Monday, January 20, 2014

2. Luang Prabang

I don’t like to say too much about the Luang Prabang of the tourists but rather write about the town beyond the 4 blocks of the historic downtown where everybody seems to convene. I only can say that the UNESCO inscription which declared Luang Prabang  to be a World Heritage Site seems to ruin as an unwanted side effect much of the original flair of a locale, not only here but anywhere in the world.

If this town high up in the mountains of northern Laos would be only accessible by the one road I came on it would also change the situation quite a bit. But there is an airport here, with a brand-new terminal building and people fly in from all over the world.

But enough of the detrimental effect of World Heritage status, let’s explore a little bit the “true” Luang Prabang.

Very proud Hnoung in front of his house, with his Drag Star in the back.

"Germany" white-wall tires. I wonder where he got these from.

The Laotian Entrepreneur.

His impressive business.

I met a very young, smart fellow, Hnoung, who runs with his wife a flourishing used car and motoscooter business. He imports cars and parts, scooters and all kind of automotive stuff from Thailand. He has a new large steel sales hangar building, a yard where I saw at least ten people working fixing up vehicles, also changing the steering wheel from the right to the left. Almost all cars he sells are pickup trucks, although he has a pink Volkswagen Beetle on display. I wonder who will buy a vehicle like that, and in this color here in Laos! Unfortunately he didn’t speak any English, his young wife had to help out, and if she didn’t get any further he called –on his new I-Phone of course- a friend who translated over the phone.

He belongs to the group of people in this country who are smart, have a helpful family background (Land! And connections, I guess) and who want to fully take advantage of the Gold Rush mentality in present-day Laos, one-party military regime, or not.

Of course he admired the BMW motorcycle, but he was also so proud to show me around what he had accomplished. And that was impressive. He lives in one of these new mansions which I also saw on my way leaving the outskirts of Vientiane. Even here in this remote location, one can see how people want to show off their wealth. Some of the residences, most of them still under construction, would put many U.S. McMansions in the suburbs in the States to shame.

Houses of the Laotian newly rich.

Today I could have sold the BMW right there and then.

He explained that he has the money in cash available, and he would buy the motorcycle paying with Thai Baht, 1.5 million TBH, or about $30,000. Of course, I cannot do this, but it was amazing to see his enthusiasm and entrepreneurship.

He needed to show me also his own motorcycle, and we sat down and chatted a bit, each one of us in his own language, and he showing me pictures of  the motorcycles of his friends on his I-Phone.

Lot’s of fun.

It is cold here. At night the temperature goes down to the lower 40s F, during the day it warms up to lower 70s, but only for about two hours or so.

The picture below reminded me of a review I read on Tripadvisor a while ago. A woman was outraged that there was not hot water for one week in the hotel she booked in Laos. She wrote that she wasn't able to wash her hair the entire time.

Water temperature maybe 40 degrees, outside air temperature upper 50s: people are tougher around here.

Another interesting fellow I met was the parking guard at a Chinese market, who spoke a little German. In the 1960s he studied in Leningrad, Russia, and while being a student there he met some –former communist- East-German students. He asked me stop by on my way out of town tomorrow to say good bye. I will do that.

Most signs of stores and guesthouses beyond the tourist area are in Lao writing and Mandarin at the same time, both of which I can’t read. There is a very strong contingent of Chinese business people here, Laos has what China doesn’t, many natural resources which need to be exploited, mainly rubber (Latex), rare earths and raw materials.

It is sad to see that de-forestation seems also to be a big issue, illegal of course. Some people get rich quickly, I assume. The illegally harvested wood goes mainly to Vietnam, and much furniture lands in the homes of Western consumers, think IKEA.

Interesting to see is that the town is entirely segregated: There are the tourists who stay put in the small historic downtown, the Chinese to the north and near the northern bus terminal (China is a few hours north of here by car or bus), the Buddhist monks in the temple enclaves, and the simple guest houses, markets and restaurants for Laotians to the south; there are also Laotian tourists here, mainly from Vientiane.

I also met briefly a group of crazy French riders on their unbelievable ramshackle machines, some held together by bungy cords. They were on their way up to the Chinese border. At night I saw one of them riding through the dark town, without lights, at high speed. Truly something!

Off he goes, the flag for the independence of Britanny/Bretagne from France flying high!

Little ghost house near Nam Khan river.

A separate group of western tourists are the young backbacker and dreadlock folks. After dark it is unfortunate to see that only people from the U.S. are somewhat an eyesore, noticeable especially in a country where locals are shy and conservative. They distinguish themselves by walking around with their open 0.7 liter bottles of the local (excellent) “Beerlao”, drinking, and being loud. That this law which forbids underage alcohol consumption and consummation in public back home in the U.S. has these consequences abroad is a cultural shame.

I will leave this town tomorrow morning, and I am still debating whether I will do it back to Vientiane in one stretch, or stop overnight in Vang Vieng, this dump town.

Last but not least some more of the fabulous communist posters. Great!

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