After nearly six days in Chiang Mai, I was feeling restless. I knew I should probably follow the masses and go to Pai, a popular tourist town just a short bus ride away, but for some unidentified reason, that direction was not tugging on my heart strings. Before I really had time to contemplate, I found myself on a mini-bus to Luang Prabang (capital of Laos) via a package deal, which involved a three day bus and slow boat ride down the Mekong River.
DAY #1: Pleased with this spontaneous choice, I sat myself at the very back of the van like the cool kid I am and became instant buddies with the cute fellow next to me. We spent the next six hours bolstering our love of travel and seriously discussing our qualms with humanity's inability to recognize the importance of wildlife conservation, which perked up the other ten passengers for random bits of time. It was a pleasant bus ride, but I'm not sure any of us knew how well we were about to get to know each other. Our first pit stop was in Chiang Rai (Northern Thailand) to see Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple), which looks like it came down from heaven, but was touched by hell. It has to be the most beautifully intricate Buddhist temple in Thailand (out of 33,000, not bad). It’s magical, yet morbid. It has an all-white exterior (representing Buddha's purity), a mirrored trimming (symbolizing self-reflection) and a bridge (dare I say dragon sleigh?) to the entrance, which crosses over a sea of arms reaching out for help from the fiery depths of hell. It features skulls, demon heads and pop-cultural figures from the underworld, which apparently represent omens of what is to come. Inside, the temple moves from pristine to bewildering. Murals depict swirling orange flames and demon faces, interspersed with Western idols such as Michael Jackson, Neo from The Matrix, Freddy Kruger and a T-800 series Terminator. More depictions of nuclear warfare, terrorist attacks and oil pumps hammer home the destructive impact that humans have had on earth. After awhile, you get the point: humanity is undeniably wicked.
DAY #2: The sleeping Aussie has been replaced by a snoring German with a man bun. I've concluded the South African is definitely playing footsie with me. Everyone looks damp and hungover, except for the English girl in the corner swigging on her own bottle of Hong Kong rum. I can't help but grimace and it's my own fault. It's Halloween day, but due to our hangovers, that seems to phase no one. My butt is sore from every angle, but as uncomfortable as I’ve made everything sound, I’m still amused. My mind, body and senses are intrigued, stimulated and constantly seeking more of this breath of new, sometimes stinky air. Unwavering and content, a local Laos woman sits calmly by the small window, watching her country pass her by. I crave to see it. However, even though I am missing the outside, I feel the inside is just as much a part of this experience. Efficient travel and living (almost too much) within their means is a consistent feature of these cultures. I met a guy from Belgium who has been cycling this region for over two years since his girlfriend committed suicide. He said nothing seemed to make sense anymore so he just started pedaling. He said people here need less, want less and are demanded of less. That’s why the suicide and depression rate is so much lower. Powerful point of view from a broken Belgium man on a bicycle.
We finally came to our place of rest for the evening…PakBang, a small Laos village along the Mekong jungle mountainside and were bombarded by business hungry locals hoping to recruit as many bedless travelers as they could for one night only. Within fifteen minutes, I was in a truck, at a guest house and drinking a cold Beerlao for just 300 baht. Could have gone cheaper, but for just $9, I had wi-fi, air con and toilet paper. What more could a girl need? We wandered over to the nearest restaurant with a cookie cutter menu, but the owner guaranteed it was, “Same same, but better.” He also claimed to have shot the buffalo in Laos with his own bow & arrow. Little did he know, he had us at the free banana whisky shots, which he made himself, of course.
DAY #3: We arrive to the slow boat JUST in time to catch a seat in the front…literally, the last seats. Phew. After an entire day watching my fellow travelers sweat it out, now I’m ready to watch indigenous folk in their natural habitat. And oh, how culturally spectacular it is. The muddy-watered Mekong flows between voluptuous mountains, heart-stopping karsts and vibrant green, complicated rainforests gushing out the sides. I keep having jungle like urges to leap of this boat and find a way inside, but the reality is, that’s just not possible. Unless you’re an Avatar. I’ll work on it. I’m desperately keen to absorb some literary history as we float, but my LP (Lonely Planet) is never here when I need it…it's typically stuffed in the depths of Sebastian (my trusty backpack) who is busy having an orgy fest with all the other backpacks on board, like a chump. This is the final push of the voyage to Luang Prabang, which consists of another 8-hour slow boat float. Not sure what to expect upon arrival, but so far, Laos is taking my breath away.