Finding Laos Part 1: Luang Prabang’s Manufactured Peace

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There’s no place that manages the peace Luang Prabang does. Coming direct from Hanoi, it’s less like stepping into another country, more like drifting into a different dimension. I came from the city, from a 26 hour bus romp through the mountains, and suddenly I was in Lotus Land.

I leave my guesthouse in the late morning, and my alley leads up the street to a temple. A golden trove of venomous snake gods, I’d later learn are Nagas, guard the entrance. Along their tails that lead you to the entrance, wax from melted offerings line their scales, and flowers dot the stairs up. At the entrance, though, a monk sweeps the grounds and I can’t bring myself to go any farther. There’s something strange and new about all of this, and am I about to break some grave and serious rule?

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Temples stand at the end of every block. Their towers shine gold in the sun while rainbow stars hang over their gates. Pagodas made of jade and silver. The glass mosaics on the walls tell stories of the Buddha’s life, and as I try to piece through it I realize that I’m looking at ways of thought and faith that I’ve never encountered before. This is all new and distant for me.

The smell of flowers follow you through the quiet, white-house streets filled with art galleries and cafes. The rushing of the Mekong, curling around the town, is the only constant, low-churning sound. The rest is the trilling of the bells carried by the wind. It’s sun all the time, and when the day closes the Mekong gives the most picture-perfect sunset you’ll ever see: red gaze over long-nosed boats turning shadows on the waves. Day after day.

And you’re struck by how the place seems to exist outside of time. Lost in the valley centering Laos’ steepest mountains, it’s like it’s been forgotten while the rest of the world modernizes. Wandering through that first day, I felt like there was something here I was supposed to know, some ancient sermon you lose in the noise. I was captivated and inspired. Compelled to be better.

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It’s a stillness, here. Drifting through a dream.

I sat lotus on a balustrade overlooking the river tasting the air, feeling every moment passing through. Is this a step towards some kind-of enlightenment, or is it me pushing for an enlightenment I think’s supposed to be found here? Just because I’m doing the motions in one of the great Buddhist cities?

                       I’m growing into what I always was.

            And when the stars emerge at night, a hush holds over the town. The paper stars draw a glittering path over the stone streets. The chatter buzz from the cafes. Along a curving street where stores open onto the road, stacks of books and art posters, the slice of knives against plates. Turn the corner and there’s a Buddha shining under the spotlight, surrounded by violet flowers. Owls are hooting.

                        These days when I look up at the stars, my smallness doesn’t destroy me.

            I first felt this stillness pushing through Ha Long bay at sunset. A gentle radiance that hits me in deeper and deeper ways the less I think about it. And this feeling doesn’t make sense outside of the moment containing it: the farther I go from it, the stranger (and even stupider) saying it seems. But in that moment of gentleness, I feel it flow forth and forth like waves breaking against the sand.

                        There’s nowhere I couldn’t go. Even if it kills me

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            All this takes place in the narrow peninsula made inside the Mekong’s curve. Population 20 K, Laos’ 500 year holiest site. That’s Luang Prabang, darling of UNESCO and Lonely Planet and European tourists alike. Look across the river, though, and it’s a different scene. Wooden houses stumbling into the water. If this is Luang Prabang, that’s Laos. It took me five days to understand the distinction.

There’s no easy way across from here. The Mekong flows so wide and so strong, and Laos’ resources are so basic, that there’s never been a bridge across. A passenger boat might come every forty-five minutes, but when we went across it was like crossing, again, into a different world.

In this one, houses stood on stuilts and were built from wood, lining dusty rocky streets. Chickens hopped back and forth, dogs barked, and children chased after us, always screaming “HELLO WHAT’S YOUR NAME.” Women, typically the giant give-no-shits grandmas, stirred a steaming pot of something over a wooden hearth. Rugs hung over the upper balcony to dry. Mud, dust, flies, and the swiveling stench of overripe bananas, fish and meat. And it was as beautiful as anything on the Luang Prabang we’d come to know.

I didn’t put these dichotomies together at first: one side is more built up, wealthier, and one side’s still simple farming, right? I wanted to like Luang Prabang so badly—everyone likes it yes, this is the place you need to go yes?—and it was being so good to me. Even when something didn’t completely add up between these two worlds.

I discovered why, unintentionally, when I came upon the town’s charity book exchange and met the site’s owner, an Australian lady who has the distinction of being Luang Prabang’s, and possibly Laos’, longest continuous expat. Wearing a floral dress that dropped to the floor, and with a tongue like the strike of a whip, her more-than 25 years here meant she could better speak to the town’s changes than anyone else with her level of English.

