No problem. Azure and I didn’t let the bomb disturb the New Year’s Eve BASH in our hotel room. We shared it with a) Dark Chocolate, b) Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches and c) Hannibal Lecter. in novel form. As last year we read and shared Lonesome Dove, this year it was Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal – all by Thomas Harris, each progressively better until Hannibal which was one of the best reads I’ve found. FYI this trip I’ve also read The Kiterunner, Tuesdays With Maurie, Clan of the Cave Bear and Fast Food Nation.
I promised a recap of Laos, and I’ll share with you my favorite memory, one that will stay with me as long as I can remember things. We packed on a boat with a bunch of other tourists and a few locals and motored for two days from Hueay Xai to Pak Beng on the first day, then Pak Beng to Luang Prabang on the second. The seating was cramped, squeezing two people on a low wooden bench that was actually large enough for one and a half, but we were making new friends with everyone around us, so it was ok.
Who’s that cute girl on the right, 6 rows back?
The villages on the sides of the Mekong are isolated – perhaps as isolated as any can really be these days. There were no roads in, only the river. There was no electricity in any of them, just kids running around, women doing laundry and men fishing in the river.
At dusk we arrived in Pak Beng, a town that has generators and a road that connects it to the rest of Laos, so it’s relatively more advanced. As we pulled up to the shore, there were dozens of people crowded around the plank asking us to stay in their hotel rooms – Azure shoved past them, up the hill and found us a quiet little room at the end of the tourist street for a pretty good price.
We put our stuff down, grabbed a bite to eat, then went for a walk. Like I said, Pak Beng runs only on generators, but only in the tourist part. So as you walk down the (only) road and out of the town, the generators fall out of earshot and with them the lights die behind as well. The pavement turns to dirt and up a little hill in the jungle it gets darker but not quiet – the crickets and other bugs are VERY loud on both sides of the road. But other than that, nothing. We crept down the dirt road, around a bend and suddenly saw a dozen candles ahead of us. Around the little flames, sitting at tables eating dinner and gossiping, were all the townspeople. By candlelight they talked and laughed and said “Hello!,” teenage girls with other teenage girls, old men with other old men, old women with other old women, the kids running around out of control in the street. The neighborhood only consisted of, maybe, a dozen bamboo homes, but they were beautiful. It was so dark you couldn’t see ahead to the next group of people down the road, only the candles really, and when we stopped to look up we got dizzy from seeing so many stars. I’ll never forget how simple it all felt.
The next morning on the Mekong, in Pak Beng.
We spent a few days in Luang Prabang, most of it I battled a stomach thing, then flew back to Chiang Mai and rented a motorbike. We biked to the north, out of the industrialish Chiang Mai and into some mountains. There was a valley before we entered the mountains that I swear was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. We climbed and climbed and it got colder and colder. We finally reached a peak, then descended the other side into a valley that I swear was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. The first night we reached the hippie town of Pai. Apparently it used to be a quiet little village, then some artsy folks showed up and more followed and it’s been losing its innocence ever since. The pollution is pretty bad and apparently through all the development, none of the locals made a cent – it was all imported goods & labor from Chiang Mai and the people working there still are from Chiang Mai. We ran into some Americans there who complained that all the tourism was ruining their paradise… that they’d been there for howevermany years and it was losing the special charm of a small village. Hmm. Ok.
We spent a couple days there (during which I got a thick black armband that feature’s prominently a boar’s tooth) then got on the bike and continued the loop. Up into some mountains again, then down into another valley, probably the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. A little town called Ban Mae Su Ya is nestled next to a mountain that resembles Mount Si, and across the valley are a couple mountains that look like Haystack Rock on the Oregon Coast. If any of you make it to this part of the world, you must visit.
Yes, friends, that’s a boar’s tooth armband.
On the motorbike we contiued to wind down the hills toward the river and past valleys that were probably the most beautiful I’d ever seen. They were the kinds of thing that you take pictures of, but as you’re taking it you say, “this is useless – a picture could never capture what I see right now.” So you look at it and try to store away its beauty in a corner of your memory, but as you’re doing that you realize it’s pushing out all the other valleys you’ve tucked away over the last hour, and the memory won’t last. So, as it should have been from the beginning, you just look at it and try to appreciate it for what it is at that moment, and keep driving.
The most beautiful beautiful I’ve ever beautifuled.
We made it back to Chiang Mai after 4 days on some of the most beautiful road in the world, it must be, then back to Bangkok for New Years. Now we’re in Kuala Lumpur doing nothing, really, and tomorrow we’ll be taking a bus to some island off the west coast. Not Penang, a smaller one.
Thanks for the emails, again. Check out the pictures if you have a chance.