Welcome to the most beautiful place in the world: Luang Prabang, Laos
The flight to Laos was terrifying. Two weeks earlier, the same flight had crashed, killing everyone on board. Our plane was ancient, the landing was tricky: The runway is super short and you hover and swerve between a mountain range before you touch down. But then you’re in paradise.
The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The whole thing. Everywhere you turn there are temples so gorgeous you start to understand words like “breathtaking” on a physical level. The Mekong river unfurls along the edge of town, hypnotizing.
Almost every night we watched the sunset on the Mekong while drinking huge coconuts and devouring plates of deep fried Mekong river weeds, stuffed with sesame seeds, dipped in a spicy fermented paste. And every night it was spellbinding, the sun sinking and river rushing, monks paddling by on small boats. On the first night we watched an extremely drunk guy lose his oars and steal a new pair from a neighbouring boat, then paddle away in a rapid zig zag.
Bowls of sour pork with crispy coconut rice and handfuls of fresh herbs, tough sticks of lemongrass buffalo jerkey. Crispy coconut rice flour cookies dipped in sweet tart tamarind sauce, fish paste steamed in a banana leaf. The French influence is everywhere with baguettes and Camembert at every restaurant and stall, little crepe stands every few feet, twists on traditional French desserts in all the displays (my favorite was an apple tatin made with the local sweet little bananas). French words are casually dropped into conversation, French restaurants abound, as do French tourists and expats.
At night the streets turn into a sprawling market. Little stands sell sweet strong coffee, crepes and huge baguette sandwiches. One long corridor is nothing but food, filled with backpacker-beloved buffets of noodles and fried bread, smokey grills covered in racks of whole fish served with sweet vinegary sauce.
Our hotel, owned by a mother and son, espoused the hospitality of an overbearing parent or jealous lover. It was not uncommon for breakfast to start with “Where were you last night? Because I waited for you. Tell me the time you came back. Where did you go? Why didn’t you go to the restaurant that you said you were going to? Did you go somewhere after? Where will you go tonight? When will you be home?”
We hiked up a mountain and spotted the Buddha’s footprint and various Buddhas in several states of repose. We chatted with young monks in mango-colored robes who wanted to practice English and play the guitar and “live a pop life.” “Oh California?” one of them said with a huge grin. “That’s MY place. That’s where I’m going.” Everywhere we went (for the whole trip, really) people were impressed by California, San Francisco, and vaguely stand-offish about America in general. One morning we woke up before dawn to crouch on the side of the road and give alms to monks, who collect their food for the day by walking through the streets, receiving offerings (usually sticky rice) from townspeople and tourists. We brought bunches of bananas, passed them out quietly with two old women who are probably there every morning.
At a waterfall just outside of town, Dan swung into the ice cold water on a rope and emerged with tiny fish bites on his legs. Cool mist hung over pockets surrounding the falls; standing inside them was like hovering in a cloud. Rowdy packs of Australian tourists jumped and dove and splashed. We visited a neighboring bear sanctuary and watched small, fuzzy rescued bears sunbathe and hunt for snacks.
We walked and basked in the sun and feasted, one night for many courses, getting a taste of every well known local dish. Which I would love to show you pictures of, or describe, since it was a gorgeous delicious night except afterwards…
…we came back to the hotel and spent our last three days in Laos violently, miserably ill. Trapped in our weird hotel with the karaoke bar next door, poorly sung 80s music floating into our room late into the night, a cockroach the size of my hand appearing a couple times a day to remind us he was there.