In gracious Luang Prabang, the giving is easy

By Heather Cleland, November 9, 2010

n UNESCO World Heritage Site Luang Prabang, Buddhist temples and French colonial architecture mix.

I don’t know when I last felt darkness like that—the kind that makes you feel invisible. When the whir of the fan above my bed stopped as everything went black, not only did I immediately start sweating profusely, I could suddenly hear the city’s nighttime sounds. An old man across the alley coughed up seemingly everything he’d ever ingested, geckos identified themselves to anyone who would listen, cats bickered, insects chirped, diesel motorbikes farted down streets across town, and local chatter continued as if everything was normal. A few minutes later the fan whirred on again, light seeped through the gaps in the wood-panelled walls, and the city fell silent.

It was my first night in Luang Prabang, a city of 16,000 in northern Laos. The kingdom’s royal capital until 1975, Luang Prabang is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its fusion of Buddhist temples and French colonial architecture. The latter is a legacy of France’s brief but influential rule in the country from 1893 until 1954, minus a brief occupation by Japan during the Second World War.

Earlier that day, after arriving in the city on a near-empty flight from Bangkok, I made my way to Oudomphong Guesthouse and was greeted by a cross-eyed woman known as “Mama” who runs the place with her husband, “Papa”. She greeted me, I would discover, as she does everyone who walks through her door: with an enthusiastic “Sabaideeeee!” welcome and a smile, forcing her eyes to close from the bottom up.

I sat outside that night, trying to catch a breeze amid the dusty humidity. Mama and Papa’s teenage daughter, Haen, sat next to me working on her English homework. She asked for some help. The lesson involved using prepositions in questions. From the answer “I’m looking at this painting,” she’d built the question “What are you looking at?” I’m no ESL teacher, but I felt compelled to offer some guidance, opting for an approach of letting her struggle before slowly starting into the answer until she had enough of a prompt to fill in the rest. I had no idea whether the lesson was registering with her until a little while later when she started to correct me with a shy, proud smile.

This kind of gentle request for help, the patience to use it when it’s offered, and the gratitude that encourages its sustainability kept popping up in Luang Prabang over the next few days.

The United Nations’ Human Poverty Index ranks Laos 94th out of 135 countries, taking into account factors like mortality, literacy, clean water, and children’s health. Laos relies heavily on assistance from the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank, as well as foreign aid. Tourism is its fastest-growing sector, with the number of visitors to Laos more than doubling in the past decade to over two million last year.

Luang Prabang’s status as a World Heritage Site has restricted the development of large-scale tourism. Instead, the International Finance Corporation’s Mekong Private Sector Development Facility established the Stay Another Day initiative in partnership with local tourism outfits to offer visitors genuinely local experiences.

Organizers have produced a website and booklet that list participating organizations and suggest ways that visitors can direct their money, time, and skills to local businesses and programs that directly benefit residents.

There’s Big Brother Mouse, a book publisher that aims to counter the country’s severe book shortage and low literacy rate. Its books, written in Lao or Lao and English, use fun stories to educate kids on topics like dinosaurs, art, and dental hygiene. The publisher also hosts book parties in remote villages, some of which can only be reached by elephant. Visitors can swing by the Luang Prabang shop to see local writers and illustrators in action and help by proofreading English books.

Like other Red Cross branches around the world, the Lao one constructs water systems for villages, educates young people about STIs, recruits blood donors, and provides humanitarian aid. To raise funds, volunteers offer traditional Lao massage and maintain steam baths at their Luang Prabang location. An hourlong massage costs 40,000 kip (about $5)—an offer I couldn’t refuse. The stately home that houses the Lao Red Cross was as tranquil as any North American day spa when I visited, but the massage room took a different approach. Instead of a massage table, there was a mat on the floor covered by a kid’s Lion King towel, but the universal language of rubdowns translated well in Lao and I left feeling spoiled.

The Children’s Cultural Centre, another participating organization, provides free informal training in art forms like dance, music, singing, puppetry, storytelling, and handicrafts. The kids perform a traditional puppet and dance show for the public every Thursday and Saturday evening. Visitors are also welcome to share their dancing and music skills with the kids, by previous arrangement.

On my last day in town, I got up at 6 a.m. and roused a tuk-tuk driver to ask for a ride to the bus station. We puttered past a stream of young, orange-robed monks collecting their morning alms. In this ancient Buddhist tradition, locals kneel streetside and place small gifts, usually sticky rice, in the monks’ alms bowls as they pass. Like a lot of things in Luang Prabang, the tradition is based on the philosophy that the more you give without expecting something in return, the better person you become. –

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