Lori and I awoke, not to the usual blast of sunshine shooting through the white curtains in our room, but to darkness punctuated by the sound of water rushing off the terra-cotta tiles of our gutterless roof. I peaked outside at the nastiness awaiting us, wanting nothing more than to crawl back into bed and pretend it wasn’t a travel day.
It’s been raining for three days straight, which is highly unusual for this far into November — a freak storm of sorts, perhaps related to the typhoon approaching Vietnam. News of this nature is hard to come by here so it’s difficult to say for sure. The forecast in Luang Prabang, where we are headed this morning, calls for rain today, giving way to sun tomorrow. We’ll see.
We shuttled our suitcases and baby-filled carseat to the pickup as the rains intensified. Lori turned the ignition. Nothing. 90 minutes until departure. Pouring rain. Ignition — again, nothing. A deep breath, ignition, then the seemingly endless sound of crank-crank-crank-crank before the old pickup coughed hesitantly to life. Off to the airport.
From our house to Wattay International, it’s been taking 20 minutes outside of rush hours. Today, it took well over 30, due to the conditions. The domestic terminal at Vientiane’s airport is a compact two-story modular-type affair, a temporary structure while they demolish (and I assume, rebuild) the old domestic terminal. No arrival/departure boards, no flight updates, but you can almost bet that your flight won’t depart on time, and ours was in fact late by about an hour or two.
Most of the aircraft flown by the flag carrier of Laos (Lao Airlines) are twin turbo-prop ATR-72s. I’ve always enjoyed my flights on these present-day workhorses of the developing world — reliable, stable, efficient high-wing aircraft. Sit under the wing and you’re almost guaranteed a smooth ride under most conditions. Flying in a rain storm through the clouds at 13,000 while skimming some of Southeast Asia’s most rugged terrain is a huge exception, but once we descended from the clouds, we were treated to some spectacular scenery! Now, where’s the landing strip?
30 minutes from wheels up to wheels down, and it feels like we’re in a whole other world, far removed from the hot and humid plains of Vientiane. The old mountain kingdom of Luang Prabang. It’s good to be back!
The short rain break was nice while it lasted. We thought we might’ve left the rains in low-lying Vientiane, but of course not. That would be ludicrous. The Luang Prabang rains returned with a fury the second we checked in to our guesthouse. Eager to still get out and about, we took shelter in the first cafe we came across, which happened to be in the city’s iconic Indigo House. Thankfully, they had delicious sandwiches and a pretty fantastic Vietnamese iced coffee, which helped buoy the mood.
The cafe was unusually packed for mid-morning, but the mood was anything but jovial, as desperate and frustrated holiday-goers who thought they had read the climate tea-leaves so well sat staring at the torrential downpour, watching their much-anticipated vacation in this world-renowned UNESCO heritage town literally wash away in the flooded street. Judging by the accents of the people around us, few if any were probably American. Gloomy for them, indeed, but little did Lori and I know, our day was about to become far more depressing.
When the heavy rain tapered off to a momentary drizzle, we headed to TAEC (Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre). Both of us had very fond memories of visiting TAEC four years ago. At the time, I had just finished my MA and wanted to transition from Demobilization and Reintegration (D&R) work in Africa to focusing on community development projects among ethnic minorities in Southeast Asia. Much of my studies had focused on indigenous rights and security issues in the former Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, but a series of chance encounters and events kept my work focused on Africa for the ensuing three years, even while we were living in Belize. Yet, TAEC and the work being done to train and empower the populations of focus here has long been in the back of my mind.
After leaving TAEC, we tested the weather gods to see how far we could get before the next deluge, which turned out to be just far enough to make it to the end of the peninsula of the historic section.
I took a photo of this four years ago to refer back to during our time in Luang Prabang and Laos in general. It was nice to see the same sign still up.
Our walk took us by our old guest house, which still seems to be very much up and running. Always nice to see that, provided that we enjoyed our stay there.
A shop carrying only the essentials.
By the time we made it to the end of the peninsula, where the River Khan meets the Mekong, the U.S. election results were still being tallied. We thought we might know the outcome the minute we got off the plane and turned our phones back on, but several key states were still too close to call. Midday Wednesday in this beautiful place with these kind and beautiful people and our thoughts were half a world away. I’m not sure if it was the weather or if he could sense the tension, but Noe was also out of sorts, not his usual happy-go-lucky self.
Adding to the mood, it quickly became apparent that Luang Prabang had suffered a very recent weather event. And, in fact, in September, shortly before we arrived in Laos, there was massive flooding through this region, altering the landscape and washing away livelihoods of the communities living along the banks of the Mekong and its tributaries. The extent of the damage was obvious along the entire stretch of the River Khan that divides the town. Unfortunately, events like this are becoming increasingly common for several reasons and disproportionately affect the poorest of the poor.
We hadn’t noticed this lovely outdoor cafe at the confluence of the town’s two rivers last time we were here. We suspect it’s new, but didn’t venture this way much in 2012. Noe was hungry so it seemed like a good place to address that issue.
What we didn’t realize at the time was that another deluge was about to hit, stranding us there for a good long while.
The election results were becoming too nerve-wracking, so we attempted to put our phones away for a while and enjoy the scene playing out before us — which, lasted all of ten minutes before we were back on our phones again. The rain intensified to the point that it was ricocheting off of the rail and hitting us pretty hard, despite being under a gigantic patio umbrella. I set up both our umbrellas to fend off the rogue raindrops, which worked well. Half soaked, we chuckled at how well the idea worked, and how we should have thought of it sooner. Watching the torrential rain make ripples across the Mighty Mekong through a thick haze of mountain mist, I made the mistake of pulling out my phone.
I’m not going to say much more about the election results here. I’ll save that for another post. To be honest, we’re still processing the result. There’s been a lot of commentary in the news and on social media, and there’s not a whole lot from Lao PDR that I feel I can add to that conversation right now. I will say that there’s a lot that’s messed up with the world, which is nothing new of course, and the U.S. has never been exempt from that. I will say that one of the saddest and most disgusting products of this most recent election has been the total disregard, and even contempt, for facts, reason, measured public discourse, and just plain human decency. Just as discouraging has been the organized efforts by candidate camps to normalize and encourage bigotry, xenophobia, and hate-speech, and efforts by the “media” to label and divide for the sake of yuge profits. Regardless of your political leanings, is it too much to ask that we hold our leaders and our news media to a higher standard?
Following a good long while of staring out at the Mekong in silence, we realized the rain had let up for the moment and felt a change of scenery was in order. We spent the next several hours wandering this peaceful and very special corner of our beautiful little planet while our minds wandered thousands of miles away to a very different place. Disappointment soon gave way to anger and frustration, but ultimately gratitude won out — we felt deeply grateful to be together and to be in this particular place at this particular time.
It’s evident that the rains have been falling for a few days here in Luang Prabang as well. Every storm canal we passed seemed to have no shortage of debris and runoff.
We had dinner at Tamarind on the River Khan, our favorite place in LP from four years ago. I’m happy to report that prices had only risen nominally while portions seemed to increase in size a bit, though it’s now quite popular and reservations are recommended…or you’ll be relegated to a back table like we were. Most importantly, the food was as delicious as we remember.
After a long, gloomy day, Lori and I were content to head back to call it a night, but the Mister, apparently, had other ideas.
Yep, stare intently at the light shining through a bottle of Lao whiskey before passing out for the night. It’s been one of those days, I guess.