After the urban madness of Vietnam, arriving in Luang Prabang’s minuscule airport had been the travel equivalent of going into solitary confinement.
Although I definitely wasn’t confined. In fact, I was immediately struck by an overwhelming sense of freedom. I wasn’t alone either: A battle with my budget to allow for more activities had forced me into a friendly 12 bed, weed scented, hostel dorm. On the streets outside monks were collecting alms. Their incense floated upwards and drove me out to explore.
It was a sweltering Christmas Day.
I loved Luang Prabang instantly: the sloping roofs of pint-sized Wats; the bright orange robes of Buddhist monks swishing on the dusty roads; and the thrums of mopeds darting down side streets. Most of all, I loved how easy it was. On foot or by bike, it was the perfect treasure hunt.
I found an idyl hidden among heavy palms in the aptly named Utopia. Hours were dangerously whiled away between its pillows and throws. Iced coffee in hand with a head thrown back to the blue sky. It sat alongside the wide, caramel river where bamboo bridges hung precariously, extending paths that seemed to end abruptly on the opposite bank.
Evening came quickly in Luang Prabang but not because the sun set early. Time seemed to morph into a mellow form in the northern Laos town. Minutes became hours with one conversation, one stroll, one dip in an aquamarine waterfall. An inquisitive dive into a monastery to speak with young monks in training – more engrossed in their mobile phones than a conversation with yet another curious visitor – ate up an entire afternoon.
The trick was not to let sunset slip by unnoticed. And the place to be was Phousi Hill. The view, in spite of the telegraph pole that blotted photos with its rigid silohuette, was phenomenal. The entirety of Laos’ south stretched forever in mountain-shaped crinkles and the glassy swirls of huge waterways. Navy blue and steel on a distance gradient, eventually collided with the brash, burning sky.
Despite my sense of freedom, Luang Prabang’s laid back nature held me firmly captive from my very first hour.
Another thing that ended up holding me captive was a disgusting tummy bug. For 48 hours, I clung to the hostel I’d been so keen to get away from as if my life depended on it. What I came to accept as a ‘classic unexplainable’ over the years, worked its way out of my system in a series of terrible toilet episodes. Vomiting, diarrhoea and a few hallucinations in the darkest hours of the dormitory’s night left me exhausted and a fair few kilos lighter.
In Luang Prabang’s time warp, almost a week went by in a blink. I had stayed still, enjoyed and endured the forced interval in my two month gallop through South East Asia.
Just as well I had rested. The next day I rode a bus six hours south over mountain passes, for a New Year’s Eve like no other.