Thomas Mann in Laos

Last year in Laos, I remembered a passage from The death in Venice that I could not really understand when I was a teenager.

Back then, I did not enjoy the book. Its long sentences sounded unnecessary complex; the fears and doubts of an ageing man were too far from my sensibility. Now I see how the complexity of the prose mirrors the complexity of the inner life of the protagonist, and passages like the following make much more sense:

“Lively, clear-outlined, intellectually undemanding presentation is the delight of the great mass of the middle-class public, but passionate radical youth is interested only in problems.”

[T. Mann, The Death in Venice, 1911. English translation by David Luke, 1988]

This sentence came back to my mind after visiting Luang Prabang, the delightful, and Phonsavan, the problematic.

Luang Prabang is Laos’ ancient capital. It enjoys a unique location, on a hill facing the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The jungle that surrounds the city is still very present in the center, where nowadays a most perfect marriage of nature and urban architecture is achieved: tall, thick trees caress the many buddhist temples and the wooden colonial villas. And speaking of colonization, French influence is most evident in food: you can have excellent croissants for breakfast, or enjoy the typical sticky rice in those kind of restaurants you can afford once per year back home, and everyday here. The bar Utopia, faithful to his name, condenses the western concept of Heaven on Earth, and spices it up with cocktails and flirting backpackers. You can also stop at the night market or book a tour to remote villages or the breathtaking Kuang Si Falls. 

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The Kuang Si Falls

All this you can do in the 1km stroll between the two ends of the main street, and on the neighbouring roads. The few who dare to exit from this tourist ghetto will find a town more chaotic, dirtier, equally dominated by nature, and which surprisingly also hosts some Laotians (whom you cannot see, for instance, in the pictures on the Utopia website).

 

Phonsavan has instead been described as a “charmless town” (Guide du Routard), “pervaded by a feeling of incompleteness” (Lonely Planet), “like the set of a Spaghetti Western directed by David Linch” (Wikitravel). To me, it looks like a gigantic gas station. It has been established only recently, in substitution of the neighbouring town destroyed during the bombing of eastern Laos. They chose to build it where road 1D from central Laos meets road 7 to Luang Prabang. Most buildings in fact face those streets, and they are modern – in the ugliest sense of the term – and covered with the dust lifted by running cars. Behind them, fields and huts, but also governmental offices, shops selling building materials – everything needs to be rebuilt here – and mechanics working on old soviet cars, those donated by URSS when Laos was just a pawn in the cold war chessboard.

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Old Russian tank

If Luang Prabang satisfies your senses, Phonsavan and its problems pose questions stimulating them. How does a government that cannot afford to be generous with his citizens give a future to a region that did not yet recover from a war that ended 50 years ago? How to cope with the never-ending problem of cluster bombs that did not explode, and that today blow up farmers hoeing the ground and kids playing? How can one be positive about the future if even the local Buddha statue had his usual smile defaced into a sad sneer by a bomb?

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Despite all this, Phonsavan is growing. The ambition of the government scattered official buildings quite far away from the main streets 1D and 7, hoping that one day the empty space will be filled by a developed town. Small neighbourhoods with villas popped up here and there. MAG is clearing of mines larger and larger areas. The Lone Buffalo foundation teaches English and tries to recompose a split up community through soccer. And the neighbouring Plain of Jars with its mysterious civilization may bring to the area the attention it needs for further development. But neighbouring countries deny having stolen archaeological finds, whose return could ignite a deeper investigation of the area – for which, by the way, no money seems to be available at the moment. So the problem is nowhere close to be solved.

In Phonsavan, I met an Israeli couple that came back to Laos 20 years after their first trip. Back then, travelling in the country was a serious hazard, because of the attacks by rebels. They visited Luang Prabang when it was a troubled city, much as Phonsavan is today. “I am not completely happy how the problem was solved there”, the man told me.

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Some colors from my world tour (without filters or photoshop) – part two

[Recently I have been travelling around the world for 74 days. I am writing a series of posts about this trip – a list of those can be found here. This post continues from here.]

The Darmouth Green of the Jungle around Luang Prabang, Laos.

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The bright green of the growing grass during the wet season in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territories, Australia.

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The honeydew green of crocodiles in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territories, Australia.

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The bright yellow of the leftovers of the rice harvest around Kampot, Cambodia.

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The dim yellow of the lights in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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The cream yellow of the opera house in Sydney.

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The yellows of Buddha statues in Luang Prabang, Laos.

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The pale gray of elephants in Luang Prabang, Laos.

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The ivory white of the limestone islands in Halong Bay, Vietnam.

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The white smokes of clouds in the Australian skies.

