Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Historically Explosive Luang Pra-BANG!

After an interesting and enjoyable time in Cambodia, it's time to tick off the next country in our I-Spy Spotters Book of The World. We're off to Laos, and specifically the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang. Given that we live 10 minutes walk from another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Saltaire, we can sometimes get a bit blasé about visiting places around the world who proudly boast about their UNESCO status. We've been to the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, and seen the stunning treasury facade carved into the pink rocks, but did it have Salts Diner serving delicious home made burgers and a range of refreshing ales from the Saltaire Brewery? No it didn't. And we've "scuba'd" around The Great Barrier Reef, but failed to find a pub anywhere along its colourful coral watery depths to rival the cosy Fanny's Ale House. And The Medina of Marrakech was noisy and exciting and exotic, but does its railway station afford easy access to Skipton or Bradford Forster Square? Ha, thought not.

So you see, when it comes to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, we are quite demanding customers, and have much higher expectations than most tourists who might be impressed by, for example, a massive lump of red stone, sticking out of the desert, in the middle of "nowhere" (or Australia as it's sometimes known).

I've got to say though, Luang Prabang (aside from its funny name) is a very beautiful place, much quieter, calmer and more relaxed than anywhere we've been so far on this trip. Can't argue with UNESCO on this one. And you wouldn't have the slightest inkling that Laos is Communist. Actual Communism, not the wishy-washy pretending to be an open democratic multiparty free-market system whilst still making sure only one bloke ever wins the election for the last 30 years kind of "apologetic communism", as practiced in some countries. No Laos is openly and unashamedly single party, no elections, Chairman Mao-ist kind of Communist. It was dragged into the Vietnam War when the North Vietnamese used it as a supply route, and as a result was heavily bombed by the United States - It has been reported that Laos was hit by an average of one B‑52 bombload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973. U.S. bombers dropped more bombs on Laos in this period than were dropped during the whole of World War II. In fact it is reckoned that Laos is the most heavily bombed country per-capita in the world.

Wandering around Luang Prabang these days, you couldn't imagine a more chilled out, friendly, happy environment. The traffic mainly consists of cyclists, mopeds and Tuk-Tuks, none of which seem in much of a hurry to get anywhere and for the first time since we left home, crossing the road feels like a perfectly safe activity. Even the market traders are chilled out. We walked through the seemingly endless night market and actually enjoyed the experience of looking at things (including some interesting bottle openers made out of the shells of unexploded bombs which are still to be found in areas of the country). Not one person even vaguely suggested we might buy something from them, indeed, some stall holders seemed to be asleep! In most other places we'd be ensuring we avoid eye contact with anyone or anything, for fear of being dragged into a store, force-fed mint tea and not being released until we had paid a sizeable ransom, before emerging with a full-size elephant statue or a complete set of brightly coloured new carpets.

So, take UNESCO's advice and visit chilled-out Luang Prabang, a great advert for Communism.

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