Our columnist, Jada Yuan, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2018 list. This dispatch brings her to Luang Prabang (no. 52 on the list), and the Cambodian coast (no. 13); they are the 51st and 52nd stops on Jada’s itinerary.
A crowd had gathered on a boat dock in the village of Nong Khiaw, where I had come with my friend Jeff and our guide, Oun, for a countryside excursion from the splendid city of Luang Prabang in Laos. Europeans in hiking boots trundled nearby, beneath mountains covered in tropical greenery, but here on the dock, the chatter was in Lao, as passers-by jockeyed for position. They all wanted selfies with a newly anointed local celebrity: a young farmer named Sone Soukchaluam, and his shiny, brand-new, silver refrigerator.
“It’s a lucky refrigerator,” Oun explained, and began translating.
A month ago, Sone, the farmer, had activated a $1.50 refill card from Unitel, a major Laotian cellphone company, and gotten a text message that he’d won a prize. At first he didn’t know what he’d won, just that it was big and it would take a while to arrive from the capital city of Vientiane. The biggest prize is a car; some people win scooters. Sone — he got a refrigerator.
The only problem is that his village, Hadsa, an hour upstream from Nong Khiaw, doesn’t have electricity. He was waiting for a boat to take it home anyway.
“Many people ask to buy it from him at a suitable price, but he doesn’t want to sell,” Oun translated for me. “He thinks maybe in a few more years there will be electricity, so he’ll keep it. It’s something lucky for his life.
“It’s funny,” Oun went on. “Hundreds of thousands of people in big towns don’t get this refrigerator where they have electricity, but he got it without electricity.”
An even bigger irony was that Sone was taking his refrigerator up the Nam Ou River — site of seven hydroelectric dams that are creating power that Laos exports to Thailand and China — while its own people pay exorbitant prices for electricity; many don’t have it at all. On our drive, we’d passed a village where nearly every building was marked with red spray paint, indicating that the occupants had to evacuate and move to higher ground when a new dam is completed and floods the only home they’ve ever known.
En route, we also saw construction sites for a high-speed railroad that will connect China to Luang Prabang and Vientiane, for both tourism and commerce purposes. Seventy percent of the funding is coming from China, with a projected opening in three years. Hopefully, Sone will be able to turn on his refrigerator by then.
To visit Luang Prabang and the surrounding countryside is to wonder how long a place with such a languorous pace, such an assured identity, could possibly last. Every morning, I woke up in the Unesco-protected historical center overlooking the mocha-latte waters of the Mekong River to the sound of rickshaws making their delivery rounds. By 5 a.m., the city was abuzz with activity, preparing for the morning alms ceremony, in which monks from all 32 Luang Prabang temples, in their tangerine robes, walked along through the center of town, collecting offerings of sticky rice that would feed them throughout the day. (Monks get all their sustenance through donations.) Nearby, the morning market was coming to life with offerings, including grilled rats on skewers, live sparrows to release for good luck, and sweet rice cakes wrapped in to-go packets of banana leaf and string. You cannot, however, find grilled bats or squirrels anymore, because of a recent ban on selling wild animals.
Progress isn’t always bad.
While on that excursion into the country, we visited Oun’s childhood home in the village of Na Yang. He’s from the Tai Lue tribe, part of the Lao Loum, or lowland, ethnic group. As we arrived, his mother and aunt were spending a rainy morning under their high-stilted house, weaving intricate cotton tapestries. (His village is known for being the finest manipulators of cotton in the country.) His father, a blacksmith, showed us his shop, where he once almost died heating scrap metal that contained gunpowder residue from the Vietnam War. He also grows white, juicy worms, which he sells at the market as snacks.
They invited us upstairs where we all sat on the floor and enjoyed a delicious home-cooked meal featuring steamed pumpkin and garlicky eggplant. Oun’s father showed us how to ball up sticky rice with our hands and use it as a sponge to sop up chili paste.
