Lost in Laos: Luang Prabang

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Luang Prabang gracefully absorbs the 140 people from our slow-boat ride. In fact, I am told that Luang Prabang now hosts over 500 new tourists each day, pumping an unprecedented amount of dollars, baht, and kip into the economy—but not without some payback in the other direction, of course.

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Yes, the ‘ole double-edged tourism two-step. In the last 3 months in Southeast Asia, I’ve experienced many of the touristic side-effects mentioned in this article by Bui Nguyen Cam Ly, “As Hordes of Tourists Come, Heritage Goes,” the most recent among them, the experience of being grossly overcharged for sticky-rice in order to give it to the monks in the early morning Luang Prabang alms-giving ceremony.

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Afterward, talking to local resident, Mr. Ping (it means “Full Moon”, he says with a broad smile, “Mr. Full Moon!”), I am told that not only are the tribeswomen from across the river (and their clients) commercializing an ancient Buddhist tradition, but they sometimes sell fetid rice to the foreigners, who unknowingly place it in the monks’ bowls. Yet, how can I blame them for trying to make an extra buck when there are plenty of dumb farangs, myself included, who cough up the kip before learning the score? Then I am embarrassed when Mr. Ping informs me that only women kneel to give alms; men stand on their feet with their shoes off—this is different from what I’d learned in Thailand, but now I know why everyone was staring at me.

Still, Luang Prabang is as a stunning, old town, and it is no surprise why it was declared a World Heritage Site in 1995—and why so many people want to come see it. Every day is a photo safari, as I make my way from wat to wat, lazing down the languid streets.

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As Tay and I plan our next move, however, she eats a bad noodle and falls ill; during her recovery, I break out in a mysteryious rash, which I think picked up wallowing in a nearby waterfall. We are thankful that this all happens here, in Luang Prabang, where our $10-a-night room boasts a gorgeous tiled bathroom, instead of in one of the villages we’d planned on venturing to, where our shared bathroom would undoubtedly have been a lot more, um, rustic.

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So we spend a few more days in town than planned, accompanied in part by the television series, “Lost,” in our hotel room (Tay’s mother sent the DVDs in a care package). Sure, it’s a distant distraction, an escape from our curled-up corner of the world; but its faraway feel, and preoccupation with fate and things that are meant to happen, are enjoyable, as is the scenery in this Hawaii-filmed show, which could easily have included scenes shot at the aforementioned culprit waterfall:

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