Saturday #88: Can I borrow a hard hat?

If you read my last post you may recall that my 18-hour sleeper bus arrived in Luang Prabang around noon on Friday, March 4. When we left off, I was running to catch a 6-seat tuk tuk that was about to leave the depot. I can now report that I caught the moving tuk tuk, but as I climbed into the back I realized that the only open seat was right between Karoline and Toshio. I suspected that one of them was very glad to see me and the other was probably thinking, ‘Oh God, he’s stalking me.’

Fifteen minutes later we were dumped at the main intersection in downtown Luang Prabang. Toshio waited until everyone had wandered off before saying goodbye. He seemed genuinely sad to see me go. I was touched.

Karoline, on the other hand, had spotted a Belgian waffle stand and even from a half block away I could hear her telling the waffle maker that he was doing it all wrong.

On Friday Karoline had mentioned more than once that she’s only in Luang Prabang for one night and she has booked a private bungalow at a secluded resort on the western edge of town. She raved about the jacuzzi on the deck and the way it’s set back from the edge such that you can get in and out of the tub without people on the riverbank below seeing you. I made a mental note of that.

After saying goodbye to Toshio, who had pre-booked an elephant trek that departed in an hour, I made a bee-line for the eastern section of town. Within the hour I had found a guesthouse that was as far from the river as possible. I barricaded myself in Room #4 and planned to take it easy for the rest of the day and evening. My first full day in Luang Prabang will be Saturday #88.

Saturday, March 5

8:00 – I’m up, showered, and having skipped dinner last night, I am hungry! Hamilton hungry, as Mrs. Redshaw used to say. When I checked in yesterday the owner of the guesthouse told me that his cook had just quit and if I was okay finding my own breakfast, he’d happily knock 50 cents off the price of the room. Based on the discount, I don’t think I’m missing much.

8:40 – I’m sitting in a cafe just around the corner from the guesthouse. It’s been about 20 minutes since I ordered a toasted bagel and a yoghurt parfait with “local” honey. Nobody seems to be in any hurry in Luang Prabang. There are four girls “working” here and exactly two customers.

8:45 – From my table I can see behind the counter where a girl is sitting cross-legged on the floor . She appears to be scooping yoghurt from a big tub into a parfait glass which is also sitting on the floor. Next comes the honey-drizzle. I’m glad they haven’t forgotten my order but it’s a little unsettling to watch it being prepared on the floor.

8:47 – When the parfait glass arrives at my table it’s served on a saucer and a paper doily. On the side is a small fresh flower (daisy?) and a 3″ long boiled wiener. Nice touch! The wiener has been slit into four on each end and when boiled it has curled up like a rosebud. This is one classy joint!

9:10 – I’ve been here long enough to read Friday’s Toronto Star and listen to two news cycles on the 680 News app. I’m up to speed on the bank robbery in Downsview, the latest spending scandal at Ontario Hydro, and the pending sale of Conrad Black’s Bridal Path mansion. Do I NEED to know any of this? Clearly, no! Maybe it’s a sign that I’m closer to the end of my adventure than the beginning and it won’t be long before I’m back in Canada (and willing to house-sit for Conrad Black.)

10:30 – I’ve been walking for about 30 minutes and I’m dangerously close to the western edge of town. Luang Prabang isn’t as big as the two-horse town that I grew up in yet there’s a stretch of the main drag with no less than 35 consecutive businesses catering to tourists. I don’t know where the locals go to find a dentist or buy groceries, but it’s not on Main Street. There’s no shortage of shops selling silk scarves, “elephant” pants, t-shirts, necklaces, bracelets, carved Buddhas, or travel agents who will set you up with an elephant trek, whitewater rafting excursion, zip line or jungle canopy tour.

11:15 – I stop to buy a slice of watermelon from an old woman who has set up a card table on the sidewalk. She speaks English so I ask her where the locals live and shop. She points westward to the river and says, “Look for the bamboo bridge. You can cross it – if it didn’t get swept away last night.”

11:20 – I’m waking straight west. Surely I don’t have to tell you where I’m headed, do I?

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12:10 – I managed to find the bridge and make it to the other side without incident. Well, there was a bit of an incident, but no real harm was done. When I reached the middle point I tried to get the thing to sway by quickly shifting my weight from side to side. At first it seemed pretty solid so I really leaned into the railings and that got it rocking. It wasn’t very high off the water and the water wasn’t running very fast, so the biggest threat to my personal safety undoubtedly came from two French ladies who unbeknownst to me had followed me onto the bridge. They didn’t physically attack me but I did hear a few French words that I haven’t heard since that time at Assiniboia Downs when Jean Chabot’s sulky collapsed and with his feet tangled up in the reigns he was dragged through the manure pile outside Barn 3.

