People often ask me what I do on a day-to-day basis when traveling. Of course it’s different everyday–that’s the fun of it!–but I thought I’d write about today as a “day in the life” of this trip. I think it’s as good an example as any.
I’m in lovely Luang Prabang, Laos. The entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In Cambodia, too, but especially here, the French colonial influence is apparent. The town blends European-style buildings with traditional Lao structures and the result is nothing short of just plain lovely.
Fairy lights surround colonial courtyards bathed in gentle, creamy lights, while passers-by sip fresh Lao coffee sourced from the surrounding hillsides. The town itself is located on a peninsula dotted with picturesque temples, and monks in bright saffron robes scurry by on their way to prayers. The Mekong river surrounds the peninsula and slow, lazy boats glide by filled with tourists and locals alike.
At night, the colorful Hmong market dominates the town’s only main drag, and women selling bright paper lanterns, woven textiles and tempting street food smile and chat among themselves. By day, people prefer bicycles to motor vehicles and the whole place moves at a pace just slightly quicker than that of a snail. Another traveler described Luang Prabang as somnolent, and it is.
Anyway, anyway. Yesterday I had an ambitious day and took a boat to the nearby Pak Ou cave to see its Buddhist graffiti (!) and alters smoldering with fragrant incense.
But that was yesterday. This morning I had a Skype date at 10 a.m., and so I got up at a respectable hour (as I always do, actually–I can’t sleep in when traveling), took a shower in the sewage-scented dorm of the hostel, and made my way to what’s become my favorite breakfast spot–the JoMa Bakery. I always eat a Western breakfast of fruit, yogurt, granola and coffee when I can find it. At JoMa, it’s pricey but the granola and yogurt are both homemade and worth the extra kip.
After the Skype date, I hung around the cafe to catch up on blogging and writing emails. At about 1 p.m. I rolled out, planning to rent a bicycle and cruise around the peninsula a bit more–the wheels being unnecessary, given how tiny this place is–but I thought I might try to get out of town a bit, too. I wandered around the temples and made a stop at a textile training center, then stopped for a mango juice on the street, and found myself wandering the west bank of the Mekong. It was getting late. I guess there was no need for a bicycle. Okay.
Then I noticed a little gate that seemed to lead somewhere… so I followed it and discovered a footbridge crossing the Mekong. Once I’d paid my 5000 kip (about $.60) to the woman collecting a toll, I crossed the makeshift bamboo structure.
On the other side, a young novice monk was coming the other way. He was shyly looking at the ground, but made a point to catch my eye. I smiled and greeted him in Lao. He perked up and began speaking to me in English, and we had a nice chat. He’s 16 years old and was on his way to his 5 p.m. prayer session–he started our conversation in English by asking the time. He was absolutely dear, with young, big eyes and an innocent eagerness to practice English. We parted ways and I found a lookout spot to watch the beginning of the sunset.
It was a great spot–I could view the tip of the peninsula and the river on either side. There were young monks tending the gardens of various temples on the other side. Their bright robes against the lush greenery was a delicious visual combination. Boats puttered by. Tourists languished. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths to fully relax.
Eventually, I headed back across the bridge in search of some dinner. I had a plan: There was a Khao Soy street vendor somewhere along the main road. Paired with another mango juice, I couldn’t imagine a better dinner. On my way there, though, I found an even more incredible option: Dozens of street vendors, all with massive spreads of dozens of dishes. The idea: You load up a plate with whatever you want, buffet-style, and it’s yours for 10,000 kip ($1.25). I deliberated and decided that the Lao version of Khao Soy probably wasn’t that good, anyway. I made a plate of tofu and vegetables and sat down at a folding table.
First a young Swedish man asked if he could sit with me. I consented by nodding. We struck up a pleasant enough conversation–he’s living in Kunming, China, where I spent a few days earlier on this trip. A wiry, spastic-looking Brit overheard us and asked to join. I immediately disliked him. He was wearing a stupid hat. He came over and started dominating the conversation, referring to us as the “lovely lady” and the “pleasant-enough Swede.”
I stood up to excuse myself. As feared, he did too. “Don’t mind if I tag along, do you?” he asked without waiting for a response, and he took off his hat long enough to smooth his horrifically oily hair back. I had decided to wander through the Hmong market to take a closer look at some of the textiles and said so, hoping this would deter the Brit. It didn’t. So off we went, me being as unlikable and unfriendly as possible, while he chattered on about his job guiding scientific expeditions “in the world’s most dangerous, remote places.” He looked all of 19 and almost certainly anemic, and I was skeptical. I tried to focus on the textiles.
