Finding Freedom in Laos

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Although I’m told that Laos is an “off the beaten path” destination, flight QV 634 from Bangkok to Luang Prabang, features a disproportionate number and variety of foreigners from young backpackers and couples to retired seniors.

I have no idea what to expect. I have come off a hectic work schedule, don’t speak a word of the language, and have no idea what I should even be looking to experience from Laos, with the exception of the yoga retreat that I will be attending in Nong Khiaw the next day. 

The flight is no frills but very comfortable. There are a few very minor inconveniences: my tray table doesn’t fall straight; it leans on my thighs lazily, causing anything I try to place on it to slide towards me, so the hot cup of tea goes on the (thankfully vacant) neighboring seat table so I did not get scalded. Fortunately, the only other minor calamity is that I almost lose a battle with a packet of creamer.

The big blue box they hand to me contains fruit, chicken nuggets, a small muffin and a rather menacing looking bun (that resembles a very large pebble), which I avoid. The rest I eat as if I haven’t seen food in about a decade.

It’s no wonder there are so few ways to reach Luang Prabang: the terminal itself is the size of a Walmart Superstore. When we walk across the tarmac (there is no need for shuttle buses) we only see three other planes. But, for what they lack in size, they make up in efficiency – immigration and baggage are quick and painless

The Hotel Lotus Villa
The Hotel Lotus Villa

Houses and shops here are small and feature a mix of brick and wood. Traffic is sparse, and there is little sound to punctuate the birdsong. The streets slope up and down unevenly between the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers and it is along one of these slops that the taxi pulls up besides the Lotus Villa Hotel.

It is rustic by fussier standards, but leaves a definite impression on my fellow taxi passengers, who choose the moment I am trying to get out of the cab to start grilling me about room rates.

My room is large and comfortable, if a little unconventional (bathtub and sink outside the washroom, with the shower in the empty space in front of the toilet). In spite of the language barrier, the staff are a great help to me in plotting out a route around town.

The Sights & Tastes of Luang Prabang

While the concept of leaving shoes outside a venue is not one that is alien, but the array of wrap around skirts at the National Museum for the sole purpose of covering up the legs of inappropriately dressed tourists is definitely something new.

I am soon distracted from this phenomenon, by the sheer opulence of the royal palace. Subtlety was clearly not the name of the game here. The reception room boasts a series of frescoes, painted by French artist Alix de Fantereau, depicting places and scenes of life in Luang Prabang, each of which is designed for a different part of the day, based on the light coming through the window. The walls of the Throne Room are smothered in glittering Japanese glass mosaic also featuring scenes of life and customs in Luang Prabang. The clothing is almost indulgently heavy with embroidery.

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An example of the glass mosaic taken from the Wat Xieng Temple

In spite of this Hor Phrabang, next door, still outshines it’s palatial neighbor. Like many other temples I pass on the way over, there is a definite color story: gold juxtaposed with deep greens, reds and in some cases even black. Dragons are common motifs and here they flank the steps up to the entrance. Although there is not much to see, it looks beautiful on the inside.

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After my first sightseeing stop, I am ready for lunch. Since my options to dine along side fluid bodies of water are limited at home (though to be fair, I haven’t really explored the possibility of culinary delights on the Delhi-Noida border ;)) I visit a riverside restaurant called Mekong Fish.

I ask the server repeatedly if they have anything small, and he stares at me blankly for a few moments before saying “no,” hesitantly enough that I suspect his level of comprehension. I shrug and order something called “Chicken and girolle” and hope for the best. It is allegedly a Luang Prabang special, though my local friend later tells me she has never heard of it.

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I cool off with a Lao beer and amuse the servers by attempting (unsuccessfully) to take a photo with the river as backdrop. By the time I leave the restaurant after finishing barely half of my food, I have a series of largely identical and equally mediocre shots of the Mekong River.  But I have eaten at the riverside and that is enough for me.

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Facing My Fears

The Dreaded Bamboo Bridge
The Dreaded Bamboo Bridge

After lunch, I continue to circle the peninsula. About half way around the other side of Luang Prabang, I follow a very precarious set of wooden stairs down to the water, with the intention of crossing the Bamboo Bridge. It does occur to me, being deathly afraid of heights, that perhaps I should avoid this particular attraction. But I am determined to make the most of my day here, so I convince myself it will be an adventure.

About half way down, while I am trying to balance between two steps, I arrive at a makeshift ticket booth, where I am asked to pay 5000 kip that goes towards repairs and maintenance of said bridge. I follow my usual routine of pulling out one note of each color to figure out which is which denomination, cough up the cash, and continue.

The bridge feels like a bad idea as soon as I set foot on it. I convince myself that the less than $1 USD that I have just paid would be more than enough to keep it stable. I do not yet know about that time the bridge tipped over on new years, when too many people were standing on one side watching fireworks.

I walk at snail pace with my head down, looking for spots where the woven bamboo seems weak. Unfortunately half the bridge is suspect, and the children racing past me, do nothing to quell my anxiety.

My heart sinks when I reach the wooden steps up on the other side. I glance at my map, and decide that whatever is on top of those steps will remain a mystery to me. I cross back and breathe a sigh of relief when I’m back on the road.

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I challenge this fear again to climb Mount Phousi. At least here, the steps are mostly stone, and I only feel like I may fall if I turn around and look down. Which of course I do multiple times to take photos of the height.

I reach the summit and sit down. There’s tightness in my leg muscles that will only punish me in tomorrow’s yoga class. I take a few characterless photos of the whole town and the river, and collapse onto a stone step in exhaustion. It is still a while before sunset, and I will probably be too tired to wait.

I have never been good at meditating, my brain buzzes each moment with tidbits of information that are largely irrelevant, unnecessary and distract me from what I’m trying to do. But in that moment, I realize my mind is completely empty. I feel perfectly content.

Suddenly, I don’t care about which photos are instagram-worthy (though I have included a few of them here), what people at home are doing, or the fact that in this moment I am cut off from everyone I know. I don’t care about convincing people what a great time I had, and about creating a Facebook album.

Suddenly, miles away from my yoga mat, there is just me and the mountain, and I am simply content to just be.

View from Mount Phousi
View from Mount Phousi

Two freed birds, one over-friendly French professor, and a chicken and mint salad later, I find myself back at my hotel room. As I drift off to sleep at barely 10pm (which for the record is 8:30pm on my body clock) I realize that today, not only did I discover a new city based on a little information and no expectations, I also found a sense of peace that has long been lacking. Though the noise in my brain has returned a few times since then, it is enough to know that I can do it.

2 thoughts on “Finding Freedom in Laos

  1. I like the pace and imagery of this piece very much. The photographs also help to tie the whole thing into a neat parcel. Well done, MIRA!

  2. Lovely read again…very pleasant picture painted of the experience Malvika 🙂
    and couldn’t help but laugh again with the food struggle..lol u do have a history with that I guess..hahaha

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