Friends, we have come once again to the borderlands, to the threshold of another strange country. New roads, new mountains, new forests. New soups. As always, I have battalions of words doing Civil War re-enactments in my brain, fighting towards the frontline of my keyboard. What do I want to tell you about first? Monk boys leaping into a quick-flowing river on a hazy summer day? A hidden forest atop a magical waterfall? The looming spectre of dozens of dead Australians, wrecked by crystal methamphetamine and poorly placed rope swings? The words fall over themselves attempting to get out, I am strangled and left silent by having just too many anecdotes. In lieu: the fine art of photosmithing. Bask.
Let us first sail down the glorious Mekong. The water is maybe a colour you don’t want to look at, but the countryside around it is stunning gloriousness beyond dumb human comprehension.
Just outside of Luang Prabang is a beautiful waterfall/Moon Bear preserve. We watched some Moon Bears be preserved, then saw a waterfall. Then you can scale alongside the waterfall (your choices: incredibly dangerous rickety stairway embedded within actual waterfall, or incredibly dangerous steep, muddy dirtwall) to arrive at a mystical jungle, that had a warm glow, a sense of undiscovered mystery, and (we think) probably no malarial mosquitos.
People told us: do not go to Vangvieng. The river bars have been shuttered, and thus the town is pointless. Of course, the town is still there. Nature’s majesty is still present. The restaurants and people and local culture all continue to exist. The only thing currently missing: readily accessible Ecstasy and several corpses floating down the river.
You can still float down the river (sans dead bodies), and it is one of the most beautiful things on Earth. Young monk initiates gathered along a bamboo bridge at midday, wound their tangerine robes into loincloths and leapt from on high into the cool water. One grabbed a hold of my friend Ty as he floated past to practice his English, and still others hooked onto ours to wish us a good day as we floated past. We held hands in one long chain of tubes as the monk boys asked us about Laos, about the world. The sun was high over the mountains, and we were surrounded everywhere by deep forests, by rushing water, by serene nature. Vangvieng: what a drag!
Vientiane, the capital, is perfectly fine for a city, though a bit of a letdown compared to the epic nature of the preceding towns. One thing it did have was the Buddha Park, an old lot filled to the brim with abandoned Hindu and Buddhist iconography. Rama stands with bowstring taut, as Ravana swirls away. The sleeping Buddha reclines enormously as the sun sets behind him. Durga rides on her tiger, whose ears have maybe fallen off from the age of the stone. There’s also a huge demon pumpkin and you can climb all up in it!