Amblin in Luang Prabang...

In a small, wood panelled French-Laos café I sit by the doorway peering out to the main street of Luang Prabang. Young Laos girls on motorbikes zoom past helmetless left and right; colourful tuk-tuks amble up and down the bitumen as a group of four monks, hair shaved and body-wrapped in flurorescent amber, sandal on by to their next spiritual port of call. Shimmering brown Mekong surrounds and loops around me in the middle of this historic colonial peninsula of French door-clad guesthouses, fresh fruit and baguette stalls and boutique travel agencies. As day becomes night, the luminance of Luang Prabang’s night market radiates red tents that span the length of the street. And in the mild breeze of the evening, high above on a mountain in the middle of town, the crown jewel of this magical place, the Pii Mui Temple, illuminates the town with a protective golden majesty. It’s no wonder this town is listed as a UNESCO world heritage city. The place lives up to its reputation as perhaps the most magical location in all of South East Asia. Day in, day out, the vibe that permeates Luang Prabang is one of intense laissez-faire. This is probably why I’ve found it almost impossible to leave the place.

From the very early stages of thought regarding this sojourn to SE Asia I had earmarked Luang Prabang as a priority destination and a place I would probably park for some time. I must stress that travelling up from Singapore at such a rapid rate, facing significant alcoholism on party island Ko Tao and sheer lunacy in Bangkok had taken its toll on my sense of why the hell I’d decided to come to this continent at all. I felt SE Asia might be a spiritual experience, an amazing, eye opening chapter in this new epic trip. Suddenly, travelling with a large group of people, my chances at discovering any deeper meaning to my surroundings was limited to drinking another bucket with the hope of gaining a hallucinatory insight into the nature of things. Alas, this following of the tourist trail was making me feel distinctly like a backpacking sheep. The beaten path was doing little for me and ensuring I felt more and more separated from my initial agenda.

Laos managed to quell some of that angst, though Vang Vieng proved that backpackers will one day ruin everything under the sun if they are given the go ahead to do so. Don’t get me wrong, I aint meaning to sound like a hypocrite here – I had a great time in Vang Vieng, but it wasn’t without its cringeworthy moments. Like being offered shots of Lao rice whiskey from a 10 year old Laos girl on a riverside straw bar packed with blind tour groups of English bovver boys, raucous, offensive yanks, and near-naked girls getting mildly paralytic on massive beers and whiskey buckets. I wondered what that little girl thought about this bizarre scene before her, no doubt her daily practise, watching and helping fuel some of the worst of hedonistic Western tourism. Granted, the tubing was fun and so were the rope swings. (I was informed by the English blokes behind me in the line that they shat themselves when I embarked down the rope, my beefiness very nearly plunging the whole bloody apparatus down as I shook the platform structure to its very core). Nonetheless, one day tubing was enough for Pete and I, which is more than I can say for folks who get trapped for upwards of a week tubing and boozing until they’ve either contracted alcohol poisoning or a viral infection from the river itself.

Luang Prabang proved to be the ‘tonic for the soul’ that I’d hoped it might be. The view from above Pii Mui Temple Hill was a sight to behold, taking in the full panorama and feasting my soul on this magical sight. Pete and I felt so ridiculously at ease in this place that we opted to go one step further, pampering ourselves at a local Health Spa with the Royal Package – 3 and a half hours of body scrub, full body massage (minus Henri Lee) and, culminating in…wait for it…an hour long ‘Princess Facial’. Though I cant speak for Pete, a man who very much enjoys moisturisers, I felt supremely gay after the princess facial, though my body and face hadn’t felt that smooth since I exploded from the womb. Gotta try these things at least once I guess.

Pete left a couple of days after this, and although it was sad to split up the A Team, it felt really good to be on my own again, a style of travel I usually prefer, plus, I just might now be able to find myself a little more, with autonomy on what my future plans might be.

After reuniting with English pal Matt, we got word of a hostel that was opening officially on the 7th June, but were taking guests in the meantime. It was breath of fresh air to reconnect with a hostel environment and we met some great people. Pong, the manager, is a Thai bloke who runs another Spicy hostel in Chiang Mai and is hellbent on creating a chain of Spicy hostels up and down the continent. I think he’ll do well. Backpackers are a simple bunch, but you’ve gotta make sure you cater to those specific needs, ie – free internet and wi-fi, places to sit and ponder, a couple of guitars, a fridge on the honour system, 24 hour breakfast and a bed that doesn’t destroy your vertebrate alignment. Spicy came through with all the above goods.

It is now my seventh night in Luang Prabang. I am definitely amblin’ for the time being. Very little zoomin to speak of. Yesterday I very nearly lost it after contracting the most brain piercing headache I’d ever experienced, hoping like buggery I hadn’t contracted Dengue Fever or the dreaded Malaria. Matt, possessing far worse symptoms than me, tested negative for both thankfully. He was one of the foold who got sucked into four straight days of Vang Vieng tubing. But it was perhaps the lowest ebb of my trip so far, one of those painful moments where you cannot believe how rough your life is. You long for that moment when normality returns and your regain a sense of being able to take on the world again. I just hit that point about two hours ago, and despite booking a ticket to fly back to Vientiane this arvo, my renewed mindset made me push the flight back to Monday.

Tonight is the grand opening of SpicyLaos hostel and we’re having a big party. On the guest list is the entire neighbourhood, as well as seven fluoro orange monks who are rocking down to officially bless the place. As if I’d be missing that for the world. I still haven’t decided on my next move…after Vientiane it could be anywhere.
For now, monk on!

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