Saturday, March 28, 2009
Luang Prabang, Laos - February 19-21, 2009
Thursday evening we made arrangements with our hotel to take a short boat ride on the Mekong. We didn’t really have the time or inclination for a day trip to the caves or waterfalls surrounding Luang Prabang, but a little ride in one of the many long boats to see the sunset seemed a fitting way to end our first day here.
The current on the Mekong is very strong so where-ever you go it takes twice as long to get there as it does to return. This time of year the surrounding hillsides are covered in haze from slash and burn agricultural practices. It’s not too bad right now, but later on in March and April it gets so bad even the locals complain about irritated eyes and smoky clothes. For us the haze meant the sunset consisted of a glowing red orb descending slowly into the hills beside the river. We had a nice relaxing time watching the children swimming on the shore, the men fishing, the women gathering vegetables from their riverside garden plots.
That evening we ate right around the corner from our hotel at a restaurant called 3 Nagas. Their garden was beautiful and the food tasted great, but something about it disagreed with me. I developed a severe case of cramping – touristas Asian style. That was too bad, because our activity for the following day was to be our long-awaited cooking class at Tamarind Cafe. I would still be able to cook but I wasn’t sure how much I would be able to enjoy the results.
The next morning we met our group of fellow cooks at Tamarind. We piled into a couple of tuktuks (there were 11 of us) and followed Joy, our teacher for the day, to the local wet market. There we first wandered through aisles filled with dill, morning glory, basil, eggplant, onions, garlic, betel nuts, river weed, tomatoes and spicewood. Then we headed over to the meat market where chickens, dried buffalo meat, pig’s ears, partially fertilized eggs, congealed blood and chicken feet vied for our attention. It’s true that market items that once would have disgusted or alarmed me (hairy pig’s hooves, chicken entrails with the remains of unformed eggs) now merely elicit a wrinkled nose and a more careful step.
Joy (our intrepid teacher-chef) collected the ingredients needed for our class and off we went. We headed way out into the country to an idyllic spot overlooking a little stream. There everything was ready for our class. Under Joy’s careful supervision we made lamb stew, lemongrass chicken baskets, fish in banana leaves (the Laotian version of amok), sticky rice and a purple rice, coconut and mango flavored dessert. It was lots of fun using a mortar and pestle to crush the spices and to cook our food over an open flame. The food was delicious and every cook’s result was slightly different depending on our choice and proportion of spices. It was too bad that my stomach was still in a state of rebellion and I couldn’t eat very much.
After the class I fell asleep for a couple of hours, exhausted from our adventure and my intestinal problems. Then that evening we went back to the night market, determined to buy another duvet, a bag made from Laotian embroidery and a silk wall hanging. We succeeded on all fronts and for very little money. The prices here are amazing.
This morning as we got ready to leave to go back to Bangkok I suddenly realized that my wedding and engagement rings were missing. I used to never, ever, EVER take them off, fearing my spacey habits would cause something just like this to happen. But in the past couple of years my vanity has seen me removing them before I apply lotion. Normally that only happens in my own bathroom and I put them right back on. I stood in the middle of our hotel room in a state of shock. I couldn’t even begin to think what I had done with them.
Lee walked in and I told him what had happened. Did you take them off yesterday while we were cooking? He asked. No I said at first, but then I remembered. I had taken off my watch and bracelets and put them in the pocket of my apron before we started. Had I taken off my rings as well? I must have.
Lee ran down to Tamarind and told them what had happened. Meanwhile I continued to pack, feeling sick at heart but also a bit numb. How could I have been so stupid? Those rings were so very special. The engagement ring had been a present for our 25th wedding anniversary, to replace the one I had lost years ago while helping with Daniel’s t-ball team. The wedding ring was also very new, purchased a couple of years ago to match the new engagement ring. What would I do if they didn’t show up?
After packing we headed down to the lobby of our hotel and struck up a conversation with Richard, the owner. He is originally from Australia and runs Lotus Villa with his wife, sister and brother-in-law. They take turns being manager for the day and making sure things run properly. They had visited Luang Prabang many times before they fell in love with the place and decided to try to live here. It’s not a difficult thing to do. We are half in love with it ourselves.
It was almost time to load up our taxi and head for the airport. There was nothing to do but send Lee down to Tamarind one more time and make sure they had all of our contact information in case the rings showed up. He walked down there while I tried not to despair. Then he returned, a broad smile on his face, and placed a small tissue-wrapped bundle in my hand. It was the rings. Tears darted to my eyes and I suddenly needed to sit down. I thought I was handling it all very calmly but it obviously was a big front! I could hardly believe it.
Since we’d spent most of our money we decided to run by the ATM on our way out of town and leave a reward with the staff at Tamarind. Those rings represent over 5 year’s salary to one of the local people, according to Richard. Their kindness and honesty in returning them safe and sound meant the world to us. We took out $500,000 kip (about $60US) and gave it to the staff at the restaurant. The young man I gave the money to looked alarmed when I handed him all that cash, but he understood when I said “Please give this to Joy”. We decided to call Caroline (Tamarind’s owner) as well and explain what we had done. When I told her the amount she said “you mean $50,000 kip don’t you?” I said no, it was almost our 30th wedding anniversary (well in a year and a half anyway) and it really meant a lot and she said she would make sure they shared the reward money fairly. I don’t think there was any doubt that they would.
We’ve had a wonderful wonderful time in Luang Prabang. We’ve added it to our list of places where in our stranger fantasies we would live or at least stay for an extended period of time. It’s somehow comforting to feel like no matter what happens we have all kinds of options no matter how peculiar they may seem.