 to 3 days to weave, only cost $3.