I remembered the view from Mount Phou Si–the Nam Khan river and the surrounding mountains flanking the town, the quiet boulevards and temple roofs. From that vantage, Luang Prabang hadn’t changed much in the past decade. Monks still collected their alms at dawn and the night market still covered most of the main drag from dusk onwards. The waterfalls still fell. And sitting along the Mekong with a book and a fresh coconut remained the perfect way to pass an afternoon. You could still buy buffalo bile and skewered rodents and a variety of fermented fish pastes at the morning market. You could still hear the natural world and feel at peace.
I was able to return to Luang Prabang a few months back to work on a travel story about the evolution of Lao cuisine and to take a few photographs for a local textile company. I spent my time with writers, weavers, chefs, gardeners, market sellers, and cheesemakers. It reminded me of why I fell in love with the town so many years ago, this verdant Eden in the mountains of Southeast Asia. Life just feels closer to the earth. Whether it’s the musical chants of monks carrying through the night air or a local fisherman digging up river crickets for breakfast, there’s something real and authentic and a little weird about it all. And then, in the early evenings along the water, it can feel like everyone is pausing to take in the sun setting gold and reflective off the Mekong. The air is clean and strong and there’s a collective sigh and smile and it’s just a perfect way to end the day, decade after decade.
It’s nice to find a few forgotten rolls of film somewhere in a lost desk drawer, exhumed through spring cleaning or moving into a new house, the frames long vanished from memory only to be jolted back in line by the under-appreciated saints at your local processing lab. And so I find myself with some pictures from the quaint little mountain town of Luang Prabang, in northern Laos. Nothing groundbreaking here. Just some images from the sunny banks of the Mekong River and some surrounding temples, from a weekend I took away a few months back.
This evening, I’m off to the wilds of northern Mongolia in Tsagaan Nuur just west of Lake Huvsgul. Going off the grid for two weeks, basically. Leaving the computer and emails and all of the other burdens of modern life behind for at least a short little while. And then inevitably coming back to it all over again. So until then.
A few weeks back, I was in Laos covering a Japanese Encephalitis vaccination campaign with Seattle-based NGO PATH. We were working out of Xiangkhouang Province, near the historic Plain of Jars, as well as in the capital of Vientiane. Basically seeking out human interest stories amidst the vaccination effort, trying to find families who had been affected, nurses who had cared for patients, etc. We ended up with some truly heartbreaking case studies, and met two families in particular who had been devastated by the disease.
The photos here are a glimpse into the trip, from the towns we passed through to the people we met and the vaccination efforts and more. It was an eye-opening journey, and one that I won’t soon forget. Hopefully the work we were able to do will further hinder the spread of the virus, and make the country that much safer. For more information on the campaign, check out this post: Vaccines in Laos.
I’m currently in Phonsavan, Laos with a great group of people, working on a pretty cool little assignment. I can’t say much about it at the moment, only that it’s always tough making things happen in a timely manner in far away locales, but it helps having a good team there with you. Laos is no exception, and Phonsavan takes the take-it-easy mentality of the rest of the country and really runs with it. And who knew, there are tons of Vietnamese living in this province, so I can actually communicate with some people. Who knew. The above photo is a Phonsavan cityscape at dusk. I liked the little figure in the doorway, dwarfed by the surrounding town and mountains.
Luang Prabang is a beautiful but strange little place. It’s a UNESCO-recognized World Heritage Site. An example of some past something or other. Preserved. Stunted. Glassed in. Kept nice and clean. It’s like Epcot or Disneyland but only I think because I was raised on Epcot and Disneyland. I’m a product of that generation. I’ve traveled far and wide in my own backyard. I arrived jaded and confused. Though it’s more than that. Luang Prabang is. My experience is.
It’s difficult to dislike Laos. I’m sure there are people out there that do, but I can’t imagine it. Those must be the same people that throw bags of kittens in lakes and don’t cry when Leo dies in Titanic. Heartless. Or soulless rather. There are rumors that French colonialists back in the day would just disappear into the night there. Leave their posts and worries at the treeline. Never look back. I can imagine it.
Luang Prabang is the place that most people think of when they think of Laos. Mountains, the Mekong, temples, manageable markets, inoffensive street food and monks at every turn. It’s the quintessential quaint Southeast Asian town. Every adjective you’ve heard muttered about it is probably true and fitting to a fault. Time drags there in the best way but for me it gets old pretty quickly. Though even with that being said there are plenty worse places to get bored while whiling away your life.
I returned last week from a 10-day trip in northern Laos, traveling and shooting a few stories with a writer from Saigon. We had a few days to waste before we had to be in Vientiane, coming from Luang Prabang, so we crashed for three nights in Vang Vien. It was fun. Kind of. Though note that by the last morning we were so eager to be rid of our backpacking brethren that we hopped a rickety pick-up truck for the four and a half hour journey down to the capital without a frown or backward glance.
I think if I had been there (Vang Vien) about a decade ago, when I was a bit younger and more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, it could have been amazing (who amongst us doesn’t like a bit of a raucous party now and again?). Like Asia’s Elysian Fields, filled with feel-good drugs and tanned flesh as far your eyes can see. But I’m not 18 anymore and these days it was just kind of depressing: a small town with beautiful natural surrounds overrun by hoards of backpackers and recent college graduates likely mistaking mushroom shakes and binge drinking for a meaningful cultural/travel experience in Southeast Asia.
Looking back through the pictures I took while there, a lot of them exude a certain sadness and sense of exhaustion. Something underneath the party. Or maybe I’m deflecting. It was a worthwhile stopover for sure but I don’t know when or if I’ll ever be returning. To Vang Vien. Laos I could disappear in for a few lifetimes. But that’s another post.
The end of my trip is quickly approaching. I’m in Vientiane now–perhaps Southeast Asia’s sleepiest capital–grabbing a day of rest and editing at a local coffee shop. Guesthouses with wifi are apparently pretty sparse here in Laos. Anyway, my initial impressions of the city are quite good. It’s got a lot of character but still feels like some sort of half-assed job from the French colonies. Like no one ever really cared enough. Like it was always last on the to-do list. In a good way. Look in any guidebook for an apt set of adjectives to describe it. I’ll spare you here.
The images above are from the four-hour journey down from Vang Vien. All of the buses out of town for the morning were full and such was our desperation to be rid of all the happy shakes and hangovers and general backpacker ennui (them not us) that we chartered a local pick-up truck at the bus station to bring us down to the capital. We picked up strays along the way. Transported buckets of iced-down fish for a few towns. Delivered a table and set of chairs and gave a chain-smoking monk a lift for the majority of the drive as well. It’s always fun to go local.
The writer and I will be finishing up a few travel stories over the next two days. Then it’s back to home sweet Hanoi.