All that Luang Prabang offers
Along with nine classmates who decided to celebrate together 50 years from college, I have just returned from a trip to the old royal capital Luang Prabang in northern Laos—a true adventure in a place that initially lured us because it is said to be where time stands still. In 1995, it was proclaimed a World Heritage Site by Unesco.
The Indigo Hotel of our choice proved convenient as it is right on the main street of the city, where the main temples and the Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum are located. The street closes at sundown to make way for the tempting Night Market, where Laos’ famous handwoven goods are sold at prices so low they do not at all approximate the high level of craftsmanship.
On this bustling street is where the begging bowl ceremony of the monks takes place daily before sunrise. There is also a building with a welcoming wooden sign beneath a tall shady tree—the Luang Prabang Library. That the library is located on this busy and accessible street—also across from the wet market that I discovered first on an alley—says much about its importance in everyday life.
Of course, it carries the usual book donations from US organizations, but many shelves are dedicated to books in Lao.
(I only found books in English on the country in the Monument Bookstore—but not any fiction by a Lao author that I had wanted.) On the bulletin board were notices of the library’s activities; of special interest to me were its versions of mobile libraries: a book tuktuk and a book boat to serve remote areas in Laos’ 58 villages.
A glossy, well-produced booklet distributed free of charge, “The Story of Big Brother Mouse,” was thankfully found in the midst of frenetic shopping and passed on to me by fellow traveler Cynthia Ragasa. Big Brother Mouse is not a storybook character but the name of a nonprofit publishing house set up to make Lao children read. A few years ago the idea was nixed because “Lao people don’t read.” Not anymore, with the stories being written and read in Lao and English by Big Brother Mouse staffers. Yes, Big Brother Mouse also has its office on the Night Market street. It runs English conversation classes, holds book parties travelling by road or boat or by elephant ride, and distributes books that children enjoy reading. An admirable initiative.
Equally noteworthy was the Storytelling Night of a two-man crew (the storyteller and an elderly musician playing a traditional instrument), which introduced the predominantly Caucasian audience to interesting Laotian folk tales, among them the origin of the nearby Mekong River and Luang Prabang itself.
A block away is the Children’s Cultural Centre, which provides after-school and weekend activities for Lao children to learn traditional music, drama, storytelling, singing, and a variety of arts and crafts. On Thursdays and Saturdays, the students present an entertaining hour of Lao dances and songs, as well as their traditional Ipok puppet show. (On the day we went, an earlier show had to be scheduled upon the special request of a Japanese group of tourists. There was nothing amateurish in their performance, but an English translation of the puppet show is suggested.) The one-hour show begins with a welcome ritual at the old home/centre site, complete with a ritual of tying yarn on our wrists and an offering of sweets and fruits—all symbolizing good luck for guests.
It was remarkable that even for a short visit such as ours, the small city had more than enough of a tasting of Lao culture to offer.
Luang Prabang hath charm and many lessons besides on how it preserves and takes unqualified pride in its customs and traditions. How delightful that my seasoned jet-setting friends had to ask: Where in heaven’s name is that? That it remains unspoiled and undiscovered is the selfish wish of this tourist.
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Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected] gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.
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