In the beginning there was the bus.
The nearly 12 hour bus ride was about as fun as it sounds. Still, after hearing about the beauty and popularity of Luang Prabang from nearly every person we’d encountered, Courtney and I took advantage of our post-orientation time off to spend a few days in this much-hyped northern province.
“VIP” read the letters plastered across the front of the bus. This meant we were ensured the luxuries of a bottle of water, a banana-flavored snack cake, and bowl of pho at the rest stop. This did not mean that the seat I sat in had any setting besides “fully-reclined.” It also did not mean that the ride through the mountains was any less rugged. Expecting this, I took motion sickness medicine before the ride and spent most of it drowsily floating in and out of consciousness. Some of the other passengers weren’t as lucky. I turned up the volume on my headphones to avoid hearing the man behind me retch into a plastic bag, which he calmly carried off the bus later. A small girl a few rows ahead of us threw up in the aisle a few hours into the journey. Surprisingly, no one seemed the slightest bit concerned about cleaning this up, waiting until the next stop a few hours later to make any effort to deal with the mess. This seemed but another convention in bus travel through the mountainside.
We arrived in Luang Prabang and climbed into a tuk-tuk, prepared to relax in the air-conditioned haven of our guesthouse and stretch out the stiffness in our limbs from being contorted into the seats of the bus for hours on end. But alas, the guesthouse was a testament to the power of selective marketing on the Internet. Walking in was the equivalent of showing up to a date with someone whose online pictures were taken “just a few years ago, I swear.” The sparse, AC-less rooms were nothing like those pictured online and it felt like we were staying in a hoarder’s house rather than a hostel.
“I f*cked the pooch!” Courtney lamented, feeling responsible since she was the one that had booked our rooms. Bo pehn nyang 1, we reasoned, the place seemed safe and was so cheap we couldn’t complain too much. Anyways, we could just spend all of our waking hours out and exploring. We did so immediately, enjoying a delicious and interactive dinner of Lao BBQ 2 while grumbling about the overabundance of falang 3 – foreigners – in the town.
While it isn’t uncommon to see foreigners in Vientiane, Luang Prabang instantly felt different. Falang here didn’t just mean foreigner, it meant a much dirtier word – tourist. In the past few years I’ve heard this sentiment from others I’ve met abroad. Being called a “tourist” is invariably an insult, instead, we are “wanderers,” “travellers,” “explorers” – anything that does not conjure up stereotypical images of visitors that obliviously offend their hosts, stick to the attractions of the beaten path, and seek out familiar, Western food at restaurants. Being labeled an American tourist is even more perjorative, even if you aren’t overweight or skimpily dressed or sporting a fanny pack or blindly spewing views on how “America’s the best!”. Like many others I’ve met, Courtney and I instantly sought to differentiate ourselves from the presumably ethnocentric Tourists that surrounded us, speaking Lao at every chance we got in a near-futile attempt to align ourselves with the locals rather than the falang.
Yet, our two days in Luang Prabang were spent doing things that were best defined as touristy. We followed carefully prescribed steps to dye silk skeins and scarves with natural materials, chopping wood and crushing indigo leaves under the careful watch of our guide. Similarly supervised, we sautéed minced water buffalo and cut stalks of lemongrass into beautiful bulbs 4. We made the 15 minute “climb” up Mount Phou Si in the center of town and elbowed our way through the throngs of falang for a good view of the sun being swallowed by the mountains and the Mekong. But at the same time, we tried to go about our days with a level of consciousness about the culture we were consuming, asking questions about the cultural significance of textiles and the fair trade business model of Ock Pop Tok 5, learning about the multiethnic populations of Laos at the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Center 6, and peppering our perusals of night market stands with conversations with the vendors in Lao.
We climbed aboard the bus with a gaggle of other foreigners, not quite ready to leave the relaxation of the past days in favor of another grueling bus ride. Between meclizine-induced naps, I reflected again on the stigma of being a Tourist. Instead of scoffing at those who admire things a local wouldn’t glance twice at, shouldn’t we take that as a reminder of the beauty and cause for amazement that surrounds us? Instead of attempting to eschew the inescapable label, should we strive to change the image of the tourist? Should we instead promise to exist more mindfully and appreciate people, not just places? I know I am guilty of overlooking these things sometimes – it is far easier to sit back and admire a place than to go out and engage with its people – but it is something I hope to be more conscientious of as I travel. As Julian Casablancas notes, everywhere I go I am a tourist 7; might as well try and make that mean something positive.
Footnotes galore. Can you tell that Dani & Will for introduced me to David Foster Wallace?
(1) Roughly translates to “ain’t no thang”, which roughly translates to “no problem” or “no worries.”
(2) I’m slowly discovering the wonderful varieties of Asian BBQ. Japanese Korean BBQ (yakiniku) is all about the meat. Korean BBQ is very similar, but with a greater variety of sides. Lao BBQ has a domed grill for your meat, surrounded by a moat of delicious broth in which you cook noodles, eggs, and vegetables. It’s definitely the most wholesome of Asian BBQs I have yet to experience.
(3) Falang simply means “France” or “French” in Lao. French colonialism meant that most of the foreigners Lao people interacted with were, initially, French, so the term has since then been expanded to refer to any foreigner in general. Isn’t history fun?
(4) In case you’re in the area and interested, Tamarind’s cooking class is great fun.
(5) This really cool textile company has a weaving center, restaurant, villas, and shop a short way from the city center. They offer classes and free tours and promote equitable pay and opportunities for their weavers.
(6) Check out the museum’s website here and watch some short films made by Lao women about local ethnology here. Plus go read Courtney’s post to learn more about the museum and OPT.
(7) Your ears will thank you.
If you’re still hanging in there, here’s some photos of Courtney and I touristing it up in LP.