Christmas 2010, Win and I were given an incredible, unexpected gift: a week off from teaching, contingent on our doing a “visa run” to Laos. Your typical visa run involves going to a Thai consulate in another country with a massive envelope of paperwork (Laos, apparently on best consular terms with Thailand, is the country of choice among teachers), waiting x number of days, and going back to Thailand with a Non-Immigrant B visa in-hand. However, having decided to get yearlong multiple entry visas, our visa run was a cake walk: leave Thailand, see another country, come back to Thailand and get a new 3-month entry stamp. So to Laos we went.
Twelve hours on a train, an hour waiting around at the border crossing, and a single sign telling drivers to start driving on the right, and we were in Laos. Flat, dry, and rundown, Laos’ capital city of Vientiane made for a lackluster first impression. Buildings, storefronts, even the stray cats, everything was sparse, dismal.
Aside from the presence of a bowling alley and the city signage having French flair – a trait that carried over to street, restaurant, and hotel names – Vientiane was very much like a small Thai city. The manner and language were similar; the architecture and tuk-tuk drivers much the same; there were the same orange-robed monks, the same women hiding from the sun beneath umbrellas, the same stray dogs rummaging through garbage. We navigated the city on foot, walked its streets, saw its museums. We ate its food, drank its beer, and spent its devalued kip (worth so little, I was withdrawing a million kip from ATMs the whole time, which was bizarrely satisfying in its own right).
After a day and a half, in what would turn out to be a moment of poorly executed planning, we boarded a bus to head into the heart of northern Laos.
Having been told that there wasn’t a bus leaving for Luang Prabang until evening, we were surprised when the ticket seller told us a bus would be leaving at 4 pm. As we stowed our backpacks and climbed aboard, it seemed a positive turn of events, catching a bus right as we arrived at the station. As the passengers were finding seats, the driver and some helpful hands started filling the aisle with packages, copious amounts of luggage, bags of rice, and all manner of freight, including three pieces of PVC piping, a foot in diameter and at least 12-feet long. In order to reach our seats, we now had to clamber and balance our way over piping, walking along armrests at times.
And so we set out, luggage shifting precariously in the aisle, Lao karaoke blaring and crackling from the speakers. Up and around steep, jutting hills, through luscious jungle foliage, encroaching thick and dark along the roadside, pushing its way toward the bus windows. As mid-afternoon gave way to evening, we passed through meager villages, clusters of single-room homes, many without furniture or front doors. The countryside wore its poverty openly. Bonfires served as stoves, simple elevated bamboo platforms as beds, possessions were few. Late into the night, long after the small village clusters went to sleep, the bus lumbered jerkily along half-finished roads, karaoke still blaring.
After twelve cramped hours, we arrived in Luang Prabang at 4 am. The whole town, all guesthouses and hotels, was sound asleep. We tried knocking on doors, calling phones, checking to see if anything was unlocked, all to no avail. So, we sat down somewhere well-lit to read and nap and waited for Luang Prabang to rub the sleep from its eyes.
Ill-timed though it may have been, our 4 am arrival had two unexpected benefits. First, as the sun started to peek over the mountains and the town stirred to life, we got to start our day off with fresh fruit-filled crepes, a treat one would be hard-pressed to find in Thailand. Also, we got to witness Luang Prabang’s famed procession of monks, numbering into the hundreds, lining the streets every morning bowl-in-hand, going from storefront to doorway, collecting alms, something many tourists wake early to see.
After schlepping around and scoffing at prices (“Only 40 US dollars a night”), we finally found a place to bed down for several days. It was a dank little hole of a room next to the guesthouse kitchen, but it was affordable. Luckily, as we discovered after napping well into the day, Luang Prabang was a lovely town, giving us little reason to spend excess time in our room.
Nestled between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, The Unesco World Heritage city of Luang Prabang sits high above the flowing waters on its hilltop peninsula. It was my first tryst with a World Heritage City, a first fling that would, unbeknownst to me at the time, turn into a travel love affair.
Roaming around town, the architecture is awash in French colonial remnants; beautiful balconies, wooden shuttered windows, massive homes mixed in with smaller, more Southeast Asian structures. Cafes, baguettes, creperies, Luang Prabang embraced its heritage as part of the French colony Indochine, using it as a tourist selling point surely, but also full of genuine relics of its past.
French remains Laos’ dominant second language (though it is being steadily overtaken by English), and to hear the Laos (plural of Lao, referring to the people of Laos) speak French was a surreal experience. There was none of the harsh, nasally, pretentious quality that you get when listening to French or other Europeans speak; instead, the words were tranquil, a calm, steady flow, all rounded edges and curved letters. It was delightful to listen to, as if the Laos spoke French as it was intended, a beautiful, delicate language.
Mixed in with its French heritage, an abundance of Buddhist temples stood their ground, solidly announcing Luang Prabang’s Buddhism. Although, with the highest number of Buddhist monks per capita (a statistic I might be making up, but there were certainly an impressive number of monks), the predominance of Buddhism in the area announces itself. Everywhere we walked, groupings of orange-robed monks, from small male children to wrinkled elderly men, meandered along the streets. In all of Thailand, never had I seen so many monks, especially child monks, all in one place.
Despite the attempts around town to appear more festive, garland and lights and trees appearing in large numbers, it wasn’t a particularly Christmasy Christmas. And, with near-tropical temperatures, it certainly wasn’t a white Christmas (although I don’t know that Southeast Asians would know what to do with themselves if it ever did snow).
In fact, we spent Christmas Day flying back to Bangkok through Luang Prabang’s ‘International Airport’ (a building so small it resembled a bus station more than an airport). The flight was my Christmas present to us, a way of avoiding 24 hours on buses and trains. Buying airline tickets also gave us time enough to spend three days soaking in Luang Prabang: enjoying its dichotomous culture, eating French, Lao, and French-Lao food (I even ate some buffalo), and most of all, just relaxing, reading, and relaxing some more.