“To the city center,” I said to the tuktuk driver when he asked me where I was going. The bus from Vang Vieng arrived in Luang Prabang much later than scheduled and I did not anticipate reaching the city at this time. It was already evening and my awkward social qualities made sure I didn’t make any friends during the 7-hour trip. So there I was in another foreign city, alone, and wandering in the dark.
“Where exactly?” the driver wanted an answer fast. My brows met as I started to rummage through my head for any place that I could go to. I had not even booked a hostel yet. Sure, I had read about the city before, but for some reason, my tired mind was failing me. Perhaps it was the hunger. Perhaps it was the exhaustion. The other passengers had started taking their seats inside the tuktuk and I needed to say something.
When the tuktuk driver, asked me again, I answered without thinking, “by the Mekong River.” It was one place I had wanted to see since I learned about it in High School. It was the one place that came to my mind at that point. Satisfied, he pointed to the empty space where I would be sitting on and drove to the city.
WHAT'S COVERED IN THIS GUIDE?
Meet the Mekong
The Mekong is a vital source of sustenance for the people of Luang Prabang. The longest river in Southeast Asia and the twelfth in the world, it runs from China’s Qinghai Province through the eastern part of Tibet down to the Southeast Asian peninsula, forming parts of the boundaries of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand, then cuts across Cambodia, and empties to the sea in the southern tip of Vietnam. It has supported many cities, ancient and modern, that rise on its banks. One of them — Luang Prabang.
The lane of restaurants on the banks of the Mekong did not go ignored when the tuktuk dropped me off. I had not had a decent meal since the bus left Vang Vieng and it looked like the river would also provide my strength, at least for the night. As soon as I dropped my bags in my room at a guesthouse just across the street, my grumbling stomach led me to an al fresco restaurant serving freshwater fish. There was no view because pitch darkness enveloped the site, but the sound of blenders accenting the soft hum of the water current made me forget that I just spent hours in a bus alone and famished. The Mekong was there. It was hiding in the dark, but it was there.
The next day was friendlier than the last. After a quick breakfast, I walked down the road parallel to the river and it became my compass that morning. The sunlight touched my skin softly and the wind was toying with my hair. Bicycles ran past me in impressive speeds. I traipsed on the concrete road without any agenda, but the narrow staircase that led to the riverbanks gave me one. I walked down the stairs and found myself looking at a confluence. From where I stood, I could see the Mekong mingle with the Khan.
The Mekong Meets the Nam Khan
I stepped on the supple ground with utter caution. Holding on to the plants that adorned it, I traversed the bank to have a good view of the two rivers’ rendezvous point. The two rivers cannot be any more different. The Mekong is wide and intimidating, the Khan narrow and sedating. Verdant hills flank both rivers, lumps of clouds swoosh overhead, and slow boats ripple on its muddy water.
I searched for a good place to watch the rivers and found it in the form of a flat rock that is tucked in one corner. I just sat there and took it all in. Here silence was a companion. I could hear my breathing clearly. Breathing was much easier here. “Nothing” was such a positive thing. It became my secret place in Luang Prabang and this humble boulder my throne. I returned to this spot every day and each time I was alone.
The tang of solitude is an acquired taste. It took me four days before I finally embraced it. I wrestled with loneliness since the moment my passport got its Lao stamp but I got used to it, slowly but surely. I was happily alone, drifting around Luang Prabang aimlessly for days.
At night, may favorite spot was the edge of Utopia. No, really, the place is called Utopia and aptly so. A laidback lounge perched by the Nam Khan, it allows a spectacular vista of the stream even at night, when the moon gives the water a faint shimmer and the wind was almost as cold as the bottle of beer in my hand. The Khan is witness to the bonds formed at the viewdeck. Hundreds, thousands of travelers have stayed here and shared stories and the river is a silent listener.
Five days. I stayed in Luang Prabang for five days. Every morning I had a hearty breakfast beside the Mekong. Every morning I sat on that corner rock where the Mekong meets the Nam Khan. On my fourth day, I came to see the mighty river on a late afternoon for the first time. It was the day before my scheduled trip out of Laos. I already had a ticket but I was not ready to leave yet. I felt like this river still had something to show me. I felt like I was missing something. And as I counted the boats docked at the pier, forming a set of wooden piano keys that swayed gently, it happened.
As the sun hid behind the wall of black and the afterglow dwindled, the sky played a symphony of colors and the river reflected them all. In this city where I made peace with solitude, these two rivers seemed to be my two constant companions. And they were saying goodbye. For now.