Oun’s uncle, Khamsouk, who also took me around, was the first from their family to leave the village. He was a 14-year-old second grader at a primary school that didn’t go past second grade when he moved to Luang Prabang to join a monastery — which was the only path for a boy without money to get an education. He spent 10 years as a novice monk, teaching himself English by listening to the radio, before a French friend of his abbot offered him a job as a tour guide, and he quit the temple. When he’d earned enough money, he bought a house big enough to hold all his nieces and nephews, and encouraged them, one by one, to leave the village and get an education. Oun was one of 14 children who had lived with him.
On the boat ride home, after seeing Sone, we visited a different kind of village, belonging to the Khmu people from the Lao Theung ethnic minority, who are animists, worshiping animal spirits. Everyone was hard at work doing something: child-rearing, laundry, weaving baskets, cooking coconut rice in bamboo cylinders. Boys played soccer with a rattan ball. Some carried slingshots they’d later use to hunt birds. I acquired a shadow in the form of a sweet young girl in an orange shawl, quiet, but curious. When I spoke to her, she just smiled back and Oun said that’s because she’s never spoken. The village believes it has something to do with evil spirits when she was born. Although Laos is Communist, medical care is expensive, so there was never a thought to take her to a doctor.
As we walked around, I took pictures of the children, who clamored around and squealed to see themselves on camera. There was never a possibility that I could send them a copy or tag them on social media. They were simply happy to be seen.
On my last night in town, Khamsouk invited me to Phamsai Houng, the riverside restaurant he and his wife run, for a feast of fish laab seasoned with lemongrass, and a never-ending flow of Beerlao, the national brew, and Lao Lao, a grain whiskey that will make you forget what memory is. We were joined by another monk-turned-guide, Serd, who runs the Lao Horizons Travel Agency. We drank and laughed into the night. “I hope you leave here feeling like family,” he said.
Cambodia’s changing coast
No streetlights, no signs of human life were visible as my taxi inched in the dark toward Sihanoukville. This seaside city is one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations on the Cambodian coast, and I had braced myself for an onslaught of neon. Instead, at 9:30 p.m., all I could see was dust billowing behind us, on a highway where pavement was more of an idea than a reality.
That eeriness was enveloping as I settled into my sleek, all-white hotel, Naia Resort, with diagonal outdoor walkways stacked one on top of another, like gills. It felt as if I were in a “Miami Vice”-type building that had been dropped onto the set of “Lost.” Outside, barking dogs cased the sandy road. At the only open restaurant — which was right on the beach, with waves lapping at my table — a bat flew into my arm.
When morning broke, the nothingness revealed itself to be a landscape of construction sites. Three high-rises were going up next to, across from, and cater-corner to Naia. Piles of trash adorned those dusty roads.
I had, quite by accident, chosen to stay on Sihanoukville’s Otres 2 Beach, where it is still possible to take a lazy walk, sun yourself and take a paddleboard lesson without feeling like you’re in a tourist hot spot. But you can see the end of all that on the horizon.
Eighteen months ago, I’d heard, the area 10 minutes down the coast, where Sihanoukville’s Otres 1 and Occheuteal Beaches now sit, had been all beach shacks and fishermen selling their catches from baskets on top of their heads. Now the place — called “the new Macau” by its developers — is blanketed in Chinese-built casinos and high-rises. A Chinatown is being built between Otres 1 and Otres 2.
Infrastructure, especially roads, hasn’t kept pace with development. Growth is so rapid, one expat told me, that he went looking for a crab shack he’d visited three months earlier and found a brand-new neighborhood in its place.
Taxi drivers and hotel workers I spoke with sounded dismayed, commonly using the word “sad” to describe the state of their city. They told me about drunken fights and a rampant sex trade. Real estate prices have tripled, and the Chinese bring in their own labor rather than hire Cambodians, they said. Villagers no longer have beaches to go to, and the worry is that pretty soon they’ll no longer have villages.
The Cambodian coast, but particularly this western portion, had earned a spot on the Times’s 52 Places to Go in 2018 list because increased direct flights (some originating in China) to the Sihanoukville airport were making beach getaways more accessible.
This year, too, Six Senses and Alila Hotels were supposed to open new resorts on two private islands, Krabey and Koh Russey, with jetties 10 minutes from the Sihanoukville airport. Neither will fully open until 2019, but I visited them both and was impressed, not only by the facilities, but also by their commitment to hire Cambodians and keep their environmental footprint light.
