Lotus-eating in Luang Prabang

Buddhist temples, watermelon shakes and crazed speedboat racers meet in the ancient Lao capital.

Topics: Travel,

Luang Prabang is perhaps one of the worst-kept best-kept-secrets in the
world. It is a miracle that it has not yet been overrun
with wide-eyed New Age seekers, utopia-obsessed dropouts and profit-crazed resort developers.

Every significant scrap of Southeast Asian travel literature in the last 130
years, it seems, has contained raves about Luang Prabang’s sublime
wonders — from Louis de Carne’s 1866 Garnier expedition journal
(“Luang Prabang has been to us what an oasis is to a caravan wearied
by a long march”) to Marte Bassene’s 1909 Laos travelogue (“Luang
Prabang is in reality a love, a dream, a poetry of naive sensuality which
unfolds under the foliage of this perfumed forest”) to Norman Lewis’
classic 1950 travel book “A Dragon Apparent” (“Luang Prabang … is a
tiny Manhattan, but a Manhattan with holy men in yellow robes in its
avenues, with pariah dogs, and garlanded pedicabs carrying somnolent
Frenchmen nowhere, and doves in its sky”). Even the famed French
naturalist Henri Mouhot, who spent his entire 1861 stay there slowly dying
of malaria, called Luang Prabang “a delightful little town.”

Add to this the 1999 words of an 18-year-old Canadian backpacker I met
my first night there: “Luang Prabang is like a Disney creation or
something. But the cool part is that it isn’t.”

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Surrounded by mountains and as isolated from the rest of the world as
Tibet or Kashmir (until recently, the only safe and dependable year-
round way to get there was by airplane), Luang Prabang was the seat of
the first independent Lao kingdom (Lane Xang) in the 14th century, and
was off and on a royal capital for 600 years prior to the Communist
takeover in 1975. It features wood-shuttered Lao-French colonial
architecture, over 30 Buddhist temples, hill-tribe women selling
embroideries under peeling Communist murals in the market and pack-dirt streets lined with palms and red dust. UNESCO declared the town a
World Heritage site in 1995.



But the appeal of being in the city itself is so visceral that accolades and
honors do it little justice. Luang Prabang is a hedonist’s city,
not in the sexual sense (although it would be a wonderful place to have a
love affair) or in the chemical sense (although opium and marijuana are
available in the same way that pan-fried chicken is available in Kansas
City) — but rather in a sense of blissful, inspired sloth.

From nearly the moment I stepped off the slow ferry from Pak Beng, Luang
Prabang moved me to new heights of inaction. I found myself spending
entire evenings there chatting aimlessly with the locals, eating baguette
sandwiches, looking for the perfect watermelon shake, watching
Orion glitter above the golden stupa on Phou Si (“Marvelous Mountain”)
or just happily staring off into space at one of the sidewalk cafes on
Sisavangvong Avenue.

My one concession to industriousness was to visit the pier each morning
and check for freights headed downriver to Paklay, the last major outpost
on the Mekong above Vientiane. The customs officer there was a
toothless, delightfully gregarious old guy whose voice sounded like a
raspy phone connection from some technologically limited Micronesian
principality. Sitting in his metal folding chair — his shock of white hair
sticking straight up, a cigarette smoldering in his fingers — he looked like a
Lao version of Samuel Beckett.

“You must wait for a freight boat,” he rasped the first time I visited the
customs house. “The water is too low today. The river to Paklay is very
dangerous.”

“How long do I have to wait?” I asked him.

His eyes glittered mischeviously. “Three months,” he said. “Maybe two
months if there is good rain.”

After some more banter and a few cups of cold tea, Beckett conceded
that there was one possible way to find passage downriver. “You can pay
a speedboat boy to take you to Paklay,” he said. “The river is not safe,
but the speedboat boys don’t care when you give them money. They are
foolish.”

I knew what he was talking about. I’d seen the speedboats blasting up
and down the river since I’d started my journey at Houay Xai. Light, knife-like and low in the water, Mekong speedboats sport huge long tail
engines and sound like jet airplanes. Everyone on board is required to
wear helmets, since the boats can reach upwards of 50 miles per hour.

I’d hated the speedboats from the moment I’d first seen them: They were
reckless and infuriatingly loud, and they made their helmet-coiffed
passengers look like some sort of ridiculous commando squad from the
cartoon “Speed Racer.” Nonetheless, they appeared to be my only
option.

“Can you help me find a speedboat to Paklay?” I’d asked Beckett.

The old customs officer frowned. “The speedboat boys are very foolish.
Maybe a bus is better.”

The idea of bus travel was to me as aesthetically obscene as tugboat
commerce was to Mark Twain: I was in Laos to travel the Mekong, period.
“But I am very foolish, too,” I said. “Can’t you help me?”