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And the things she had to say: they weren’t pretty. She told of how the town she’d moved to was unrecognizable to the one here now. “The moment UNESCO moved in, the soul of this place died.” UNESCO decided that Luang Prabang needed preserving; and by preserving, they knocked down many of the original family homes of the city and started erecting grand, French-style guesthouses in its place. Laotians could no longer afford the decadent new price tags on everything, and so had to move to the far side of the river.

Then I realized what was so strange about this place: the only locals were running the guesthouses or the restaurants. It was an entire city circuitboarded towards the boutique-seeking pleasure of white people. It wouldn’t be so revolting if the city weren’t so important: Laos’ Kyoto, you could say, transformed forever.

“My brother started this organization with me, been doing it the first 15 years together. Well, last October he came back for the first time in the past five years and says, Geena, can you believe this? I got lost on my own street. Our house was staring me in the face but would I ever see it? The money came, and everything left.”

That was quite the curveball. Going from thinking “this is the most peaceful place I’ve ever been,” to “fuck. It’s only peaceful because it was made to be peaceful. For me.” And nothing came so easy or straightforward in Lotus Land again.

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I hungered for something real. For something that wasn’t just manicured for me and my money, something organic and spontaneous. Were these just things I’d grown to expect from living in Japan? Is it impossible to find something like that when you’re just shuffling through? I had to see for myself. I had to make it to the other side of the river.

But I wasn’t gonna get there right away.

I’d come to Luang Prabang early, cutting Vietnam short, with plans to see Laos with Sotaro, the old Bangkok buddy. For him, it’d be the last real trip through the semi-uncharted before heading home after 9 months. For me, it’d be my initiation. My window into something really unexpected. I saw that drive out into the wilderness as the break from what I’d known. I’d seen some amazing things along the way up till now, but at what point had I ever been completely shocked out of what I assumed was true? When did my rules for life get rewritten?

There’s a rock in Cat Ba, Vietnam, that my friends and I swam out to and climbed. I was halfway up when my nerve drained out of me. The path made by the rocks fell sharply, leaving a narrow bridge and its smooth wall to squeeze along. It was too slippery to turn back. Brendan, Mr. I-just-did-India-this-is-nothing, described where to go, but when he gave me his hand I refused it: I needed to do this—hopping across, grabbing the crevice and heaving up across the plateau—all on my own.

The jump into the churning sea nine meters below was worse than the climb. And as the three of them cheered me on, louder for every time I lost edge and took another step back, I knew this looked like all those times in gym class or the diving board at the pool parties. Always the kid in the back corner on the edge of tears. And when I finally leaped, when the waves climbed over me and I forgot who I was, I felt exhilarated enough to try flying. With a sharp shock of adrenaline, I’d broken past one of the laws for life I’d set for myself.

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I kept thinking about that moment as we searched the streets and chatrooms for my motorbike, as I grew more nervous and the logistic complexities kept growing. I mean, this was such a big leap right, a motorcycle—a cheap and beat-up manual to boot—being bought and learned in a country with some of Asia’s worst roads? Buying it was a leap like jumping off that rock, since I knew the only way I’d break this increasingly vapid hostel cycle without learning the language, was the motorbike. Having it would let me go where I want, to places Trip Advisor had never even heard of.

Only, rentals in town were inordinately expensive, and bikes to buy were near-impossible to come by. Sotaro was looking even harder than me, since he saw me as a bit of a protégée and felt this was the perfect introduction to the world outside the backpacker. I was getting more reserved each day, seeing the difficulties as a sign that this was all too much to handle.

The last night there, we did manage to find a Laotian selling this beat-up Honda wave with a broken light and heavy back engine, but the thing was near-impossible to kickstart, and the thought of joining my (very seasoned) friends on their journey through central Lao’s treacherous mountains terrified me. I just about ran from the guy’s yard.

And I felt terrible. Like a goddamn pussy. Here I’d come all this way to do something new, and I couldn’t work up the nerve. Couldn’t even try. I was complaining about all these tourists and manicured attractions, but I was just as much one as the rest of them, wasn’t I? How was I any different than any other backpacker?

I left the city and continued on the banana pankake trail, for Good Timez and One Mores and Whoooo.

It was only after a series of hell-raising minivans over shoddy passes and hell-sinking river towns like Vang Vieng (and the Trump win), I reached my lowest on this whole trip. That peace I’d found in Luang Prabang was years away. More than wanting it, I needed to get away from the banana pancake trial. I needed to see something new, or else what the fuck was I still doing here?

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I started thinking about real Laos again. It was time to do something about this! It was time to rent a motorbike and see this country for myself. But was it the country I was trying to find out there, or new pieces of myself?

I was going to the other side of the river.

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