Female students riding really funny and pink electrical motorbikes

Luang Prabang – Fragments of pleasure – Part 2

While the trip in general wasn’t great, today, when looking at the photos, I must admit that nostalgia hits me hard and I can’t help but admit that it had its inexplicably powerful aura of beauty. I found pleasure in small daily moments that I will remember forever. Even if it made me sick, it was a great reminder that it’s usually the powerful experiences that stay with us for longer as we tend to remember them more vividly and draw lessons from them. We make comparisons and ultimately realise that one must be grateful for them as they are the path to modesty as well as understanding that the world must be experienced on the yin and yang basis. Yes, Luang Prabang had me quite spellbound after all.

Heart drawn on a piece of paper and stuck to a wooden classroom door open ajar in a school
My heart was there

Lesson in history

War is bullshit and countries or belligerent groups which willingly initiate war conflicts are even more bullshit. Some evolutionists might disagree with me, claiming war, too, is a natural part of progress. You may also suggest that I am contradicting myself and the comment about living with the yin and yang principle. Personally, I don’t think yang should be war. I really fail to see progress in war. Competition or frictions between nations might be beneficial but war? I really don’t dig it. How destruction on a large scale leads to progress is truly beyond me. But the problem lies elsewhere. In something that has always propelled the engine of the so-called civilisation. It’s personal interests of individual people. It’s unfortunate that the world is full of power and wealth greedy cripples who sadly rise to high state functions from which they destroy this amazing world and its peoples.

Bombs exhibited in front of UXO museum Luang Prabang
Meaningful decoration

Powerful experience in UXO museum

In Luang Prabang and its rudimentary but extremely eloquent UXO museum you will feel the pain. The story captivated me for hours. Sad and tragic stories have that about them. Despite being somewhat annoyed at the haze, visiting the museum brought a different perspective, along with some tears, and had me quickly reconsider my feelings. I still totally hated the haze, no escaping that, but I looked at the place with more empathy since then. By the same token, it’s experiences like these where I realise how fortunate I have been in my life from the place of origin, the bringing up – albeit at times traumatic too – to today’s wonderful life where the world is laid before me to experience it in its glory. Many Laotians not only couldn’t even fathom such heights but have also suffered the macabre consequences of the bombing initiated and escalated by the US. In fact, many Southeast Asian countries have a tragic bombing story to tell.

An exhibit of a bomb and its inside content
These little balls do huge damage

The story of UXO Luang Prabang

UXO, that is unexploded ordnance, museum matches the picture of the whole country. It’s simple, evidently desperately lacks resources but its message couldn’t be clearer. Two rooms. In one back-to-back projection of a documentary explaining the horrific aftermath of bombing and the effect it has had on people, communities, and villages. In the second exhibits of bombs along with photographs showcasing the terrible consequences of UXO in Laos. Kids finding unexploded mines, lacking the necessary education, die or become crippled by wrong manipulation with the mines to this day. There are hundreds of examples. Such kids become essentially done for. Depending on the severity of the injury most can never return to the so-called normal life or work. It’s the end. In fact, some wish to be dead as they think themselves useless for their families and communities. They consider themselves a burden. The UXO museum is a powerful reminder of how far one politician or a bunch of them can go in destruction of someone else’s country. We have seen this so many times. We have seen the destruction in the name of whatever nonsensical agenda, we have seen the dire consequences time and time again and yet it keeps happening. The world is upside down. If you want to read more about bombing of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1960s, head here. Interesting perspectives are offered also on these websites.

Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. Anthony Bourdain

Hazy street with a dog and a motorcycle on it
The road to freedom is painful

Painful yesterday, painful today

It’s Bourdain again and his famous quote that is so fitting for the occasion. It resonates with me because my trips to Cambodia felt exactly the same. Sadly, the quote is so flexible and painfully relevant today. Just replace Cambodia and Kissinger and you have another similarly disastrous event in mind. Sadly, when sadistic psychopaths are allowed to assume immense power, the world is forever doomed. For the purposes of this article, however, we won’t go too far on the map and just replace Cambodia with Laos, or even Vietnam, because Henry Kissinger, being the secretary of state during Nixon’s presidential tenure, basically decided not only not to end the bombing that Johnson and Kennedy started but also keep extending it. All of these three countries were heavily bombed, but sources claim that Laos took the hardest hit during the so-called American Secret War, concurrent with the not so secret Vietnam War.

A photo in the LPQ UXO museum of damage done to a kid's back after meeting an unexploded mine
Words don’t suffice

Operation Rolling Thunder, Operation Menu, Operation Momentum – cute names for mass-murder bombing campaigns, aren’t they?

