Unexpected Pleasures

24 Mar

sign to weaving village, luang prabang, laos

A sign of good things to come

Travelling with children, the best days sometimes come out of absolutely nowhere, and from the lowest expectations. And on our first day in Luang Prabang, Laos, my expectations were pretty much rock bottom.

Yet we ended up swimming in the most fantastic set of rapids, having masterclasses in weaving and petanque, meeting an utterly delightful baby, eating our best Lao food so far, watching an A-grade Mekong sunset, chatting for hours, and being given a pile of movies that one or the other of us has been wanting to watch for ages.

This journey, and the unmitigated blessing of ample time with my son, has converted me to mooching. But, of its nature, it’s not something you can set out to do.

Following our pre-dawn arrival, we didn’t get off to the best of starts. I have rarely seen such sheer joy on Z’s face as when he entered the Scandinavian Bakery in Vientiane. So to get him out of bed in Luang Prabang required only two words: “Scandinavian” and “Bakery”.

We walked a mile in search of it. And it wasn’t the cake heaven we’d anticipated. Just a perfectly decent pizza, sandwich, coffee and brownie outlet. Z’s face, quite literally, fell. Mine too…

I had a sense that temples and the Royal Palace were going to feel like duty, rather than pleasure. So we were weighing up the pros and cons of riding elephants, when Z’s tummy exploded, leaving us stranded in a cafe failing to write postcards until it settled down.

Luang Prabang, it must be said, is an utterly gorgeous town, and tailor made for mooching, even when you’re tired and fragile.

view of monastery, with flowers in foreground, Luang Prabang, Laos

There is this sort of thing virtually everywhere you look.

Once a capital of the Lao kings, the city is studded with monasteries, rich in wooden shophouses, framed by beautiful hills. Its World Heritage status has, miraculously, preserved its beauty without turning it into tourist trap hell. It still feels like a sleepy little place, and the city’s many monks still go about their business substantially unmolested.

Z’s tummy duly sorted, and back in search of the temple, we found ourselves at the end of the peninsula where the steady flow of the Mekong meets the curving, slender Nam Khan river. Z saw a sign announcing the presence of a weaving village, and followed it down a flower-strewn path towards the water.

In the dry season, the Nam Khan creates a set of waist-deep rapids which swirl, with sufficient power to take an adult off their feet, in turbulent steps down to the Mekong.

Z’s idea of heaven. Mine too.

Rapids duly surfed, we crossed the bridge and mooched along the narrow path into the woods behind. We stopped for fizzy pop at a bamboo shack where two young monks were eating ice cream and watching the river, and ambled up the hill until we came to a young woman weaving silk in a shelter in the open air, her one-year-old daughter tranquil on a rattan bedding mat beside her.

Z holding weaver's baby daughter, Luang Prabang, Laos

One very happy boy. One equally bewildered baby.

It’s amazing the pleasure Z takes in discovering how things work, grow and are created. He sat, happily, playing with the baby and watching the to and fro of the shuttle and silk, the play of mum’s feet on the pedals which move the warp, an ancient craft in action.

We made our farewells, and wandered onto a dirt road, up the steps to a monastery, and into the village, watched some paper being made, mooched around some shops, happy to admire rather than acquire, then ambled back across the bridge and down to the riverfront in search of a decent vantage point for one of those wonderful Mekong sunsets.

Now petanque is, after football, the national sport of Laos, which, out of all IndoChine, has imbibed by far the most amount of French culture.

And the Luang Prabang boatmen are masters of the art. Tactically flawless, with an aggressive approach to the shoot, these guys could take your finest Provencal village greybeard any day.

In South-East Asian cultures, staring is entirely acceptable. This has had downsides for Z, whose fair, freckled skin and skinny frame has made him a source of awe and wonder, not to say pointing, prodding and occasional giggling, in smaller places.

In a Brao village in north-eastern Cambodia, he was the first Western child many of the people had seen; during our voyage down the Mekong, he made quite the stir on a small and rural island.

The upside is, of course, that one can simply stop and gawp at whatever is going on without any self-consciousness on either side. And we gawped sufficiently long at the petanque match for the boatmen to invite us for a game.

Z and I played. Driven more by the desire to appear halfway competent to these maestros than any competitive instinct, I won.

And off we wandered, down the river bank, where we found the temple we’d been aiming for and agreed to visit it another day, discovered a fantastic Lao restaurant, watched the sun set over the hills, and chatted for hours about movies, sunsets and science.

Sampan in sunset streak on Mekong, Luang Prabang, Laos

We heart the Mekong!

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2 Responses to “Unexpected Pleasures”

  1. helen March 24, 2010 at 3:31 pm #

    Mooching – what a discovery for a former workaholic! Sounds wonderful.

  2. itsasmallworldafterallfamily March 25, 2010 at 6:31 pm #

    Thanks so much for the helpful comments you left on my blog. I’m really looking forward to reading about your whole journey so far, it sounds like we have similar objectives in mind for our trips. Mooching is about as good as it gets in my view!

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