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12:55 – After crossing the bridge and climbing a steep and slippery embankment on the other side, I came to a quiet little street lined with houses and shops. There wasn’t a travel agent in sight. I know that both sides of the river are technically Luang Prabang, but when one side is geared towards tourists and the other side looks much as it would have 25 years ago, I know which side I prefer. If you ask me, there’s a problem when you’ve traveled this far and you cannot tell if you’re in Luang Prabang or Niagara-On-The Lake. That’s not the case over here though.

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13:05 – Not all of the businesses are open on a Saturday afternoon but those that are are definitely catering to locals. The local dentist supplements his income by selling ice cream bars. I guess it guarantees a steady stream of patients needing root canals.

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This pretty girl was selling a pig that she claimed to have personally butchered on Friday night, although I’m not sure ‘butchered’ is the best term. ‘Hacked up with a machete’ is more like it. Anyway, she spoke very good English and she had a wicked sense of humour. She also had an Adam’s apple.

13:22 – A little further down the street I came across the local Honda dealership.

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(Todd? MaryLeigh? If you’re thinking about a transfer, the sales department at this place could use some motivation! I spoke to these two guys for quite a while. They didn’t want to sell me a bike but they were quite interested in where I was from and why I was on this side of the river.)

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13:36 – Next door to the butcher was a woman selling sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. She didn’t want me to take her photo but she was more than happy to let me paw over the rice. At least that’s what I think she was selling. She didn’t speak any English, unlike shopkeepers on the other side of the river who generally speak Thai, English, and enough German, French, Chinese, and Korean to sell you a carved Buddha with a 1000% markup.

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13:50 – Given the English signage, I suspect that the local winery is little more than a “U-brew” shop catering to tourists. Still, I like their signage.

14:40 – I stopped for a bottle of water at the local general store and struck up a conversation with the two guys from Honda who had wandered over to see what I was doing. Apparently there is NOTHING to see over here. All the good stuff is on the other side of the river if you believe them. Water was also a buck a bottle on the other side of the river but less than 15 cents over here.

Note: I make no apologies about buying bottled water in developing countries. I know that most plastic bottles end up in landfill or worse, the world’s oceans, but I don’t care. Have you seen where drinking water comes from and where sewerage goes in places like Luang Prabang? Dasani, yes. Diarrhea, no.

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14:50 – I might have found my next fixer-upper! A year before leaving Canada I completed a seven-year renovation project on a house in downtown Toronto. I probably wouldn’t be taking this two year trip if it weren’t for the bidding war that ensued when I listed it. But am I ready to tackle another gut-job? Well, maybe. I’m probably priced out of the fixer-upper market in Toronto or Vancouver but according to a neighbour, I could buy this place for about US$20,000. A little yard work, a new kitchen and bathroom, a new polished concrete floor, plantation-style shutters, and about 50 gallons of white paint gets you a guesthouse that will produce income for at least four months of the year. And yes, that would be the same four months of the year that I’m not too crazy about spending in Ontario. Something to think about.

19:10 – After a nap and a shower it’s time to look for dinner and whatever passes as fun in this town.

20:10 – There are plenty of pseudo-Thai restaurants on Main Street as well as an Irish pub and half a dozen coffee joints. I chose a respectable looking place that was neither “authentic Thai” or “Fionn McCool’s.” I know I could have done better (more authentic) but I have another 18 hour bus ride on Monday and I don’t need any problems, if you know what I mean. I’ll wait until I’m back in Bangkok before resuming an all street-food diet.

20:30 – Well, that’s about it for another Saturday. But it’s only 8:30, you say? Yep, this is Luang Prabang. The owner of the restaurant has placed all of the chairs on top of the tables and she’s slopping a wet mop within an inch of my feet. I can take a hint!

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As the sign says, “Businesses must close by 11:30 pm so you can be home before the midnight curfew.” I’m all for respecting local laws and customs but I’m not too thrilled to be back at the hotel and playing online Scrabble before nine o’clock on a Saturday night.

21:00 – The owner of the guesthouse just knocked on the door and informed me that he’s knocking down the wall between two adjacent rooms and will have to turn the power off for a few hours. I immediately thought about the fun I had knocking out walls in that old house in Toronto so I asked if I could give him a hand. I don’t think he understands but I’ll put on my hiking boots and see if I can still swing a sledgehammer. This Saturday night might turn out to be a bit of fun after all.

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