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F*cking guide books
Luang Prabang (Laos), February 21st 2009

Today will be a magic day, if we can believe the travel guidebooks at least. We are at the most important tourist place in Laos: Luang Prabang. Before sunrise, we get up to look at how hundreds of monks will walk the mendicant route to gather food. The pictures that we have seen of this daily alms giving routine breathe an air of serenity. Local people kneel alongside the streets, while monks shuffle by to collect the donated food. During our trip through Laos we have seen this happening several times, but the number of monks filling the streets was limited. Because the sight of devote believers and monks was very special, we hope to see the same happening enlarged today.

When we come near the mendicant route, we get the feeling that we are walking towards an open-air discotheque. There is no load music, but the monks are lit by flickering, ostentatious lights. Tourists are gathering around the monks to put their cameras with flash lights right under their noses. The walkways which should be used by the monks are filled with men in shorts and women in skimpy tops. This makes it necessary for the monks to walk on the streets. Local believers who donate rice are flanked by tourists who also want to give some food. While local believers are kneeled down, the tourists have brought a small bench to sit on. Their western joints aren’t made for kneeling to pay respect. You could think that some tourists just don’t know how to behave, but everywhere alongside the alms giving route there are signs explaining how you should conduct yourself. The signs explicitly mention that making pictures from up-close and flashing in general is inappropriate as well as giving donations while you aren’t Buddhist and you don’t know how it should be done. After irritating ourselves for fifteen minutes, we leave. If you want to see the alms giving ritual in “real live”, you should walk around at dusk in any arbitrary town in Laos. Perhaps you will only see fifteen monks and three believers who make a donation, but in this case you will be able to appreciate it much more.

After having breakfast, we are going to make a daytrip that is touted by the guidebooks to be a big highlight. With a beautiful boat trip on the Mekong, where we will see people washing gold and catching fish, we will go to the Nam Ou caves. The Rough Guide mentions this trip as a highlight of this area and the Trotter (Belgian Guidebook) awards the maximum of three “Trotters” to this trip. Who doesn’t want to see the friendly village life alongside the Mekong and combine this with the spiritual experience of holy dripstone caves? These caves have stunning stalactites and are filled with thousands of Buddha’s. The fun begins with hiring a boat. Because many people before us have read the same kind of guidebooks, the boatmen know that they can ask every price that they like. A well working cartel makes sure that nobody will make the trip for a reasonable price. After negotiations, the price has dropped a little but it is impossible to hire the boat for a price less than a true rip-off price in local terms. As soon as the price is agreed upon, the boatmen expect to be paid. They want to be paid upfront, to make sure that we won’t stay any longer at the caves than 45 minutes. The customers aren’t kings anymore in Luang Prabang. Here, customers are seen as dirty dishcloths that should be wringed out as much as possible. However, according to the guidebooks a trip of four hours would be long enough (two hours travelling to the caves, fifteen minutes at Whiskey village, 45 minutes at the caves and one hour travelling back). Therefore, we leave it this way.

The boat ride on the Mekong isn’t very attractive. In total we pass by two people who wash gold and one fisherman. That summarizes the “friendly village life alongside the Mekong” that we see. During our fifteen minute stop at the Whiskey village, we expect to see women carrying large jars from the Mekong to the distillation process. The only thing that we see, are a large group of people that are looking at how the whiskey is dripping out of the distillation pipe. An hour later, we arrive at the caves. Before we get out of the boat, the boatmen make perfectly clear that we have to be back within 45 minutes.

There we go. We pay the entrance fee of 2.50 US$ per person. Obviously, inflation has also hit this country because the guidebooks only mention an entrance fee of 1 US$ per person. The first cave that we see is quite nice. It is a cave filled with al kinds of Buddha images that vary from beautiful to ugly. Everywhere are hanging signs to ask for donations to be able to maintain the caves and serenity isn’t heard of. After nosing around for 15 minutes we head to the second cave. To reach the cave, we have to climb several hundreds of steps. We go at a trot, because we want to have enough time inside the cave to enjoy the beautiful stalactites that we are promised. However, this cave doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in any kind of guidebook at all. I really don’t understand how a sensible human being can write that these caves have beautiful stalactites to offer. Apparently, the writers were too lazy to climb the stairs themselves and took a Beer Lao (The delicious local brew of Laos) instead. While getting more drunk within every minute, they dreamt up some poetic prose on these caves.

While we understand that this daytrip isn’t worth a single dollar, we walk back to the boat. With still five minutes to go, Edwin and my father walk back to the boat while my mother and I are going to the toilet. An Australian man is striding angrily towards us. He says that he doesn’t understand that he didn’t pee behind a tree instead of going to the toilet. When arriving at the toilet, we understand his frustration. They ask five time as much as the amount that a regular toilet visit costs. In a country where many people have to live from one dollar a day or less, it is completely inappropriate to ask more than half a dollar (5000 Kip) for using a toilet. Because we are in high need, we also decide to pay. While my mother is still on the toilet, I make a picture of the toilets. When I want to make a close-up of the donation box, the toilet lady is getting nervous. She takes away the 5000 Kip sign, which appears to be standing in front another sign. On that other sign is written that you are only kindly asked for a donation when you use the toilet. This donation will be used for the maintenance for caves. When I say that I would still like to make a picture, the lady’s son appears. He takes away both signs and throws them inside the toilet, after which he closes the door with a padlock. When I ask if I can make a picture of him instead, he locks himself inside another toilet. He certainly doesn’t want this scam to become known. Understandable, because it isn’t something to be proud of when you put a 5000 Kip sign on the donation box when Westerners are making a sanitary stop while the policy of the caves is to ask for a donation. The additional money that they earn flows directly in their pockets and none of it goes to the maintenance of the caves. Once again, it is obvious that places that are washed over with tourists loose their charm and kindness. We have enjoyed our stay in Laos very much. People may seem a bit more reserved than their Cambodian counterparts, but in general they are friendly and correct. During this very touristy day, we didn’t see any of that friendliness.

When we get back to the boat, we are a few minutes late because of the toilet incident. The faces of the boatmen are grim. They are not only treating us as garbage, they obviously also think that we are nothing more than garbage. They are noticeably fed up with the fact that they are stuck with us for another few more minutes. Apparently, they prefer lying in their hammock a bit longer instead of giving us the feeling that they like doing their highly paid jobs. But in the end: at least they are doing their job! That can’t be said of the writers of the guidebooks!

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