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.
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.
Even on my best day, I’m not the biggest fan of flying. So yesterday morning’s torrential downpour–which commenced just moments before we were set to pull our wheels up out of Hanoi–was about as unwelcome of an event as they come. But with the sun breaking through, enough Xanax to make a charging boar stop to smell the flowers and landscapes like those pictured above as we came coasting into Luang Prabang Province, it’s tough to stay in anything but a pretty good mood.
The writer and I will be here in Luang Prabang for another day before heading down to Vang Vien and Vientiane to work on some commissioned stories. These first two days are just about getting our feet wet. Or sweaty. Which may be more applicable to the current climate.