Perhaps sensing a bit of profit in it for himself, the customs officer
relented. Each morning I would go down to the pier to chat with him and
check on speedboats. Unfortunately, the “speedboat boys” were not as
foolish as old Beckett let on: Except for one driver who wanted a non-negotiable fee of $200 for the service, nobody was willing to take me
downriver at low-water. After four days, I was beginning to get a bit
nervous.

It was about this time that I ran into Suki, a Dutch girl with whom I’d shared
a hotel room back across the border in Chiang Khong, Thailand. Suki is
one of numerous females in my life that I never got to know romantically
because I am inherently bad at talking to women.

Indeed, instead of being engaging and flirtatious in the face of a
potentially romantic situation, I usually get tied up in pointless verbal
displays of existential worthiness. Whereas the true seduction artist can
sense the right moment to suggest a moonlight walk or a back rub, I just
go on babbling awkwardly about travel experiences, Beat-era literature
or how I can run 400 meters in 50 seconds.

In Suki’s case, I got off on a tangent about my plans to travel the Mekong —
and at one point suggested that I might buy my own boat once I got to
Laos, since I had acquired a bit of river-running experience in the United
States. Two weeks later, this inane comment paid off.

“I met an American named Robert who also wants to buy a boat!” Suki
had told me when I unexpectedly ran into her at Luang Prabang’s central
market. “Do you want to meet him?”

Unlike so many other parts of Southeast Asia, Laos does not attract
travelers who think “seeing the world” has something to do with playing
putt-putt golf, taking ecstasy or purchasing the services of a hooker. The
cross-section of wanderers I met in Luang Prabang was a perfect
example of this.

Whereas places like Bangkok, Phuket or Bali are stocked with a steady
rotation of Westerners on two-week stints of recreation and mild
decadence, Laos attracts adventure-seekers who travel for months or
years at a time. In my first four days in Luang Prabang I met a Canadian
whose most recent job had been prospecting diamonds in the Yukon, an
American who’d funded a year of travel by working in a Las Vegas
chocolate factory, a Frenchman who was in his seventh month of
motorcycling around the world, a New Yorker who’d quit his job as a
stockbroker the moment he’d learned how to surf and two separate
people with concrete plans to work in Antarctica.

Since Luang Prabang makes a good staging area for exploring the
mountainous northern reaches of Laos, everyone had some sort of plan
to break out of the standard tourist circuit. Some people were headed for
the Plain of Jars (the Lao answer to the statues of Easter Island: a grassy
plateau scattered with — you guessed it — enormous, mysterious stone
jars); others wanted to explore the remote cave network of Vieng Xai (built by the Communist Pathet Lao in response to U.S. Gen. Curtis LeMay’s plan to “bomb the enemy back to the Stone Age”); yet others had their sights set on the budding postmodern opium dens of Muang Sing.

By the time I’d located Suki’s acquaintance Robert — an Alaskan salmon
fisherman who’s spent every winter for the past 15 years traveling in third
world countries — he’d already purchased a fishing boat named Mik Sip
(which was small enough to handle the shallows to Paklay) and prepared
it for a downriver voyage. What’s more, he’d already found four other
people to go with him.

“Can you fit a sixth person?” I’d asked him hopefully.

“No,” said Robert (who — in keeping with his calling as an Arctic
fisherman — was rarely long on words).

Robert and the Mik Sip set off down the Mekong the following morning. I
resumed my happy routine of eating coconut ice cream, wandering
sleepy back-streets at dusk and indulging in $1 herbal steam baths at the local Red Cross building. My morning visits to find a
downriver speedboat continued to get me nowhere.

Then horror struck. On the morning of my seventh day in Luang Prabang,
I arrived at the customs house to find Beckett in such a huff he could
barely talk. “Foolish!” he rasped, showing none of his usual ironic
cheer. “Very bad! Very very very bad!” He accusingly shook his finger
at nothing in particular.

I finally got it out of him that there had been an accident: an upriver speedboat had hit a rock at full speed, killing the driver instantly. The
passengers — all of them foreigners — were on their way to the hospital. It
didn’t look good.

Rumors spread quickly in a travel community; I won’t even bother
repeating what I heard about the accident the day it happened.
Everybody was worried, of course, but nobody knew what was going on.

Twenty-four hours after the accident, I knew this for certain: An Italian
traveler had suffered massive head injuries from the crash, and — in the
main hospital of the third most populous city in Laos — nobody could
locate a doctor. Nurses arranged a hasty blood transfusion, but by the
time the doctor arrived four hours later, the Italian was dead. The other
victims of the crash — two Norwegian girls — were expected to live, but
both had spinal injuries.

Abandoning forever the notion of hiring a speedboat downriver, I
swallowed my pride, went to the bus depot and bought a ticket for Paklay.

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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