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The white snow in New York City.

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Some colors from my world tour (without filters or photoshop) – part one

[Recently I have been travelling around the world for 74 days. I am writing a series of posts about this trip – a list of those can be found here.]

The deep black of the Bendigo gold mine in Victoria, Australia, 70 meters below the ground, when all lights go out.

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The brown of the lava rock in Mauna Kea, Hawaii (and all the colors of the rainbow, too).

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The slategray of the Ghan, the train connecting north to south Australia.

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The reds in the Hong Kong market.

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The magenta from a Tai Chi lesson in Hong Kong.

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The flame red of Uluru, Northern Territories, Australia.

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The orange of the lava tubes in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

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The purple of the sunset in Darwin, Northern Territories, Australia.

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The auburn Red of the moulds in the Angkor Temple, Cambodia.

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The Munsell blue of Bondi beach, Sydney, Australia.

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The petrol blue of the Mekong river around Can Tho, Vietnam.

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The kinds of people you meet while in a world tour (part one)

[Recently I have been travelling around the world for 74 days. I am writing a series of posts about this trip – a list of those can be found here.]

The Italian who saved some money when he was working as a pizza-maker in Australia and spent them to be a volunteer at a family run guesthouse in a small village in Laos. Well, not just an average guesthouse, but one located here.

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The Indian who is too lazy to work, and too rich to need to work. So he decides to write a thriller, and his family sends him for 3 years around the world to get enough documentation to build his plot (and to keep him away from troubles back home).

The “purer” traveller. No matter how cheap you travel, or how much you go back to the nature, or to the “pure essence of travelling”: there will always be someone doing that more than you. Do you eat and dress only local, travel on tourist-free buses, sleep only in guesthouses where no word of english is spoken? You’ll always find someone who only hitchhikes on pickups, gets his food right from the farmers, and sleeps in temples.

The cyclists. The young Swiss couples that biked for one year and half from Switzerland to Cambodia, and are now planning to go back by train, because by plane would be too abrupt, but on the other hand “we cycled enough”. During their trip they spent on average 25$ a day per person, including extra money for attractions, trekking, etc. (but many cyclists travel with much less, see The “purer” traveller above). The not-so-young Australian who sold everything back home and will keep travelling by bike until he runs out of money, or finds a reason to stay. Much to my surprise, they share a very relaxed attitude towards travelling and the risks that come with it.

The Dutch couple that also sold everything they had back home to travel, but after 4 months decided to settle in Laos to build a butterfly garden. The outcome of their efforts is probably the closest place to the Eden I’ve ever seen. More about this here.

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The part-time workers. Every year, they work like crazy for 6-8 months, and in the remaining 4-6 they invest in travels all the money saved. They come from Canada, from France, from Australia.

The Vietnamese girl that is a journalist, that is also a chef, that also writes books, that also translates books from English, that is also a voracious traveller, that also hosts fellow travellers. Not exactly the image of Vietnamese people you have back home.

The tourist. The category every traveller struggles not to fall into. He is shipped from an attraction to another as if he were a package, spending half of the remaining time taking nonsense photos, and the other half in places identical to those he can find back home. Saying Good morning and Thank you in the local language is the deepest he gets into the culture, but he is proud of that. His daily goal is to bargain down the prices as much as possible. His cold and abusive attitude towards most vendors is the main responsible (together with The vendor – level one, see below) of the absence of a normal dialectic between travellers and locals.

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The vendor – level 1. To him, a traveller is just a chicken with a big pot of gold lurking somewhere between his wings. Smiles and talking are timed to stop at the very moment a transaction is concluded.

The vendor – level 2. To him, a traveller is still a pair chicken+gold. But he is aware that the traveller may have more gold lying back in the henhouse, or many fellow chicken he talks to. So the vendor is eager to distribute smiles and, in general, every courtesy and attention that won’t cost him anything.

The vendor – level 3. The one every traveller wants to deal with.

The enormous amount of small, young beings that populate every village I saw in Laos: small children running after puppy dogs, chicks orbiting around hens, piglets playing in the mud.

The Khmu village in Laos that celebrates a wedding dancing (at the light and power of a generator) with a surprising contamination of dance from the 80s, techno, and melodic traditional music – till 5am in the morning.

The Laotian who studied in the French school in Vientiane, then took advantage of the connections between Laos and Eastern Germany to obtain a degree in Economics from Dresden. Once back home, he became a white-collar in a bank, then a radio dj, then a live dj, then the owner of the first discoclub in Laos, then the first tourist operator finding financial support for removing bombs from the the archeological site of the Plains of Jars. Or at least, that’s what he claims.

(continues here)