Most recently back from London and New Orleans, among other heat-filled locations, one destination still sits at the core of me, bursting for attention. To reach it one has many options, such as to fly direct to the town’s single terminal that services both domestic and international flights, or to spend twelve hours in a haze of discomfort on an overnight sleeper bus. For land travel, guide books warn the faint-hearted to take precautions before attempting the rutted and sleepless journey engrained within the transport system. There are ‘VIP’ bus offerings that are not in fact ‘VIP’ but rather the foreign business man's attempt to squeeze an extra $20 out of the easily-connived traveller. Alternatively, you can arrive by way of boat — a wooden, less-seats-than-passengers, ramshackle boat— that passes through the natural mountainous regions of the north of Southeast Asia. I opted for the latter of the three choices to reach Luang Prabang in Laos, convinced by travelers’ preferred route of a multiple-day, whiskey-fueled expedition down the Mekong River.
Imminently upon boarding, boat passengers replaced their young Thai coconuts with the nighttime poison of Lao-Lao and began to share longwinded stories about the people they were back home. Joey the frustratingly confident middle school film teacher; Michael the artist and party supplier; Carrie the recent divorcee, with blue eyes like diamonds, trying to make sense of a broken relationship. On the first leg of the ride, I sat next to Steve, an overly apprehensive American traveler who, despite his apprehension, offered a form of comfort in the familiar. Steve and I listened, and we told our own stories. He, the 28-year-old banking consultant who one day woke up fearing life would pass him by; me, the writer naive to many things besides kind strangers and the comforts of my affluent upbringing.
There were no windows or rafters on the boat. All of the backpackers in too-loose fitted pants swung their arms and legs over it's wooden edges and murky mist splashed on their shoulders. When the sun exhausted, we reached our half-way destination. Anticipating our arrival, every local family from the single-road town waited at the dock. The $1.50 guest room fee to stay at one of their guest houses fueled their entire economy -- the clothing and technology weighing down my backpack had never felt so trifling.
We eventually reached colorful Luang Prabang. Those vibrant colors drew me more than almost anything, along with the Laotion attention to flavor and artisan tapestries. My quest East, guided less by inner transformation than I hope to admit, was fueled and fulfilled by a desire for new sensory experiences. At the night market, come 5pm, every night of the year, the city’s main street of attraction came alive against its dirt backdrop. Women line the road with exotic red and orange stalls, all of them selling the same paintings as the vendor two stalls down from them. The goods for purchase are unchanging but are regularly frequented, likely because it is one of a small handful of evening attractions. The vegetarian all-you-can-eat buffet — tucked down a loud, potent alleyway — being among the others. Halfway through the market, if looking closely enough, you can find a hidden entrance to a long hike of stairs that leads to Wat Poissy. The top of the temple, it seems, overlooks the entire country. Everything in the town moved slowly, but I felt neither lost nor restless — two attributes history has long associated with reason for movement — for being lost or being restless are deep curiosities that propel us outside of life's regular routine.
On one Saturday in November, the low-hanging clouds splashed gray in all directions. The sun had not yet risen and I basked in the extraordinariness of the fog and the eery silence. An older woman with tired, kind eyes whom I purchased bananas and rice and a bamboo-crusted mat told me to kneel opposite of the embankment and wait patiently in anticipation for the early-to-rise monks. The cuff of my jeans were stained dark from kneeling on the asphalt. Three minutes became fifteen until a dozen monks, in their unlaundered orange robes, reached my peripheral. Here I was in Laos, this ordinary young woman, alone on the edge of the embankment, watching these beautifully aged and slender bodies grow closer and closer. When their feet eventually reached me, I passed my offerings dutifully — and as quickly as they appeared, they disappeared into the early morning.
These are all just feelings that I have, not defined memories. Remembering the sheer mysticism and the remarkable details of this place and this past life, I feel compelled towards the simple act of movement itself. I have always been impressed anew by the range of movement that life can offer; we can move and be moved physically, emotively, geographically, gravely, quickly, in fleeting moments, in passing. Almost three years have gone by since I stepped foot in Asia, and in that time the fast-paced, almost anxious movement that was once my defining feature has subdued and subsided. Now, more than ever, I prefer to hear the sound of my feet on the pavement when I walk as slowly as ever, wandering back across the ocean to these places in my mind.