Pleasure or pain

You may wonder why I label the visit to the UXO museum a fragment of pleasure. In fact, the more I learn about the world and its history, the more apprehensive I feel towards the human race. Especially those in power who conquer, massacre and destroy in the name of whatever bullshit agenda they deem proper.  Joseph Conrad summarised it nicely in one of his famous quotes – L’homme est un animal méchant. Yet, despite all the seemingly omnipresent evil, not wearing blinders on and learning about such tragic yet powerful parts of our history essentially makes you more humble, grateful and thankful. When you realise what some nations have been through just for the pleasure of strong empires, you understand how lucky you are if you have been born in a relatively peaceful environment.

Disturbing photo of an injured person with limbs cut off
Look and forget all complaints

Teacher goes to school again

Next inspiring chapter of my Luang Prabang trip was a visit to a school. One thing I noticed immediately upon arriving, that is once the haze had sunk in properly, was the strange proximity to schools. There was one near the guesthouse I stayed at, which attracted me by the pleasant noise coming from the yard. Laughter and innocent childish screams created a constant sound background which always draws me anywhere I am. After my trip to Ngapali, Myanmar, which – to balance things – was one of the most wonderful trips I have ever had, I found a local school tucked in a forest near a beach. As a teacher it had such a profound effect on me that since then I always try to visit a school in countries I travel to, especially the less developed ones. And since one was just across my favourite restaurant where I sampled local beer – obviously with ice;), I spent there the whole afternoon with my camera. Truth is that coming close to the students would be virtually impossible if it hadn’t been for the less sophisticated schooling.

A BnW photo of a schoolbook laid on desk in focus and students in background
Unrestricted learning

Poor but welcoming

On the one hand one must be slightly alarmed at the rather disorderly state of education, on the other hand had it been otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to take so many unique shots. I mean I spent around two hours in the school, strolling around peacefully, taking photos, interacting with kids, visiting  classrooms. The only thing that prevented me from getting the full picture was the reluctance of teachers to be photographed. I totally understand. During the break, which seemed really long and during which the teachers were on phones, the kids had absolute freedom. I could go to any classroom and nobody said a word. Kids were greeting me and posing happily. Teachers nonchalantly disappeared if my lens was too close. Of course it doesn’t take a fortune teller to say that education in Laos isn’t exactly great but why damage the picture even more by showcasing teachers scrolling on social media? That would indeed be unfair and that’s not what I came there for. I still completely sympathise with the reluctance. Somehow after my presence became generally known, I couldn’t see any teacher in the area. I guess I am a scary person.

Two student girls sitting on a wooden floor in the classroom
Can you feel the vibe?

The price for freedom

But kids were more than happy to interact with me. Imagine trying to do that in Hong Kong or Singapore or even Europe? It’s absolutely unthinkable. While education is more organised in those countries, as a teacher I can honestly say that contrary to the popular belief it doesn’t always produce brilliant minds. Given that I have first-hand experience with this in Hong Kong I feel confident enough to make such a statement. Logically I am therefore wondering what Laotian education manages despite its debilitating lack of resources. As a visitor I can’t say. But one thing is clear – the poverty is omnipresent and the education quality clearly suffers as a result.

A young female student is walking on the balcony towards her classmates outside the classroom situated on the second floor
Walking towards future

Happy kiddos

But kids seem generally genuinely happy and communicative. I found some dutifully writing in their notebooks, even during the break, others engaged in talk with friends. Some got candies in a nearby shop, others willingly but unobtrusively posed for me. None of the students was glued to their phones and the atmosphere was generally calming. They might not be learning as much but they are free. Is this the last time for them to taste freedom and free movement? God knows. But kids in Hong Kong are anything but free. Prisoners to strict ambitions and unreasonably high expectations. Frankly, they too are not learning anything given the pressure under which they operate. And quite frankly, in Hong Kong my efforts not to succumb to the spoon-feeding culture are too painful and mentally challenging but I am not giving up.

Two female students in focus smiling at me
Yes, I feel you

Pleasure or pain

I guess seeing kids running free, teachers taking a laid-back approach, including allowing strangers like me inside clearly demonstrates a less strenuous environment, which is the good side. The bad will be that spending two hours outside the school, because there is a lack of teachers and resources is probably counterproductive in the long run, though things are hopefully improving. Truth is, however, that looking at the photos from the school makes me unbelievably nostalgic. Sometimes I desperately wish I could leave the rat race and work for a school like this. I wish I could try teaching in Laos or Myanmar. I know there would be challenges too but at least my work would be worthwhile. For now though, it’s really a distant dream. As a self-made woman I am responsible for my future and that, whether I like it or not, means making money for work. Luckily, this opportunity has been given to me, so I am grateful. Maybe I could do the volunteering once I retire. Let’s see.

