We rose with the monks at 5.15 this morning. The day was still just an idea in the wake of last night’s certainty, although there was already some bustling by a few women on the street. They carried baskets suspended on shoulder-fulcrums with a bamboo beam, and each contained rice. We, sleepy as the cockerels, found a spot on the grass verge and waited for the monks. First to arrive was the morning, in grey-blues with a whiter finish, leaking colour onto everything – greening the trees’ leaves and adding sparkle to the wat’s gilded finials. Close by, a gecko hiccuped his love one last time.
The monks arrived in orange drips that coalesced into a steady stream as hundreds joined. Big-faced under their shaven heads, bobbing to a barefooted rhythm, they carried golden bowls to receive their rice. It’s a daily ritual this and, although we went back to bed afterwards, the monks and local rice givers continued their day – perhaps this is the reason that everything here is closed by 10pm.
Luang Prabang, once the capital of Laos, is perfectly positioned where the Nam Khan river is born from the Mekong. In fact, pretty much everything about this ancient royal city is perfect. The French colonial villas with painted shutters and verandas hanging with bougainvillea, the beautiful gold and glass decorated wats, the orangery of monks with their sweet smiles and tranquil faces, the delicious food and wine (yes, wine!), the friendly Lao people…. We could stay for months here – if we could afford it.
The sleepy town (officially it is a city, but with just 100,000 inhabitants, it scarcely merits the insult) is surrounded by the two rivers almost completely, and beyond rise the forested mountains.
There are slash and burn scars on most slopes. It is a traditional but very destructive farming technique that the government is trying to discourage. It is one of the reasons for the success of opium in these parts – opium poppies use proportionally little of the soil’s nutrients compared to other crops, so there is less need for the labour-intensive slash and burn (swidden). But that’s only a minor reason. Opium use, traditionally practiced by several tribes here, was manipulated by every colonial power from the British Imperialists who sold Indian opium to China, to the French, who used locals’ addiction as a form of societal control and a revenue generator. At the turn of the last century, opium tax provided 15% of the French colonial budget.
The Americans, those consummate capitalists, escalated the scale significantly. When the CIA was embroilling itself in Laos during the Secret War – between 1965 and 1973, the US dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos in a bid to wipe out North Vietnamese in the country and halt communism – and it used the opium trade to its advantage in winning over local tribes people. At the end of the war, the opium trade had swelled by 800% and produced a worldwide boom in heroin. This has largely declined in Southeast Asia due to aggressive government crackdowns and Bangkok’s new methamphetamine market, and the global opium/heroin industry is now almost entirely in Afghanistan. But there has been something of a minor revival in poppy growing here over the past 5 years. We have been offered opium on several occasions since arriving in Laos.
This afternoon we took a tuktuk to fairyland. Up and up the mountain with a spluttering, deafening engine, choking on fumes to the waterfall at Tat Kuang Si. The rain first came in pinpricks but it wasn’t long till it was hammering on the roof and grabbing us wetly through the sides. By the time we arrived be were soaked and queasy. But what a place! We climbed up the forest track beside the falls (plucking off leeches) until we reached a higher tier. There we paddled and swam in a turquoise pool alone except for thousands of butterflies that flew in necklaces of fluttering white and orange. Nick took a photo of me surrounded by butterflies and not one can be seen – clearly they are fairies. Eventually we descended pool by turquoise pool til we reached a bear sanctuary at the bottom containing bears rescued from bile farms (a practice too hideous to describe that supplies the Chinese medicine trade) and bear paw soup (China, again). The bears lounged in hammocks and rolled around in general laziness. It would be far better if they could be released into the wild somewhere but there was nobody to ask whether that would be possible.
Laos is attempting to climb out of the bracket of least developed nations by 2020, while at the same time, increasing forest coverage to 70% – currently10% is original forest; in 1900 it was 70%. The Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Laos (my father explained to me at an early age that any country with the word ‘Democratic’ in its title emphatically wasn’t) is really a mishmash of ethnic groups – 30% of the population are from non-Loas tribes, many of which are engaged in contiuniung armed struggles against the Communist government.
It is a poor country this. The vast majority live at subsistence level, fishing the rivers of the landlocked country or farming across its spine and plains. Their livelihoods are threatened by unfair compulsory land purchase, which is such a contentious issue that even the state-controlled media reports it (in veiled references, of course), by the construction of hydroelectric dams and road-building initiatives. One hindrance to development is the unexploded bombs littering the country. The US Secret War dropped 2 tons of bombs on mainly the north of Laos in nearly 600,000 missions, of which 30% failed to detonate. The unexploded ordnance (UXO) continue to kill and maim people – and the number of casualties is increasing, particularly among children, because of the lucrative new market for scrap metal in China. It is estimated that it will take at least a century to clear the UXOs enough to make the country safe. For us, it means that stopping for a wee on the side of the road means just that – it’s too unsafe to venture off behind a tree. I cross my legs a lot here.