Sometimes you have to know when a place is not for you. That night, I opted to move on to Kep, a quiet coastal town far to the east of Sihanoukville, even if it wasn’t technically on the 52 Places list and involved a four-hour, bumpy nighttime drive. As the sun set, I felt like I was seeing Cambodia for the first time, as I passed villagers carting bundles of hay on their motorbikes while chatting on cellphones.
Kep was once the St.-Tropez of Cambodia, where Cambodian royals and French colonials alike built architecturally ambitious vacation homes in the 1950s and 60s — before the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent decades of civil war. Today, Kep is essentially a ghost town, with a side of tourism and a dash of fishing. My colorful eco-hotel, Knai Bang Chatt, was built from the ruins of some of those abandoned villas. On a tour the hotel arranged, I visited the crab market, former royal houses overrun with jungle growth, and a village of fishermen’s shacks built on the water. I asked my guide where downtown was. She told me I’d already seen it.
Standing in those shells of villas it was easy to imagine what might become of this place in a few years, should developers get hold of this forgotten land. Already modernism is clashing with the area’s sleepy seaside life. A fishing village I visited during an island-hopping tour was covered in trash — and yet still full of life and joy as villagers practiced their impressive volleyball skills, or played cards in the shade. Some of the trash washes up on the shore from Vietnam, which is a 40-minute drive away and closer by boat. Much of the rest can be attributed to the way, in the not-so-distant past, fishermen ate off banana leaves that they could toss off the boat with impunity. Plastic doesn’t behave the same way, but old habits are hard to break.
Knai Bang Chatt is working with Plastic Free Cambodia to offer a sustainability symposium for other hotels in the area, and gives composting and recycling courses to schoolchildren. That sort of education seems necessary. Driving through the countryside in the evening, I had to cover my face to avoid inhaling too much smoke from trash fires. Plus, Cambodia has no recycling facilities. Recyclables are transported to Vietnam, which sometimes decides, without warning, not to buy certain items, like glass.
At the end of that island-hopping tour, we walked cross Rabbit Island, which has the best beaches near Kep. My guide, Kim, pulled a long stalk of grass from the ground and lazily swiped it against the foliage that lined the trail. Plastic bottles poked out from the brush, but so did a flurry of butterflies and dragonflies. The wind gusted and tugged at my straw hat. I watched the butterflies dance against the afternoon sun and thought how lucky I was to have spent a year glimpsing the world like this, in all its complexity.
1: New Orleans
2: Chattanooga, Tenn.
3: Montgomery, Ala.
4: Disney Springs, Fla.
5: Trinidad and St. Lucia and San Juan, P.R.
6: Peninsula Papagayo, Costa Rica
7: Kuélap, Peru
8: Bogotá, Colombia
9: La Paz, Bolivia
10: Los Cabos, Mexico
11: Chile’s Route of Parks
12: Denver, Colo.
13: Rogue River, Ore.
15: Branson, Mo.
16: Cincinnati, Ohio
17: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
18: Buffalo, N.Y.
21: Oslo, Norway
22 and 23: Bristol, England, and Glasgow, Scotland
24 and 25: Tallinn, Estonia, and Vilnius, Lithuania
26 and 27: Arles and Megève, France
28 and 29: Seville and Ribera del Duero, Spain
30: Tangier, Morocco
31: Road Trip in Western Germany
32: Ypres, Belgium
33: Belgrade, Serbia
35: Lucerne, Switzerland
36: Südtirol, Italy
37 and 38: Emilia-Romagna and Basilicata
39: São Tomé and Príncipe
40: Kigali, Rwanda
42 and 43: Top End, Australia, and Tasmania
44: New Zealand
46: Gangwon, South Korea
47: Gansu, China
48: The west coast of Honshu Island, Japan
49: Chandigarh, India
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Jada Yuan is the 52 Places Traveler. She spent over a decade at New York Magazine and its websites as a contributing editor and culture features writer. Her cover stories and features have appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Elle, Glamour and Bloomberg Businessweek. @jadabird
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