I’ve had the same wallet for six years. I bought it in Puerto Rico at an import store. I still remember buying it–it was $10, which I immediately felt guilty about spending. I’ve used it every day since then, but it’s expiration date is long past. It’s held together with clear tape that I scrounged from a hostel in Moscow, and most recently all the stuffing and lining has ripped and pulled apart. It has a hole in the bottom that I’ve lost some coins through. It’s time for a new wallet. Problem is, I love the damn thing. I get unreasonably attached to material things, especially those that have history. The design of this one was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
That is, until the Hmong market in Luang Prabang. I couldn’t believe my eyes! ALL of the wallets were like mine–EXACTLY like mine! My wallet must be from Laos, incredibly. I had no idea. And here were hundreds of wallets for sale, all costing a mere 10,000 kip ($1.25). I couldn’t believe it! Just as I couldn’t wait to buy a wallet anymore–here were hundreds of wallets in their beautiful Hmong designs, beckoning me.
I bought one! I really wanted to buy two, but I talked myself out of it. They’re so lovely, all of them. Below are the old and new wallets, hanging out side by side. Sorry about the lighting–my flash is broken. In the end, I chose a design not-that-similar to mine. I decided it was time for something new. And this one had thicker weaving and I think it might just hold up for six years like the last one did. That means I’ll be 33 when I get a new one–scary.
I turned after making the purchase, hoping not to find the Brit. There he was, waiting patiently. He asked if I wanted to get a beer. “I don’t drink,” I snapped, as menacingly as possible, and forgiving myself for the ludicrous lie. “How about a juice?” he asked, and I softened a bit. He was traveling alone, too, and wanted company. I relented and we to a street stall for a juice. The time came to pay, and his wallet was conveniently missing. I bought his juice.
He went on a long rambling explanation about his missing wallet (funny, since now I have two), and finally reached into his bag and pulled out his precious Lonely Planet Laos guidebook–which I’d mentioned earlier that I don’t have. “Here, hold on to this as collateral,” he said. “Let’s meet at 6:15 tomorrow morning to watch the monks take alms, and I’ll give you some kip for the juice and you can return the book after you read it a bit tonight,” he cajoled. “Please?”
The book IS nice to look at. The maps are better than in my abbreviated Southeast Asia on a Shoestring one and I had some questions about the layout of Vang Vieng, my next destination. And I WAS planning on seeing the monks before sunrise anyway… so I accepted the offer. And now, I’m stuck getting up at 6 a.m. tomorrow only to hang out more with the Brit–whose name I never did catch.
As he walked me back to my hostel, he embarked on a long verbal journey about what a perfect gentleman and simultaneously fearless bushman he is. How he insists on always walking on the outside of a lady, how he always gives his seat to woman on the bus, etc etc. And, of course, more tall tales about his dangerous exploits in unnamed countries of Africa, the places in Peru he can’t remember the names of–“It was a long, long time ago,” with a meaningful look–and most recently, the untamed wilds of northern Sweden. I asked him how old he is. “Twenty-four,” he said sheepishly.
I arrived back at the hostel and eagerly settled into my bed to admire my new wallet. There was a Japanese woman in the bunk below. Without greeting me, she asked “How much longer are you traveling for?” I was NOT in the mood to make another “friend,” but I was so bouyed by the wallet, that I responded in a friendly tone. She tossed me a packet of dozens of Q-Tips. “Can you use these? I’m going home tomorrow.”
Could I USE them? Did she have any idea how rare Q-Tips are in travellers’ world? First of all, even in normal life, I never buy them–I steal them out of my parents’ medicine closet when I go home (sorry, Mom, but it’s true). I have an aversion to paying for them–I can’t quite explain why, since I love them so much. Most recently, I stole them out of the nice hotels in Mumbai and Thailand where Eric and I stayed. I’ve been in serious ration mode with Q-Tips, and this was a real gift.
I made a big deal and explained that to her. She was so pleased. Then I explained the wallets to her. She squealed in delight. Her name is Yukie, and she’s a pharmacist. She’s on her way back to Japan after a year of living and working in Australia as a barista–though her coffee-making skills are, by her account, non-existent. We had a fun and funny conversation and I genuinely liked her. I tried to recruit her for the monks, but she’s gone twice already.
Now I’m sitting in the courtyard of the hostel–supposedly a “capsule hostel,” but nowhere near as well-done as it could be. The place is buzzing with travelers–Japanese, Canadian, Australian–and there’s a documentary about Michael Jackson showing on a projector screen. The town is already sleepy, owing to the strict 11:30 p.m. curfew.
I’d better turn in for the night. I have an important appointment at 6:15 tomorrow morning, and I wouldn’t want to be late. Naturally, I thought about ditching the Brit and making off with his Lonely Planet, but I just don’t have it in me.
Tomorrow after alms, I’m off to Vang Vieng to stay on an organic mulberry farm. Laos, you are lovely indeed.