I arrived in Luang Prabang after a 10.5 hour “VIP” bus trip. It was bumpy, windy and for the most part uncomfortably hot with the rays of afternoon sun insistently penetrating through the bus window. The baby pink curtain was too flimsy to stop the heat from reaching me but I was fortunate enough to have one of the only empty seats next to me in which I sometimes sat to put some distance between me and the window when the heat became too much to bear. The air conditioning unit was cranked full blast when it was working which at least circulated air even if it wasn’t always “conditioned”.
Arriving in Luang Prabang to the relief of cool evening air, I discovered a pretty town hugged by two rivers, the brown wide mass of the Mekong and the smaller faster dark turquoise Nam Kha. I also discovered that there were 32 temples to visit in this town, the markets, the villages, the caves, the waterfalls and the giant Phousy Hill with a Buddha image for every day of the week not to mention the footprint of Buddha who apparently must have been at least 12 foot tall going by the size of the imprint.
I sat down with a Beer Laos and my guide book and thought about what I wanted to do. 32 temples? Ah not really. I’ve seen my fair share of temples and ruins in the last year or so. The waterfalls? Maybe but I’m pretty sure that they’re going to be packed with tourists trying to escape the daytime heat and I just want some peace and quiet. Well how about the caves with all the Buddha images? Hmmmm, I could go, maybe I should go but I’m not really digging it. Right so what do you want to do Kymberley? (Yes I occasionally do have conversations with myself.) Well I’m glad you asked. Actually, I don’t really want to do anything in particular. I just want to be here and feel the energy of the town and see what happens.
On the first day, I hired a bicycle and rode around town. I stopped my bike where there was a path leading to the river. Walking down the path I discovered a bamboo bridge leading to a village on the other side of the Nam Kha river. I wasn’t drawn to cross the bridge for which I had to pay. Instead I followed the cheerful cries of children swimming a little further down the river. I walked along the soft soil of the river bank to where some young girls were building up the courage to swim from the other side of the river to mine. Their friends stood near me, sometimes encouraging them and sometimes laughing at their hesitation. Meanwhile, some younger boys ran down the bank and straight into the river wearing old fashioned diving masks. They promptly stuck their heads into the water to look at what lay beneath the surface of the running water. Eventually, the girls braved the current and swam across the river. They surrounded me wanting to know who I was and where I came from as they peered over my shoulder to see the pictures I had taken of them and the young boys on my camera.
I craved to do something different, something creative and with the magic help of google, found Ock Pop Tock, a silk weaving collective where I could go and learn how to spin, dye and weave silk. I spent the most beautiful day by the Mekong River behind the strands and strands of carefully and complicatedly strung string of a loom weaving my very own place mat complete with Laos decorative motif . My teacher, a Master Weaver, didn’t speak English but words weren’t needed to explain how to work the loom. I awkwardly passed the shuttle backwards and forwards, concentrating hard so that I could coordinate pressing the correct pedal as I beat the newly laid thread into the place. A couple of times my teacher stopped me to fix a broken thread only her eyes could see or to straighten my work. I was gob-smacked by her attention to detail as her hands plucked their way through the myriad of strings and at her agility as she threw the shuttle between the loom threads, left, then right, rhythmically and with ease. Although concentration was required, there was no rush to complete my project. I enjoyed the process of growing my mat whilst the Mekong slipped silently past and the breeze tossed the trees and plants around me, many of which formed the foundation of the natural silk dyes.
At lunch, I ate with the Laos Weavers seated on my own little stool at a small table where I shared food with my Laos translator, Sa. Sticky rice, vegetable soup, curried pumpkin, stir fried greens and fresh oranges. As we ate, I listened to the happy chatter and laughter of the weavers as they ate their smelly fish, sticky rice, soup and other dishes which were foreign to me. I couldn’t speak their language or understand what they were saying but it didn’t matter. For a short while, I was part of the collective, included in their lunchtime camaraderie.
On another day I ventured to a little hang out place called Utopia at the recommendation of a fellow traveller. Tired and sweaty after a mid-day climb to the top of Phousy Hill for an amazing view over Luang Prabang, all I wanted to do was to find somewhere to chill out and drink a Beer Laos. Utopia was my place. It had an elevated platform on the banks of the Nam Kha covered with Thai cushions and lounge chairs, inviting you to do nothing but kick back, relax and watch the view. I lay down on a Thai cushion close to the edge of the deck and watched the dark turquoise waters glide past on their way to meet the Mekong. Perfectly at peace and finally relaxed, I sipped my ice cold Beer Laos and munched on a Laos specialty, fried river weed with a spicy dipping sauce. Eventually I was joined by a Swiss German couple who were a few months in to their year long travel plan. We easily slipped into conversation about diving and travel and life. I never even knew their names nor they mine but it didn’t matter.
I could tell you about the little boy who, whilst I munched on the baguette made by his father, wanted to read his book with me which was the equivalent of an illustrated version of “Where did I come from?” I could tell you about the tuk tuk ride with the Laos ladies on their way to market who seemed to quite like my long big nose and to whom I tried to explain I was from Australian with an animated impersonation of a kangaroo. I could tell you about the Englishman who helped me get onto a tuk tuk from the bus stop when I stood alone, completely ignored as a solitary traveller amongst the travelling groups and how coincidentally he lives right around the corner from me here in Phuket. I could tell you about the other Englishman, Damon who told me about his butt-numbing journey across land to Laos from China after we fell into random easy conversation at a restaurant. I could tell you about how when lining up to cross the border back into Thailand an old work colleague just happened to be standing right behind me and shocked me with "Hello Miss Wilson." And I could tell you about the amazing Kathy from the USA who I met on the overnight train from Bangkok and who upon her retirement decided it was her time to travel and that’s exactly how she spends the majority of her time each year. And of course, I could tell you about the amazing sunsets that I watched every night over the Mekong, nature’s perfect masterpiece.
I have been fortunate to see some amazing places and sights in my travels, Angkor Wat, Borobudur, Kinabatangan River, Tengerra Caldera at sunrise to name a few. But it’s not always the sights that leave the strongest impression. More often, it’s the people with whom I cross paths that mould my experience of a place in time. They may be travellers or locals, the communication may be verbal or based on gestures and sound and the interaction may be but brief or for a longer moment in time. But it is these people and these exchanges that stay with me long after my memories of the sights I ticked off have faded.