Women drive motorbikes one handed, pink and yellow umbrellas held aloft with the other.
Café tables are continuously filled, clusters of people leaning forward to trilingual conversations while assembling bottles of Beer Lao, cigarettes inevitably accentuating all hand gestures. Hands wave along the street as well as at the tables – crushing off tuk tuk drivers, greeting friends, and shooing away the children selling trinkets.
Middle aged Frenchwomen waltz between boutique shops. Silk blouses and dresses – no doubt fortunes less than they would cost in the West but still far, far out of my budget – paintings (elegant, ornate, traditional – sometimes all three), curious silver and bronze antiques, hand-worked jewelry – all beckoning.
i overhear an aged Brit demanding an explanation from his waiter as to the difference (in both flavor and texture) between buffalo and beef steak. The man is dining with his family – wife, similarly silver-haired and elegant, daughter and son-in-law – and the daughter is attempting to convince her parents to visit Khao San Rd in Bangkok: “True, it’s a bit of a backpacker neighborhood,” (the word she is looking for, I want to point out, is ‘slum’) “but I think you’ll find it nonetheless quite interesting”. I know the waiter and while the man’s perseverance is admirable his cause is ludicrous; he’ll be lucky if he ends up with the correct dish by the time the meal comes.
Antique cars, only sightly rusted, are parked beneath iron street-lamps. Balconies, overgrown with ivy, hold people watching the street below. Oversized wooden doors, often painted in intricate patterns, serve to lure passerbys. Shutters hang open.
Young monks – they’re all young with attitudes; I didn’t see a single monk in Luang Prabang over the age of twenty-five and it seemed as if they’d traded in the normal quiet Buddhist glance for a challenging stare – prowl the streets, their robes of softer and more artful material in this town than elsewhere, thin enough to wave in the frustratingly mediocre breeze. They dodge into internet cafes which they use freely and indiscriminately (I watched one play a bloody video-game, another asked for my email to practice his English). They sit on the steps leading into the temple grounds on a street near my guest house, ubiquitous white earphones glaring from their orange robes.
The French Riviera lasts only a few blocks – Luang Prabang is itself a small rectangle between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers; the main strip of cafes, art galleries, boutiques are backed up against an overgrown hill while a trails of bistros and guest houses lead to the Mekong River on the other side. The architecture tapers off more slowly than the tourist infrastructure, colonial buildings on the fringes (housing Lao families, it seems, rather than cafes) muggy with ash, and peeling-painted shutters hopelessly quaint despite themselves.
The area may be small, and the facade shallow – but the illusion is intense, and it goes past vision to the other senses.
I’ve had Tartine au Saumon for breakfast. Yesterday it was Quiche d’oignon. If I didn’t already have plans for dinner – at the nicest restaurant in town, a French-Laos fusion whose menu boasts dishes traditionall reserved for royalty, the chalk sign at the cafe next door offering Magret du Canard (au sauce d’orange or sauce au vin) might tempt. There’s a bar with a large selection of Belgium beer. Another with Spanish tapas, French cheese, and international wines. The coffee – oh, the coffee, the coffee – is somewhere between a Turkish roast and dark unsweetened cocoa. The croissants – there are not words for the croissants.
Although I have shamelessly given in, gastronomically, to my conquerer’s heritage – the menu is beautiful – there is a piece of me that is terribly disturbed. I have never felt more keenly Caucasian – not while dancing in a Burmese disco, not while peeing (and being watched doing so) in a field in Africa, not as a gringa in Mexico as a child, not in the streets of Kawe with a crowd of children following me and screaming. It is here, seated under an umbrella in a lounge chair covered with linen, watching unperturbed farang tourist after farang tourist wander the streets and patronize the cafes, the only Lao faces to be spied those passing on moving bikes, that I feel the most foreign. It is in Luang Prabang that I am mzungu, farang, gringa, memsahib. It is here, when the land has been taken from the people twice – once by the imperialists and now by the tourists, where the Lao people can no doubt not afford to live and “traditional culture” is simply a catch-phrase from a travel agents’ pamphlet – where the scenery and architecture are both gorgeous, the ambiance is relaxing and inviting, the entirety quite legitimately charming – that the paradox is presented. Is this colonialism as we wish it could have been? There is something undeniably dreamlike about it all. Is this Laos as we would like it to be – creature comforts and all – and is it this way simply for us? (More importantly – is Laos at least making a profit off of it?) Or, perhaps, is this Laos as it should be – replace the tourists with locals, make the cuisine more to their taste – is it wrong for me to expect poverty and filth, to consider anything less artificial?
I’m watching the school across the street. It seems to be an elementary (primary) school; the children, in well-pressed and well-bleached white shirts and navy trousers and skirts are running out. Parents are arriving on motorbike or bicycle to take them home for lunch. I take picture or two, but it’s all moving too quickly; it’s passed; I’ve missed the shots. I could have gotten up, I thought – forget the pictures, I could have crossed the street and talked to the children. I could have – and I realize that, I haven’t, in Luang Prabang, made even the slightest attempt to interact with anyone not tourist. I’m not convinced that I have it in me, not here. In the afternoon, I tell myself, I’ll make an excursion farther afield. Try some of the smaller side streets and wander further down the road by the river. But. But perhaps. Perhaps I’ll have another pot of coffee – with a croissant – first…