So Long Luang Prabang

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, February 2, 2005

And so after more time than I initially intended I am leaving Luang Prabang for Northern Thailand tomorrow morning. I would be lying if I said I wasn't sad to leave. I am. Lao was tricky at first but it the end it gave me so much more than I thought I'd get. Nine days here in the cozy, sleepy town of Luang Prabang would be about five too many for most people but for me it was just right. It's physical charm hit me instantly but the inner beauty of Luang Prabang and its people took days to reveal itself.

I went to Salla Luang Prabang every day I was here either for lunch or dinner and often both. I sat overlooking the mighty Mekong and when I wasn't reading I stared at the currents undulating beneath currents and the glassy still amorphous ovals that would dissolve and swirl again on the muddied surface. I watched the boats glide their way up and down and I watched families tending their gardens on the sandy river banks. Across the river much to the amusement of a table in front of me and myself we watched as young novice monks disrobed and screamed and splashed about in inner tubes. The Mekong is the bloodline of Indochina and if you watch it long enough you can learn much about the people of Vietnam, Lao and Cambodia.

Late yesterday afternoon I was meandering with no place in mind when I heard the low beating of a huge temple drum overlapping with rhythmic chimes and gongs so I followed the sounds. It was Monk Vieng Say's monastery and there he was where I'd left him two days before studying. He showed me another print he'd done of the Tree of Life and then asked me to tell him the difference between "further" and "farther" and "president" and "precedent". Explaining something like that that you already know but have never articulated is at first daunting but I am proud to say that he understood. I then asked him to give me examples and he did. He hadn't yet seen his interview online so I told him that I'd come and get him the following afternoon and we'd go see it. He'd also just gotten an email account and wanted instruction on that, as well.

As promised I showed up at Noon today and he was in his usual place this time painting a large Buddha standing on a lotus blossom. He scurried to put away his supplies and slipped on his sandals and while walking he added another layer of tangerine robe. He twisted a section and rolled another and slid his arm under a flat piece and flipped it over his shoulder. It was quite impressive. When I asked how long it took him to learn how to wear the second layer I felt better when he said it took him "several days". So it really was as tricky as it looked and yet he made it seem effortless. He grabbed his parasol and we headed to the Internet cafe.

It's interesting to teach a monk how to use the Internet. The stares and smiles you get from westerners is just what you'd expect. If I'd been on the other side I'd have given me the same awed glances. We sat side and side he at his and I at mine and I sent him emails and he'd send them back. He beamed when I showed him his picture on the computer.

An hour later it was time for me to have lunch and table number six at Salla Luang Prabang was calling. I paid for our Internet connections, a whopping two dollars and we stepped into the sun to say goodbye. The instinct is to shake hands when you say goodbye to someone but when it's a monk you can't do that so that felt a bit odd. "I'm sad that you're leaving, my friend" he told me. I was sad, as well. We smiled and parted.

I shuffled off head down for lunch where I finished my book, which by the way ends on the Mekong. With my hand on the last page still opened I glazed across the Mekong and felt a wave of melancholy. I headed back showered, started packing, checked my email and then it was time to head back for my final dinner at table number six.

When I was finished with dinner the three servers followed me to the curb and wai'd then waved. I walked down the center of the dark quiet street and gazed up at the trees and across the river and deeply sighed. I wondered if I'd be back. I hope so.

I kicked around the night market and waved goodbye to a woman I'd bought a skirt from earlier in the week. I had planned on walking back down the silent street to my guesthouse but at the end of the night market was a cyclo driver that I'd taken a few times.

I waved at him and greeted him smiling as he stepped off the seat and asked, "I take you home?"

"Sure, take me home -- 3,000 kip [30 cents]." "No, 5,000 kip," he insisted. "Have I yet to pay you 5,000 [50 cents] kip for this short ride? It's 3,000 kip -- you know that." He smiled and consented and I climbed in.

I gave him 10,000. This time I gave more than someone thought they'd get.

It only seemed fair.

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