We arrive in Luang Prabang at dusk, a pedestrian market overtaking the downtown square. Gold-plated trinkets glint in the early evening, and everywhere are blankets. They are covered in shoes, leather notebooks, dresses, pens, tchotchkes, jewellery. The sun is hazy over a grand temple on a hill, and we slowly find our way to our accommodation. It is dark, and we are no longer on a boat, so all is well.
We have acquired new travel friends, the only people on the boat we deemed tolerable enough to spend time with. Together we explore the town, climbing the steep ridge to the central peak of the hill overlooking the countryside. People gather here each day, gaze out over the skyline, watch the sunset on a distant mountain. The sky turns red, then purple, and a husky blue before we walk back down into town.
We stop in a convenience store and purchase a bottle of Lao whiskey called “True Manhood.” A man flashes a grotesque, distended bicep across the label, his masculine prowess communicating exactly how bombed you’re going to get. It is likely flammable and probably mostly turpentine, and a tall bottle of it costs the equivalent of $1.25. Are we going to die? Probably. At the very least, we are going to go blind. We drink late into the night, until the streets are quiet and the sky is dark, watching hours and hours of Mandarin language MTV on satellite television.
As we walk the town, people tell us to head to the falls, to commandeer a mini-bus for the five of us and head out of town. Being people of an adventurous sort of spirit but precious little forethought or planning, we happily hop in the next vehicle that does not want to gouge us and drive off into the woods.
There is a Moon Bear sanctuary before the waterfalls, two great enclosures filled with beasts roughly midway in size between great danes and Shetland ponies. They toddle around on blown-up playground furniture, burrowing into tireswings and dozing atop bear-sized jungle gyms. Each bear has a crescent of white fur around its neck. They are creatures of a distant wood, one we’ve never seen before, and they are as stupid-looking as they are adorable. I imagine a southeast Asian version of Winnie the Pooh or Yogi Bear, I imagine these wild animals thick with pots of honey and pic-a-nic baskets. Somewhere, a Lao Ranger Smith is angrily shaking his fist at a scheming pack of ursine petty thieves.
We walk on soft, slick ground, pounded down by thousands of thousands of footsteps. It is cool and smooth, and we go barefoot to maintain our balance, and of course eat it on the regular. The falls spread before us, little pools lined up one after another, a group of fallen over Matryoshka dolls. People are everywhere, slipping toes into the clear river.
The water proves to be the promised shade of azure, and we gently lower ourselves into the cold depths. We challenge each other in the currents of this small waterfall, creeping along the submerged length of a fallen tree, a vast, bleached tentacle, dead under the surface. We leap from its tip and swim against the water to touch the rocks below the falls, an elementary school feat of mettle. I manage to reach the falls before getting carried off in a current, and I accidentally swallow a mouthful of water. We are all positive that this spells my doom, and I get a Munchausen-grade fever as we walk around. I ask constantly if I appear too dark, or too pale, if my belly has become warped in shape. I see the face of my mortality, and we decide to make my last day a beautiful one.
Someone, seemingly the universe, suggests we climb to the peak of the falls. We walk into the woods, and discover that the path is difficult. Our feet find the way, as feet on earth so often do. I go barefoot, and walking this trail means finding the footsteps of everyone before you, of thanking them for finding the steps first. Toes slip amidst roots and knots of trees, fingers burrow into earth and clasp around vines for support. We climb, with the forest’s aid. Some things in the world want to be seen.
At the top, a world unravels, as though it were simply hiding amongst treetops, waiting for those sturdy enough to make the climb. We are in a jungle atop a cliff, roots clinging to rock and submerged soil, branches and vines swinging in the rushing cold.
The trees are old, and they careen and swoon across each other in a great shared canopy. It is hot here, but there is very little sun, we are in the deep gloom. I grow slowly convinced that mystical entities must live here. Fairies, perhaps. Trolls. Ents. Mermaids, where the water is deep enough. A flock of unicorns. A great water serpent ridden by a valkyrie who is fighting an ancient 12-limbed tiger. Something mystical has to be up in this forest, because forests don’t look like this without some sort of magic floating around.
As we descend the other side of the falls, the way grows slightly precarious: the stairs are built into the falls themselves, wood and rusted metal under crashing water. The struts and supports have grown sharp and brown, they shake under weight and look ready to snap. The wood had rotted, has become slick, has come alive again in algae and moss. We nearly fall to our deaths multiple times, but it’s already a deadly sort of day with my encroaching demise.
A Parisian bookseller has recommended us a restaurant, and we arrive from the falls just after dark. It is outdoors, and the seats are made of stone, and red lights flood the area. Sangria is dirt cheap, and is also made with True Manhood instead of wine or fruit or anything like sangria ingredients.
The entertainment begins as we finish our food, and models spill out from behind painted screens. They are displaying local Lao and Hmong fashions, designed, sewn, and worn by women from the nearby countryside. It is beautiful, and the girls look nothing like runway models, which is to say that they look incredibly happy to be doing this. Pulsing techno alternates with tonal Lao jams, and the young women swish about the multiple stages, tilting primly, bowing to the onlookers.
As we finish our beers, the fashion show is followed by a breakdancing crew. The stage is old and clearly not meant for this kind of vigorous display, and it creaks and wobbles as the young men slam and leap and slide. They take an intermission and place an enormous golden pot at stage centre, and we slip folded Lao kip bills in as tips for the show.
We did not know what to expect, coming to Laos. It was a blank spot in our minds, a kind of blurry interspace, a crossroad interstitial nation. We imagined a perfect blurring of Thailand and Vietnam, a kind of breather nation, was it even a nation, or was it more of an idea, maaaaaaan? We were clueless. Laos, as it turns out, was not interested in something so pedestrian. Laos wanted to give us the weirdest, coolest day it could, and Laos succeeded.