The slowboat pulled in to the Luang Prabang boat dock in a simpering rain. I climbed up into the town and started looking for a place to sleep.
I discovered quickly that Luang Prabang doesn’t have the same target market as Chiang Mai. Here instead of people who are young, adventurous, and carrying backpacks, they tended to cater more to people who are middle-aged, seeking luxury, and French. All the guesthouses along the main road were at least twice as expensive as I was counting on. And it was raining, and I was walking around with no clear endpoint and I was getting soaked. I began to get annoyed at Luang Prabang.
I stopped at a restaurant and asked to use their bathroom, but the owner was all too happy to tell me I had to buy something first. Luckily, I’d been planning on eating soon anyhow, so I got something, used the bathroom, and came back. I was doing my clueless look again, and when he saw this he apparently softened up and took a little pity on me. In what English he knew, he asked what I was looking for, and I told him a cheap guesthouse, and he told me to go down along the river a bit. So I ate the soup he gave me and then, still wet and getting wetter, squelched off in that direction. It didn’t take long before I was getting toward the edge of town. Luang Prabang is a small place, population barely 100,000, where you can see pretty much everything within a few hours, and there are no buildings taller than about three stories. But I found a place. It was a white, colonial-style house with wood details painted brown and a brown sign out front saying the name in engraved gold lettering. But this wasn’t a surprise because every single building in Luang Prabang is a white, colonial-style building with wood details painted brown and a brown sign out front saying the name in engraved gold lettering.
Some time ago, UNESCO visited Luang Prabang and decided that the French colonists who’d lived there and built luxurious houses for themselves had left the city looking so delightful that they named it a World Heritage Site. What this meant, and what the city leaders had just agreed to, was that they had to keep it looking just as delightful in perpetuity, as enforced by a mandatory set of guidelines on how to build and decorate new buildings. Maybe it was my frame of mind, but to me they didn’t look delightful. They looked like they were stuck with the ostentation of people who hadn’t lived there for decades and who, when they did, were the kind of people who thought their own architecture was just so much more wonderful and special than the architecture of the primitive locals. Around when I was thinking about this, I realized that Luang Prabang really wasn’t growing on me yet.
But I was determined to give it a fair shake, so I went out and found the night market. And I instantly started changing my mind about the city. They had all the tastiest things there, like discs of dried curry paste and coconut confections and tea and coffee grown perhaps just a few miles away. But what really amazed me were the buffets: there were three, and each one allowed you to pile awesome Lao food high on a big old plate, easily enough to satisfy even a human garbage disposal like me, for 10,000 kip, or $1.25. Unfortunately, I’d already eaten at the place where the guy gave me directions, so I would have to tackle the buffets the next night. Instead what happened was I walked past a table where a Chinese woman and two Japanese guys were chatting in English, and they invited me to sit down and try some of their chicken and coconut balls and such. I sat with them for a good long time and we chatted about traveling and languages and I was pleased to finally be getting to know people from countries that were never owned by England. I invited one of the Japanese guys, Sata, to take over the empty second bed in my room.
Then I headed off to Utopia, the coolest place in town, a bar hidden down a long series of twisting alleyways so as to get frontage on the Nam Khan River (which joins the Mekong in town), made of straw, with decks overlooking the water and low tables to sit convivially around and a very relaxed atmosphere. I managed to meet Michelle, the American girl from the boat, on accident, and we decided that tomorrow we’d bike to the waterfall outside town together with some other people. Pretty soon, though, it became late, which on Lao time means that 11:00 came around. The whole country has an early curfew, and practically nothing stays open past 11:30 or so. So I walked back to my guesthouse and was momentarily thrown to find the gate closed, but it wasn’t locked, so I could just open it and go in.
I woke up hot, disoriented, and queasy. Ignoring it, I ate an omelet at a riverside restaurant, distracted from wondering whether it would stay down by the conversation I was having with an English girl. I went to meet Michelle at 11:00 at her guesthouse, but due to some sort of misunderstanding, she and her friends had already left, and I was just standing around there clueless for a while.
The waterfall had been my only plan for the day. Now I had to make all new plans, but I really wasn’t feeling up to it. I rented a bike and pedaled aimlessly around and looked at a really old wat and tried to believe I was interested in it. Then I gave up and biked to Utopia and collapsed on one of their cushions on a deck overlooking the river and listened to a bunch of people talk about traveling. I tried to contribute something to the conversation every once in a while, but I was mostly too feeble to talk, and just focused on not moving and staying in the shade. This was probably the best way for me to pass a few hours.
