February 14 & 15
Luang Prebang taught us not to judge a city by the number of tourists who wander the night market nor the number of street vendors who speak English. Sometimes, touristy isn't such a bad thing, and though Laos has the most underdeveloped tourism industry of the three countries we visited, Luang Prebang had its own ubiquitous, touristy charm.
Our flight was very uneventful except for a blonde, Christian girl who insisted having a Jewish boyfriend was the best and if they ever broke up, she would definitely join JDate (or JewDate, as she called it). After landing in Laos and getting settled at our hostel, we headed out to explore the city. Set on seeing temples, we followed the sound of drums - a 4 o'clock ritual calling for alms - and peeked around taking a few discreet photos as the sun dipped behind the ornately carved temple. Walking a little further down the street, we found another temple, similar in layout and decor, and wandered in there as well. The number of temples in Luang Prebang is somewhere upwards of sixty and we realized we could spend days strolling in and out of the beautiful, peaceful plazas. So, we headed to a nearby hostel to book tours to the Buddha caves and the Kuong Si Waterfall, as well as a van to Vang Vieng for later in the week. The woman at the hostel recommended we go watch the sunset over the river, so we hurried over and sat on the levee just in time to watch the orange sun dip behind the pink and blue mountains. A beautiful sight, indeed. Our journey through the night markets of Southeast Asia began as I bartered for my first pair of elephant pants (I'm terrible at bartering, I might add. I always end up either feeling bad and backing down or getting very angry and embarrassing myself). Upon purchasing them, I was skeptical of their practicality, but after slipping them on that night, I became a believer. They are truly the most lightweight, comfortable pair of pants I have ever owned.
The following day began with an early morning - and a plate of greasy eggs and baguettes. It was foggy and cool when we arrived at the river to take a skinny, wooden "slow boat" to the Buddha caves (also called the Pak Ou Caves). The Buddha caves are a series of caves with Buddha relics scattered throughout . While the boat ride was lovely (and slightly freezing) the caves were nothing short of boring and mobbed with tourists trying to take pictures in the dark by pointing their flashlight at the Buddha statues and snapping a blurry picture without the flash. The view of the mountains from inside the caves, though, was really nice, and I managed to take a few quality pictures. Even still, the caves were so mobbed with tourists, it was hard to appreciate the beauty and even harder to read the plaques explaining the hundred-year-old history.. On the way back, we stopped at a "whiskey village," which is basically a tourist term to describe a small village where Lao whiskey is made. They also had an interesting kind of rice wine that tasted like Manischevitz, which the Korean ladies on our boat loved.
What turned out to be one of my favorite afternoons of the entire trip, began with low expectations for the Kuong Si Waterfalls. I assumed they would be as touristy as the caves. I braced myself for disappointment and crowds of foreigners taking photos with their selfie sticks. But once we arrived at the waterfalls, the turquoise tranquillity was so spectacular that it was easy to ignore the crowds (which weren't even so terrible, to be honest). In total, there were five pools, each more incredible than the last. The final waterfall was about forty feet high and absolutely beautiful. No swimming allowed, but Miki and I climbed over the barrier fence to get a better photo. After a series of waterfall selfies, we were finally hot enough to to jump into the pools. We started at the first pool, which was the most mellow. Though there were a lot of people at the waterfall, few seemed interested in swimming, so we had the entire pool to ourselves. It took some coaxing, but Miki finally dunked her head and swam over to the waterfall with me. Because of the limestone, the water is a pure blue-green and the falls are cool and refreshing. It was truly a gem of a tourist spot, and I was so happy to be amongst my fellow foreigners.
On the van ride back, we chatted with a girl from Oregon who was traveling alone. She was between teaching jobs and told us about a classroom in downtown Luang Prebang where youngsters between the ages of seventeen and twenty four come to practice their English. Some were monks, some were local university students. Before I left for my trip, my aunt recommended a school that her and her husband visited where they spoke with monks in English. She didn't tell me the name, but I had spent all of the previous day asking the tour agents and hostel owners about a school where you could talk to monks. No one knew what I was talking about, but it turns out, this classroom, called Big Brother Mouse is the exact place she recommended to me. When we got back to town, Miki and I rushed over to Big Brother Mouse in our wet bathing suits, eager to be a part of this incredible experience.
We immediately broke off - I began speaking with a couple of monks who had excellent English and was later joined by another local high school kid whose English was fluent as well. Miki spoke with a few boys who had rocky English and spent her time going over confusing English terms, such as "there, their and they're", the spelling of certain words with silent letters, and past participles, a term we weren't even totally sure of ourselves. When my aunt mentioned she was incredibly inspired by these boys, she wasn't exaggerating. The two monks I talked to had lofty aspirations. One in particular, Ho, was in the process of applying to Vassar. He showed me a hand-written draft of his personal statement, and I was immediately impressed. His essay discussed frequent misconceptions about the Lao economy - he noted how tourism was growing and people were slowly aspiring towards better educations. He continued by discussing his passion for economics and business and how being a monk has helped him gain the traction he has needed to make this happen. He asked me about Barak Obama, and told me how he practices his English by listening to the president's speeches on YouTube. "He's a good speaker," Ho said to me. "He's an inspiring speaker," I agreed, teaching him the new word, which he wrote down in his notebook. "Maybe you can add that to your personal statement," I suggested.
Ho and his friend briefly explained how the education in Laos was weak - but improving - and how you needed to pay to go to school. Healthcare, however, was free and provided by UNESCO, the organization that helps Laos preserve many of its temples and world heritage sites. He impressed me by asking about the presidential election - "who is the red faced man with the twisted mouth?" He asked. "He's always angry when compared to Hillary Clinton." I laughed at his description of Donald Trump. I asked what the voting age in Laos was - eighteen, they answered. When were elections? Ho opened his mouth to answer, but then closed it. We aren't allowed to talk about the government. Why? Because you're monks? I asked. No because Laos is communist. Of course, I realized, as if there wasn't a communist flag waving on every corner. We talked about soccer, football and basketball - the boys loved LeBron James, which led to us walking over to the large map of the country and me pointing out Miami, Cleveland and Detroit. I told them about one of my favorite podcasts, the TED Radio hour, after hearing that they loved to listen to TED talks. I asked them about their lives - they were both novice monks, who had been at their temples for ten years each. At the age of twenty, they would be able to become monks, but Ho was hoping to leave the temple before then to go to Vassar. I told him if he continued practicing his English, writing in his blog about being a monk (in my excitement I forgot to ask for the blog link!) and staying focused, I had no doubt he would succeed and add much diversity (another new word for him) to campus. Both of these boys lived far from their families and their villages, but knew that being monks would provide them with the best possible education. Considering Laos is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, contributing to a third of the population being below the poverty line, these boys were an ember of hope in the tragic ashes of Laos, which I learned more about later that week thanks to my digital tour guide, Wikipedia.
The only disappointment was the lack of girls at Big Brother Mouse. There was only one who spent most of her time sitting in the corner reading a middle-grade English book. I encouraged her to come chat with us, but she was very shy and her English was choppy. I guess it's expected for women in these countries to be afforded less opportunities than their male counterparts, but I can only hope that one day these girls will be able to receive the same level of education as the monks. Even though women can't become monks, they cannot and should not be held to the expectations of marriage and children, which I learned, many are. If anything, it made me appreciate the opportunities I've been given as an American. I was certain few of these girls even knew that there were well-educated women in positions of power out there in the world.