Luang Prabang Outside the Tourist Radar

by Elizaabeth Willoughby

The day of Dragon Boat Races, held as the rainy season fizzles out, is one of the most important events in Luang Prabang, throwing this sleepy peninsula into a tailspin.

Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Laos, Indochina

Pre-breakfast Treasures
This is not a typical morning for me, mostly because it's 5:30 a.m. and I am not snoozing, but also because I am kneeling on a sidewalk with my head bowed respectfully, holding a pot of sticky rice, waiting for a procession of monks. This is not an activity drawing a lot of tourists this morning, although I am a tourist and I am partaking in this activity. I am told that Tak Bat (morning alms) takes place everyday in Luang Prabang. Local Lao, all grandmothers as far as I can tell, donate sustenance to the monks since monks depend on the lay community for all material needs. In return, Lao believe the act of generosity will benefit someone, perhaps even a departed relative.

My knees are becoming aware of the hardness of the ground below my thin mat and I wonder if the monks are still snoozing when they finally make their way up the sidewalk in single file. Each monk carries a metal pot and lid; he lifts the lid with his left hand and swerves the alms pot to the right as he passes a kneeler who drops a pinch of rice into the pot. I find it difficult to keep my gaze downwards.  I keep glancing to the left down the long silent line of bare feet, bald heads, swaying orange robes and swinging black pots. I also find it difficult to keep up with the pots, and some pass by while I'm still gathering the rice, but the faster I try to be, the bigger the pinches become.

Novice monks call to prayer, Luang Prabang, Laos, IndochinaEarly morning market in Luang Prabang, Laos, IndochineAfter 10 minutes, my pot is empty and after 15 minutes, the procession is over, but I am not headed back to slumber at the guesthouse. Doua, my gentle, timid guide with a big, white smile, has brought his scooter along to take me to the early morning market across town. 

The market is along a residential street lined with palm, fig and papaya trees and lush, green front yard gardens. The sellers are women dressed in orange blouses, yellow skirts and pink dresses, their shiny black hair tied back from round, coffee-coloured faces. Each stakes a space along the road's edge. She lays down a plastic sheet, displays her produce on it in neat bundles, and waits at the curb with her scales, buckets and takeaway bags.

Early morning market in Luang Prabang, Laos, IndochinaA half-dozen carp lay on plastic, side-by-side, eyes wide, trying to suck water out of the air, a pile of wet clams next to them – this morning's catch. Next is a stack of bamboo shoots, then baskets of orange carnations, laid out in rectangular piles, a low table with bowls of mushrooms, snakes and larvae, a mound of apples, bunches of leafy greens. Small piles of green and red chili peppers are laid out like a tic-tac-toe board by a withered woman squatting beside, with a towel on her head. Potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, onions, eggplant, cabbage and things I don't know. Eggs, chicken parts, fried dumplings and fish steaks. Under an umbrella, tables display cuts of beef, pork and goat meat.

The Dragons come to Town

Luang Prabang Dragon Boat Races, Laos, IndochinaThe pedestrian traffic on the return route to my B&B seems too busy for this time of day. This sleepy little town in north central Laos is the former royal seat of the "Land of a Million Elephants." The setting is ethereal, a peninsula bordered by the Mekong River on one side and a tributary on the other and surrounded by limestone hills, thick with vegetation, whose tops can become obscured with mist and cloud.

Luang Prabang's peninsula is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its well-preserved, unique mixture of architecture: royal and noble residences, monastery stupas, shrines, chapels and communal buildings, traditional wooden Lao homes and two-storey, French colonial brick houses with wooden balconies and decorative features.

The former capital shuts down early each night, in part to ensure that it retains this status and is not turned into a party town for tourists. Foreign visitors come to stroll around in the calm, peaceful atmosphere that alternates between the 19th century and ancient Asian structures. But not today.

"They're here for this afternoon's races," says Doua. The day of Dragon Boat Races, held in September or October as the rainy season is fizzling out, is one of the two most important annual events in Luang Prabang, the other being Lao New Year in April.

Luang Prabang Dragon Boat Races, Laos, IndochinaToday, people are coming in from communities all around to watch their village or club's team compete in this televised race. All morning long visitors infiltrate the town. Tents appear along both of the Khan River banks, lawn chairs under umbrellas flatten the grasses, monks gather under trees. The street swells to the point of bursting with food vendors, balloon sellers and spectators. Seats at the patios that line the river side of the road must be booked in advance – my B&B has reserved a choice spot for me on its finish-line open kitchen/patio.

Doua gives me some background: Luang Prabang was built and protected by 15 "supernatural" dragons. One family, a dragon husband with two dragon wives, lived at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers. In return for the dragons' protection from threats, which included the dragons, they demanded that the King of Luang Prabang sacrifice one human to them per year as food. Unable to choose which of his people to sacrifice, the King decided to hold an annual boat race. This allowed the dragons to determine for themselves which of the racers to eat.

Nowadays, the first two boats to race are the Mrs. White, representing the first dragon wife, and the Mrs. Black, representing the second dragon wife. Upholding Lao tradition that a first wife has more authority in a family, Mrs. Black ensures that Mrs. White wins.

Luang Prabang Dragon Boat Races, Laos, Indochina

After that comes the real competition. Two at a time upstream on the Khan River, long, narrow, painted boats that carry up to 50 men in matching shirts charge out from the starting line. Dozens of rowers, two-men wide, jam their paddles into the water to the beat of their coxswain's calls and sweep northeast with the river. Only a few minutes later, just before the Khan cuts north into the Mekong, one team will be first to pass below the line of flags strung from one bank to the other. That team will go on to race other winners until there is one champion.

The races begin early afternoon, and so does the drinking of rice whiskey. In no time an inebriated radio announcer gets hold of a microphone. I lean over and turn off the volume. He doesn't notice. Only the children, who are not drinking, notice when the races have ended. The media will have recorded the year's winner so we'll find out tomorrow, after a good sleep. When the garbage is picked up and the streets are swept, Luang Prabang will become its quiet self once more.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2012

This article was published at Global Writes.

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