Some deep, steady drums sounded from inside the city. With great effort, I got up and thanked the talkers for letting me listen, then found where the sound was coming from. It was a little shelter, done in the style of a temple, where a group of monks were banging on the drums—a giant one, and a set of cymbals—with all the effort they had. They looked half-hypnotized. I watched them in a daze and tried to get hypnotized myself, and succeeded a little. But eventually they stopped playing, and I had to find something else to do.
I turned my bike in and then ran into a Canadian couple from the boat, nice people in their late 20s named Emily and Evan, and arranged to bike to the waterfall with them tomorrow. Then I staggered over to the night market, but I couldn’t stomach any food of any kind, least of all unfamiliar Lao stuff. So I drank a 7-Up and talked with the Chinese woman and one of the Japanese guys from yesterday. They wished for me to get well soon. I told them I’d try. Then, with no energy left to try to fit something more into the day and make it a less-than-total waste, I stumped back to the guesthouse and fell asleep even earlier than most people in Luang Prabang. I knew it wasn’t the city’s fault, but I still wasn’t feeling much more friendly toward it.
Unlike all my meetings with Michelle, the one with the Canadian couple succeeded on the very first try. I had managed to eat a baguette—these are another vestige of the French colonization and are everywhere in Laos (and Cambodia too)—and an egg, and I felt more or less ready to take on the 35 kilometers between town and Kuang Si waterfall.
So we biked. The road was well paved and nice and level outside of town, and I started genuinely enjoying myself for almost the first time since stepping off the slowboat. Then it got hillier, but I managed to find time to take rests, so it kept on working out okay. We even gained a member in our party, a woman we overtook who then caught up to us while we were resting and talked with us a little. During the ride we didn’t talk a whole lot because we were spaced apart. If I’d been well I could’ve gone full bore and kept pace with Emily and Evan, but as it was it was just me and the road.
Biking is really the way to see a place. The speeds allow you to actually cover a respectable amount of distance, vastly multiplying the number of things you can see compared to the number you could get to on foot. But you’re also going slow enough that you can see the places you’re passing as more than just blurs in the window. And you’re out in the air, which makes everything feel a lot realer. For a while, I was just biking over hills and through jungle. But as the kilometers wore on, different things started appearing. Villages, to mention the most interesting ones. No grand, stately, white houses to be found in these places. These were places where the villagers lived in huts and farmed rice and cattle and had nothing more than what they needed and managed to flourish and be happy anyhow. Little kids walked around on the streets on their way to or from something fun. One of them held out his hand to me as I biked by for a high-five, and we connected perfectly, and I yelled, “Yeah!” Shortly afterward, there was a group of little boys walking down the road, and one of them was casually naked. I guess they were on their way to go swimming. In another little village there was a wat, and a loudspeaker somewhere was chanting something, and people were walking in and out of it and all around the street through town. I stopped for a moment to watch, but then Emily and Evan came through and paused for only a moment, and I decided to try to stay on pace with them. The whole ride was full of these little slices of Lao life. I couldn’t get enough.
Four kilometers from the waterfall, my derailleur burst apart. Damn it. Now I’d have to walk the rest of the way, and pay to get taken back to town with the bike later, and buy a new derailleur for the owner of my guesthouse, where I’d borrowed the bike from. So I walked. From time to time tuk-tuks full of Westerners on their way to the waterfall passed me. I passed a little group of cattle, just standing there on the road. They looked like they knew they were supposed to be walking somewhere or other but they couldn’t remember where. They also looked like they might take a mind to flattening me, and since I really wasn’t in any condition to defend myself—no pocketknife, sick, and hauling a broken bicycle—I gave them a wide berth and they didn’t take any interest in me. The party member we’d picked up, after lagging behind a long time, caught up with me after two kilometers. Kilometers seem small compared to miles, but when you’re walking them in the Lao sun and you’re not feeling 100%, they’re still pretty damn long.
