Asia | South East Asia | Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) | Mekong | Luang Prabang – Day 49 – Luang Prabang, Laos
Divisions of indefatigable little ants added one of several less-than-traditional aspects to my observance of Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) today. I battled the little monsters much of the day upon discovery, mid-morning, that they had found several holes in the defenses set up to protect my food. Those defenses were plastic bags and the holes in them were invisible until I followed the enemy’s movement through them. I had to concede several ant-infested pieces of my meal (by flushing those bits down the toilet) while scrambling around for better defensive equipment. This was found in my backpack in the guise of a couple of extra zip-lock freezer bags that I had brought along for just such an emergency and an empty green plastic garbage bag which, for some reason, I had also turtled with me.
I also managed to somehow underestimate how much drinking water I would need, probably because I didn’t know room temperature in this particular room would be ratcheted up, at the sun’s insistence, to somewhere around the internal temperature of an Easy-Bake Oven. So I battled a bit of thirst as well.
Ahhh, the glory of travel.
Meanwhile, between battles, and other more traditional Shabbat activities such as prayer and introspection, I took some R & R by strolling through town, down by the river.
To try and give some context to what follows, I should explain a bit about the uniqueness of Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is a World Heritage Site, a result of its remarkable concentration of Buddhist temples (wats) of varying architectural styles and eras and their rich collection of art depicting Buddhist lore. In the centre of town, which is situated on a narrow finger of land where the Nam Khan River flows into the Mekong River, it seems there is a wat on every corner, and often another one or two between the corners. The hundred-metre-high hill in the centre of town is crowned by, yes, a wat; actually, several of them. Overall, it’s a place where wat you see is wat you get. (Sorry, couldn’t resist). So, when I learned that there would be a ‘festival for Buddha’ today (which was the most-detailed english language explanation I could get — from the man who handled my money exchange at the bank) I was quite curious about what I would find. It would also be another less-than-traditional aspect of my Shabbat.
As I approached the river from the central market area, the crowds which had been flowing steadily with me firmed up and packed in considerably. Above the bobbing heads I could see the next couple of hundred metres of the road, sloping slightly downhill and parallel to the course of the Nam Khan River. More accurately what I could see was a sea of umbrellas or, given the hot sun, parasols; some smaller and floating slowly above the crowd, some larger and fixed in place, lining the side of the road, marking out vendor stalls. Several more parasols carried by festival attendees around me threatened unwanted surgery on my eyes and I had to fend them off with my forearms.
Further along, into the mass, the scene took on a carnival-like aspect. Under some of the fixed umbrellas, home made roulette wheels were attracting a good business while the kids’ gambling instincts were satisfied by a ‘fishing pond’ game (where the ‘fish’ were metal bottle caps and the ‘fishing rods’ were strings with a magnet on one end; some of the bottle caps had numbers under them corresponding to prizes). I don’t expect many of these games would pass muster with any gaming commissions, but nobody seemed worried about the stacked odds. Games of skill were also available, such as darts and tin-can knockdown. Interspersed were booths where clothing was laid out for sale on plastic or bamboo mats on the ground, everything from sandals and socks to underwear and bras (know your size, no change rooms available). In addition, every conceivable (and not-so-conceivable) cheap, made-in-China, plastic molded toy was on offer. The clear winner here was the menacing looking BB guns, toted by almost every boy under the age of 12. I saw running battles between posses firing the little plastic bits at each other. One boy carried a model with a fixed bayonet at the mouth of the barrel (in case of hand-to-hand combat?) Of course, there was food everywhere, from every biosphere: meat, fish and seafood and chicken’s feet smoldering on grills; noodles in an astonishing array of varieties heaped up in pyramids on large circular platters; fried things (couldn’t tell you what was inside them); and even neon-green slushies. BeerLao pavilions were full, almost blocking out access to the riverbank. Music blared at several points along party road.
I continued looking for the Buddha part of this ‘festival for Buddha’. Instead, I saw large signs planted into the river bank on both sides of the river advertising Viso laundry detergent and Number One brand of ‘high quality imported condoms – three per pack’ (don’t let the name fool you). So far I had found a tip of the cap to just about every human vice, but not much Buddha.
Ah yes, the riverbanks. These were lined with crowds who cheered on the dragon-boat races. I caught a couple of the heats. Two boats raced at a time. Each boat, about 30 metres long, with raised bow and stern, was manned by about 50 paddlers, nattily uniformed in matching shorts, t-shirts and hats, seated in rows of two with a handful of sternsmen keeping them on course. To the quick rhythmic urgings of whistles blown by the coxmen, the paddlers dug hard, fast, shallow, in unison, the boats lurching forward with each stroke. I was too far from the finish line to see the results of any of the races but by 9:30 tonight the results were quite uniform as I watched one team of rowers partying in one of the temple courtyards and various others in groups of five or six drinking and singing on the main street.
A day of festivities: for the ants – my food; for me – Shabbat; for the town – a party. For Buddha?