Articles in Thailand travel
My outsize shibori scarf is the most useful item in my luggage. You can use it to cover your shoulders at the Big Buddha temple in Koh Samui, sit on it on grubby bus seats, keep the sun off your arms and shoulders with it, don it in the evening to add a touch of elegance, dry yourself with it, wipe your hands on it when you’ve eaten, use to to keep you warm when the breeze comes up of an evening and lots more.
“You’re living a fantasy movie-set lifestyle,” I comment. My mind travels to where they could be living. In a village in England. OK. English villages can be charming. But this is exotic and there’s no fog and we’re outdoors and the beer is cold. Tables in the sand. Fire artists on the beach. Warm ocean for paddling. A Tiger beer and sixties music in the background.
It says “traditional Lao stew” on the Mango Garden restaurant menu. They do themselves an injustice saying on the menu that the dish has sweet basil, coriander, spring onion, chili, young eggplant — and I choose the beef for the meat option — period. It is, in fact, a pretty good version of the Lao specialty, Or Lam, which the manager admits to when I ask her and point out the wood ear mushrooms, the twist of lemongrass and the yard-long beans.
The morning market opens at 6am, just after Sai Bat. To quote from the official Luang Prabang website: Lao cuisine draws almost exclusively on fresh foods. Few homes traditionally have refrigerators and modern supermarkets are rare. So at this market, you’ll find every possible type of food regionally available, including an amazing mushroom selection. Everything fresh is seasonal.
When I see a young monk sitting at a little table inside a temple ground reading, I smile and he smiles and says Hello across the short distance and the wall. And tells me he is practicing his English and invites me to come and check the book he’s taken from the library. His English is good and his name is Bakh and he says he became a monk to get an education and he is turning 19 the next day. He is from a Mekong village where they had no high school.
The Luang Prabang night handicraft market is good for browsing and bargaining. The Luang Prabang night food market is good for indulging what with all the barbecued meats and fish and sausage and a pigs heads and all manner of meaty bits and bites cooked over fire on grills.
Almost stop in at a place called Chill. But not quite right, even though what “right” is, I won’t know, till I find it: a Lao breakfast menu at a pretty elegant place that also has a bakery. When I search I find it in my Rough Guide too. At Café Le Ban Vat Sene on Sakkaline Road I sit outside and order the Khai Jeun Jaeo Mak Len (omelet cooked with herbs and served with tomato relish, sun-dried beef and sticky rice) 30,000 kip and Lao coffee.
At Delilah’s Cafe in Luang Prabang I order the Rough Guide brekker suggestion. The banana pancake that comes with lemon, ginger and cream and a Lao coffee. Here, like everywhere, there is WiFi. (Sometimes I doesn’t work but for the most part does).
The first thing I notice when I strike out on my first Luang Prabang recce is the texture of the sound. It is, best way to put it, like a damper pedal has been pressed. The scooters are abundant and buzzing. They are one, two, three, four-up. Sometimes five. The streets are busy. But the noise… It is cut by several decibels compared to, I would say, everywhere I have been so far.
In Laos on the Mekong slow boat to Pakbeng, there’s a boy of maybe eight. His mom makes sure he has an afternoon nap and later, it is he who helps his dad with the landings. This is their life. Their business. Their survival strategy. We are passing through, each of us on our own paths, living our lives; ours dissecting theirs for this brief intersection of time. The engine putters. We pass inpenatrable jungle and hide-away settlements.