Eventually I got to the gate, and a tuk-tuk driver helpfully showed me where I could park and made me promise to choose him as my ride back in a couple hours. I was wrecked. I walked dead on my feet past a bear rescue center that, on any other day, would have fascinated me and had me standing next to the fence trying to understand everything the bears were doing and communicate with them. I got to the waterfall and fell to the ground and sat a lot in the sun. The waterfall was a spectacular mineral shade of neon blue and shone like a flower in an oasis, but all I could do about that for a while was stare. It took a lot of willpower to get me to step into it, and then it turned out to be way colder than I’d hoped. I came out and I was cold and then I had something to focus on—becoming warm again. In this way I passed the time until the tuk-tuk driver was set to leave. I hadn’t planned on honoring the promise that I’d given him just in order to get him to quit clinging to me, but the time seemed right, and he was offering free transportation for my busted bike.
I got back to the guesthouse and the owner quoted me $100 for the derailleur, but promised to go to the market tomorrow with me and find the real price. Fatalistically, I said okay and walked off to find dinner. I had barely eaten anything for two days and had biked 35 kilometers, but I still had only the ghost of an appetite, and none whatsoever for any food I wasn’t intimately familiar with, so I found a restaurant on the shore of the Mekong and ate something Western and watched the sun go down. The sunset made me feel better about life, though.
I walked to Utopia and on my way I ran into Michelle (and Ivan, the Alaskan fisher from the boat) and talked to them about missing the waterfall trip with them, but we didn’t chat long. I read a book for a while and later Michelle came back to Utopia with some Irish girls I’d met on the boat. One of them had rented a bike and given her passport as collateral—something I’d done once in Chiang Mai—and then the bike got stolen. The rental company was now holding her passport hostage for $2000 US—and that made it pretty clear that the thieves were working for them. The tourist police are ineffectual or corrupt in Laos, and there’s no Irish embassy, so her way forward really wasn’t clear. I reflected that I could have it worse than $100 for a derailleur. Still, at the moment we were having a good time, or as much as circumstances allowed, and all was well in Utopia. I passed the night there and eventually went back to sleep.
On my last day in Luang Prabang I woke up feeling almost back to normal, and I was determined to seize this day, which had become effectively almost my only day in the city. It started out pretty well: the guesthouse owner took me to the odds and ends store and found a derailleur and it was only $70. Still a complete rip-off, but I suppose specialized parts aren’t easy to come by in a place as remote as this. I checked out of that guesthouse and into a cheaper one that I’d been alerted to, and then launched into some real walking around, none of that feverish stuff from days before.
After some delicious soup for breakfast at the morning market, which I was really pleased to be able to digest, I crossed a hilariously rickety bridge over the Nam Khan made entirely out of bamboo. A sign on one side explained that every year the floods wash it away and they have to build it anew. Unfortunately there was nothing interesting on the other side. So I moved on to the next interesting-looking thing, a staircase with dragons for either handrail, pushing straight up a mountain located in the middle of town. I had seen this place from below but hadn’t yet had the gusto to look from above. It was Wat Phou Si, the crown of the city, lit up every night and visible from any place in town. Ascending, I passed by a long series of Buddhas, each one in a different pose, some with snakes, some meditating, some named mysteriously after days of the week (“Tuesday Buddha”). A few of them were stationed underneath overhanging black rocks. The geology of Laos isn’t smooth and straightforward like in most places. It’s as though the earth were a series of chocolate-chip ice cream cones all in the midst of melting unevenly and from different angles, often from the bottom up. Then they froze again and became covered with trees. The result is mountains that occasionally slope up gently like you might expect, but in other places just drop off more or less vertically, becoming walls studded with crumbling rocks. All the alcoves resulting from this on Phou Si mountain were full of Buddhas. The Buddhas seemed to encourage me to keep climbing, even though it was steep and laborious. Not that I wouldn’t have without their help, but it was a nice gesture on their part.
At the top was a wat that, up close, actually seemed a bit run down, but I wasn’t bothered and, feeling more charitable, I reflected that it must be hard to do maintenance if you have to carry all your supplies up a staircase of over 300 steps. Instead of trying to find meaning inside it, not being Buddhist, I went to find a view. And there was a great one. Not just all of the town, but both the rivers flanking it, and every mountain around the town for miles and miles. I tried to get my camera to capture everything, but I knew I’d have to rely heavily on my memory to get the whole feeling. Even so, though, here’s an attempt. (I had a panorama, but the camera stitched it wrong.)