A young male student writes dutifully in his notebook
Work hard for your dreams

Bicycle and connecting with locals

I couldn’t ride a bike for too long. The pollution would make it just unbearable but getting outside the neighbourhood, making various stops and finding my stuff was lovely, albeit limited. Probably the best part was hanging around the shop of a rice seller. There was something inexplicably satisfying about her filling the large bowls. Apparently each type of rice is used for specific purposes and it was amazing to see the variety of rice on sale. In addition customers seemed to pay special attention to choosing the right type too.

A woman pours rice from a small ball into a large one
Fierce and serious

 

Large bowls of different types of rice with price tags stuck inside them
The philosophy of rice

Monks and temples

Luang Prabang is flooded with temples. I have a somewhat mixed opinion on these. On the one hand I can’t help but admire the lulling and exotic sounds of gongs along with the spiritual rhythmical chants of monks. On the other hand and as a woman I consider temples to be slightly chauvinistic. Apparently boys who join them escape extreme poverty and exchange it for education, albeit not exactly as thorough as we mortals imagine. But still, they get free housing, free food and free guidance from the older monks in exchange for following a so-called strict regime. They are supposed to withdraw from all the earthly pleasures such as TV, phone, sex and the like to reach spiritual heights.

An older monk hugging a younger fellow while sitting on stairs leading to temple
Brotherhood encouraged. And sisterhood?

But I don’t believe it’s true. As you might have seen from the photos on Instagram, monks not only use phones but they also take them to the prayers and chanting. Why do I mind? Because as with most religious activities also this one is burdened with hypocrisy and most importantly not accessible to girls or women. Why? Are women less capable or less suitable for spiritual growth? In Asia sadly many religions exercise this limited belief. So no, you won’t see me at the alms or supporting temples in any way. That is unless someone gives me a solid reason why such development is only available to the male population.

Monks seated on the floor during the evening prayer
Rest assured there are iPhones hidden under the robes

Market buzz

While I didn’t indulge in much shopping I did enjoy observing the market buzz, especially the behind scenes. I found strolling in the adjacent streets particularly interesting as it was there where sellers stored their produce, including the naked mannequins. These are the scenes I love above all and Luang Prabang offered an abundance of them. To thank karma for allowing me to see these scenes, I bought coffee and tea at the market. Bio quality coffee was absolutely delicious and quite honestly it is also going to be my excuse for possibly planning another trip to LPQ. It was that good.

Woman transporting a plastic mannequin and bags with products for sale on the market
Priceless scenes

Food

Sampling food was great fun too! It did had this smokey undertone but honestly after coffee food will be the second excuse to plan another trip to Laos. The variety of restaurants as well as unusual items on menus were really the highlight. But since I love indulging in simplicity, probably the best thing I tasted was a locally made soup from a hawker. Hanoi will always remain on top of the list as a food location but this soup was dangerously close, if not better, to what I sampled in Hanoi. It was the perfect culinary finale before my botched escape to Bangkok. I still feel the warmth, spiciness and incredible richness of broth that attacked my senses immediately after the first sip. Oh, I would kill for that taste now!

Laotian noodle soup
Liquid gold – Unbelievably satisfying

Photography

Despite not seeing the sun for the entire bloody time I honestly feel so elevated whenever I look at the shots from LPQ, especially the school. Every single of them makes me want to go back badly. After all, even the haze has given the shots some special aura. The gloominess in them is weirdly satisfying. Thanks my photography spirit. You never disappoint me.

A daily street scene with mild traffic on the road
Rewards collected

Off the grid

Another aspect of the trip I enjoyed tremendously was being off the grid. None of my sim cards worked. True disconnection. In fact, I am working on an article about travelling without data. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I enjoyed being out of reach. Truth is that I am not in great demand. Months of trying to brutally limit exposure to smart phones and people who are addicted to them are finally paying off. I am still very much part of the system, but my phone is not my master. It feels awesome.

Bangkok on heightened senses

I have been to Bangkok multiple times. Maybe not enough to say that I know the city back and forth but enough to finally admit that this place offers something many large cities don’t. It’s the strange comfort in finding the place more and more charming with every visit, realising how much there still is to see and feel. Paradoxically the one and a half days I managed to steal for myself before my body gave up on me were some of the most memorable I have ever had in this metropolis. I squeezed in my favourite papaya salad and beer on ice alongside a visit to a quite unique temple that instantly became my most favourite in BKK. Perhaps it was the escape from LPQ or the sickness afterwards, I can’t say but I appreciated the city the most during these days.

A woman and a beer sitting at a bar looking at me with the right corner of her eye as I photograph her from behind
Draft beer with unique atmosphere – that’s my memory of BKK

I guess when I read all this, it wasn’t so bad after all. I did everything I initially wanted to, but it cost me more in both the literal and figurative terms. Never mind. As usual I am grateful for this as any other valuable and eye-opening experience in my life. Thanks for reading friends;)

 

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