The Two Rivers of Luang Prabang, Laos

Evening, approaching the Mekong/Nam Khan confluence.

Tucked in the far back corner of an outdated sleeper bus headed toward Luang Prabang, an impatient American passenger searched through the dirty window for a sign — any sign — that might suggest an end to his 27-hour journey from Kunming, China.

Bumpy, unpaved dirt roads had led him here: cramped and sweaty, peering into the darkening of North Laos. His bus, now hurtling at about 45mph on a thin, one and a half-lane highway in dusk, couldn’t arrive fast enough. A series of yellow-white lights off the left-hand side of the bus peeked through the blanket black night; the passenger blinked back at the shy lights. Air whistled through his opened window, damp like breath. Two left turns separated by a stretch of road resulted in a bus station where he alighted.

Shoving his shoulders back and stretching his arms into the sky, he stepped into the blacked-out indigo-blue of Luang Prabang.

He found that he had made two new friends from Hangzhou over a fresh bowl of pho-style noodle soup: rice noodles, bean sprouts, healthy pieces of chicken meat still on the bone in a light broth. The friendly English-speaking owner brought over a veritable salad of fresh mint, basil, and lime to complement the array of condiments already on the table. The guest added a handful of basil and mint, a bit of vinegar to his bowl, then topped it all off with lime juice.

In the time it took him to disembark, find a place to fill his stomach, then set out in search of a bed, the night had changed. A bright, brownish black night greeted him. The stretch of road into the city, the quiet lights from streetside restaurants, the sleepy houses all responded to his curious gaze with shy indifference. He felt a bit like a single guest at an acquaintance’s party — not entirely unwelcome, but perhaps a bit uncomfortable and certainly unnoticed if he hadn’t come at all.

Raucous laughter from the Aussie bar on the corner burst through the still air in marked contrast.

He came across an unexpected night market full of red coin purses, embroidered yellow-gold throw pillows, white and blue textiles dyed orange from the vendors’ hanging lights. The scene was ostentatious in its catering toward foreigners (in a somewhat off-putting appeal to Chinese tourists, the night market street had been named 洋人街, lit. “foreigner street”). Dozens of high-end restaurants were hidden in plain view, packed with sunburned tourists in polo shirts and reserved Lao wait-staff.

But now the tanned green brown of the Mekong in mid-morning smoothed over last night’s disingenuous exterior. The river had heard his stomping feet coming; generous with its compassion, it knew just the thing to wash away the disbelief that had settled between his toes.

He stepped into the river for the first time.

Five million bits of sand moved beneath his feet, soft and sensitive. Ten million more shifted and dissipated into the stream, drifting off to some Southern and Eastern place.

He stepped out of the river to take this picture:

First Look at the Mekong

When he waded back in, the Mekong was purposeful. It swept his feet downriver with every step. Above, he saw the speckle-gray blue of the sky dive into the splayed-out river — tumbling and turning in its waters — then burst to the surface again, splashing color at the crest of every ripple and flushing in the sun. Ahead was an expanse of tinged yellow-green, forested hills sitting bashfully on the riverbank opposite. If he possessed the same survivability of the hill tribes he saw en route here, and if the mood struck him, he could trek all the way to Thai, Myanma, or Chinese jungle through that forest ahead.

Behind him, on this side of the river, was Luang Prabang (bustling at this time of day). In town, monks, their families, and tourists traversed manicured walkways on the way to any number of the brilliant wats, or Buddhist temples. He had visited some on the way to the river and was amazed by the especial attention to detail: long worship halls with steeply sloped roofs and symmetrical, carved wooden gables; ceilings made over with meticulous gold paint and embellished with onyx, jade decoration; wooden tables ornamented with small candles and incense for sale.

Following a path tiled in pastel pink, he now stood in the careful garden of this particular wat. Dozens of potted plants lined the edges of the path. The curious flowering plants, delicate despite their thorns, peeked at him discreetly through their petals.

Petals painted a perfect hue of blush-red with shades of orange and rouge.

The ringing of several wats’ bells signaled the beginning of prayer and meditation as he and his friends walked parallel the Mekong later that evening. Stopping briefly to pick up a few beers, they continued on to the riverbank, finally sitting down on the wide sand embankment of the Nam Khan.

The Nam Khan seemed shy at first. Meek and self-aware, the tributary was bound for the boundlessness of the Mekong. Giving them a wide berth, it rounded the flat embankment on which the travelers now sat.

It might have been the beer and rice whiskey, but as the evening turned into a ruddy bronze and warm purple night, the tributary became a bit careless. Even before midnight, it was rushing recklessly, tripping over itself, and racing downriver.

Laughing insistently into the humid night, the traveler stumbled over to the Nam Khan with bare feet and looked up at the blurry red-gold lights of Luang Prabang. He said an irreverent prayer hoping he would have the chance to come back — to be right here again, drunk, earnest, and shoeless, communicating with friends in whatever language could get the point across most effectively.

A Night

The next day, he observed the Nam Khan from atop a hill in the rusted, white afternoon sky and took pictures. Monks in vermilion robes, tuk-tuk drivers and travelers, TV repairmen and store owners went about their business in respectful disregard.

Tomorrow, when he sits in a van with nine other tourists on the way to the Plain of Jars, he will affirm his commitment to return and be politely ignored. As long as the Nam Khan meets the Mekong in Luang Prabang, he will come back.

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