I’d reserved my place in the new guesthouse too early, so I went back and brought my luggage this time. I ended up staying around and playing a few rounds of pool with a guesthouse employee on the most jankety-ass pool table I’ve ever seen. There was a big patch missing from the felt, and instead of slate it had wood that was warped every which way, and there were only ten balls. I think it might have been homemade. We talked over the game and afterward too, and I found out he’s a Hmong, a member of the most populous hill tribe in the country. I told him I’d read a book about Hmong refugees in California (The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a translation of the Hmong phrase Qaug Dab Peg), but he hadn’t heard of it. But he did recognize the Hmong phrase, which means “seizure”, and he told me what the book’s protagonists kept trying to convince the US medical establishment of: that when someone has seizures, it’s not an illness that needs to be cured, but a sign that spirits are choosing the person and taking them wandering through spirit worlds. In the book the hospitals weren’t too fond of this explanation and insisted on treating the epileptic little Hmong girl their way, rather than listening to anything the Hmongs said about the necessity of animal sacrifices and training the girl as a shaman. The whole book basically described an enormous impasse, with no good way out.
The guesthouse guy asked me questions about America. He asked if we have kings. He’d heard something about the election and asked me why Obama might be getting kicked out of his role if he hadn’t done anything seriously wrong. I showed him American money and told him when each of the statesmen on it had been around, and he asked why we had such old rulers on the money. The Lao money all has the same person on it: the current president, Khaysone Phomvihane. A helicopter went by close overhead and he explained that it was probably a visiting dignitary from the national government in Vientiane. They like to visit the various provinces, and each time they do, the provincial leaders throw them a banquet and a celebration, all paid for by the poor taxpayers. He also told me that someday he’d like to visit America, but it’s hard for him to go, because in order to get permission to leave the country, Lao people have to pass an interview that serves to make sure they’re not trying to escape the country and never come back. That’s a hard thing to convince the government of. He doesn’t want to stay in America, though. He does know of the big Hmong communities in California and Minnesota that formed after the US’s Secret War. It’s a sordid episode and I won’t try to tell the whole long story here when you can find it on Wikipedia (as I did—I was too busy doing other stuff to read much about it while I was in Laos), but I’ll give a run-down. It was of course part of the Vietnam War; the US trained an army of Hmong people to fight against the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese captured a large chunk of Laos anyhow, and turned the Lao government communist. So the US planted thousands upon thousands of mines there. These mines are still exploding and killing people today. Also, as retribution for the Hmong episode, the communist Lao government threatened to kill every last Hmong, so they fled, and many of them ended up in big communities in the US. But the guesthouse guy said he wouldn’t want to stay in one of those communities—he likes the Lao countryside too much.
I watched the sunset on the Mekong again, this time with some backpackers I’d met at the guesthouse, and then went with them to have dinner at the night market, since I could finally for the first time take advantage of the buffet. And it was delicious indeed. I managed to have a long conversation in Korean with some Korean schoolteachers who were on vacation and excited to meet a foreigner who could actually speak their language. I rounded the night out at Utopia with a game of Giant Jenga with the same backpackers from earlier, and then called it quits.
Before I got on the bus the next morning, I made a point of going to see the monks’ procession. Every morning at dawn ever since there have been temples for them to live in, the monks have come out in a line and walked through the streets with empty bowls to ask food of the people living in town. I got up before it got light and walked with other backpackers down to the main street and eventually found where to wait for the monks. I may actually have blocked them for a moment by sitting on the sidewalk in front of their way out of the temple walls (which were low enough to see over), completely oblivious that they were all standing lined up behind me. There were about twenty of them, all clad in bright orange robes with shaved heads, some of them just little boys. They walked slowly out the gate. Immediately dozens and dozens of tourists swarmed them and started taking pictures with extremely bright flashes. The monks must have felt like they were in a lightning storm. And yet they do it every day. I guess they’re used to it by now, but I still felt incensed on their behalf by all the shutterbugs who didn’t pay any attention whatsoever to the guidebooks and brochures that all tell you to keep the ceremony silent and to stay back unless it’s personally meaningful to you as a Buddhist and not to take pictures of monks without their permission.
They must have gotten the food they were after, because they circled back around into the temple walls and the shutterbugs put their cameras away and moved on to buy souvenirs from the morning markets or whatever. I made my way to the bus station, which was actually a travel company’s storefront, and got on the bus, which was actually a minivan, and left town.