I thought I was in love with Saigon, but it seems I didn’t know what I was looking for.  I found a place that truly has all I’ve ever wanted.  It’s official: Luang Prabang has taken my heart.

Beautiful sunsets, cheap–amazing–food, and lovely markets and buildings: it’s the best.

I left Kate in Vang Vieng, which was wicked on my heart for the 24 hours that we were apart. She wanted to stay another day there, and I wanted to get to Luang Prabang because there was only so much I could do in Vang Vieng.  Riding bikes was amazing, but you only need a day for that.  Since I swore off tubing, it seemed I should move on to the next town. I took a 7 hour minivan ride through the most lovely mountains, and survived to tell the tale.  The doors to the vehicle kept opening at random intervals, which was unsettling as the thing swung around the mountain curves.  I spent a significant amount of time imagining what it would be like if my door opened when we were flying around a curve.  But this train of thought was interrupted by the back door springing open and puking out our backpacks like it had been on the lash the night before.

1-DSCN8254We had to run up the road to retrieve our belongings.  It was dramatic.  Some of the foreigners were appalled. But I think they were even more appalled when our driver tried to make me drive the thing.  He said he was tired, and that if I couldn’t drive it we would have to stop for rests more frequently.

I was not about to put the lives of 10 people at risk, since I don’t drive stick and I certainly have never driven a ranshackle minivan through the mountains before.  So we took breaks.

Break 1: A lovely mountain view.

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Break 2: An even more lovely mountain view.

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Break 3: Coffee

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Break 4: A monkey destroys a puppy in a comical display of roughhousing.

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Well, the ride up the mountains was marvelous.  I was excited to get to a place that required driving through such beautiful scenery to get to.  We arrived in Luang Prabang just before sunset, and Jana and I (Jana, the German lady we met on Don Det), found a gorgeous hotel room with a peaceful patio and garden where we could drink some free coffee until our hands started shaking.

We decided to walk through the night market right after we had arrived.  Each night in Luang Prabang the main road transforms into a spectacular night market.  Walking through it the first night, I was overstimulated by, well, the coffee, and the incredible amount of handicrafts for sale.  There were too many to look at.  But as I was staring off to the right, scanning items laid out on a rug on the pavement, I was startled by a man jumping in front of my face and yelling, “Bwah!”

It was Alex, the American guy we had met on the bus from Cambodia over to Don Det. Right behind him was Leif, the German guy who completed our friend group of 5 on that little island. I was thrilled to see them. I had been hoping I would, and since Laos is this long country with only really 2 directions of travel, I was sure I would.

I guess at this point I should introduce them. Alex is from Minnesota, and Leif is from Germany (wish I could be more specific). They’re really nice guys, and we all instantly became friends on that bus in Cambodia.  None of us (except Kate and I, of course) had known each other before that scamming border bus, but when we all got off the bus and crossed over to Don Det, the friendships began.  My friendship with Alex was quickly initiated when I was sitting in some minivan that was taking us to the boat stop.  Some local guy got in the van and began bragging about how  his English is so good because he likes to “pick up foreigners.”  He fully embodies the description of a “creepy” guy, and soon started asking me where I would be staying on Don Det, etc etc.  Well, I started ignoring him, but it didn’t help too much.  He was still on a roll.  He turned to Alex, who at this point was pretty much a stranger to me still.

“So, man, where are you from?” he asked.

“The U.S.,” he said, “like her.”

I jumped at the opportunity.

“Yeah! He’s my boyfriend.  We came from the U.S. together.”

Alex picked up the signal, like a champion.

“Yeah, she’s my girlfriend.  So I’d appreciate it if you watched what you say to her.”

The guy lowered his eyes, turned away, and never spoke to me again.

When we arrived on Don Det, I turned to Alex,

“Thanks for that,” I said.

“Not a problem,” he replied with a friendly smile.

Thus, the friendships began.

Leif, the German, is a clever, and very sweet person.  We spent a lot of time making fun of his German accent, but all in good fun.  He says the darnedest things sometimes, but I think it’s maybe because he doesn’t quite understand the subtle language differences.  Jana is a saucy woman in her mid forties with a son who’s my age back in Germany. She has this way of surprising me with her antics.  Not only is she the resident palm-reader, but she is also just a hoot to hang out with.  When we tried to teach her a card game, and she simply could not figure out when it was her turn to go.  This resulted in wild fits of laughter, while she shook her head in perpetual confusion.

The first full day I spent in Luang Prabang was one of the best days I’ve had on this trip so far. The boys had come up with a plan, to go to this waterfall on motorbikes and hike up to a hidden place that they had found the day before.   They seemed excited about it, so I jumped on board.  I hadn’t yet figured out what to do in Luang Prabang, so I wasn’t going to pass up any opportunities for someone else to make plans for me.

Well, I am so happy that these guys are amateur explorers, because they led us through the muck and vines to the most beautiful waterfall I’ve ever swam in.

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The water was crystal clear, and there was no one there besides the four of us.

We spent hours there.

It was one of those places where it is impossible not to smile ridiculously the whole time you’re there. I kept thinking about Kate, though, and wishing she could see it. I promised myself I would take her there before leaving Luang Prabang.

Kate arrived that evening, and we both confessed how much we’d missed the other.  Our time together was running out.  I was preparing to leave Luang Prabang in a couple more nights so I could get to Bangkok in time for my flight on the 19th.  But we made our last days count.  We went to dinner with that other Alex, the one we had met in Vientiane who changed our lives with his description of how he picked up his life and changed it.  We went over to his place one night and cooked a lovely Italian dinner, which we enjoyed in an open-air bungalow by candlelight and bonfire.

Dinner preparation

Dinner preparation

Luang Prabang was the best.

The five of us spent our days and nights together, being ridiculous at times and quiet at others.  They were wonderful travel companions, really.  I spent my last day there with Kate at the waterfall, which was a wonderful way to say goodbye to each other.  Well, goodbye for now.  There’s no way I could live any significant amount of my life without her, so it isn’t quite goodbye.  It’s until next time.

After a tearful goodbye on the street, Alex, Leif and I climbed into a tuk-tuk bound for the bus station.  I was still teary eyed as we cracked open a beer while we waited for our bus.  Soon, it was time to say goodbye to Leif as well.

And then there were two: Alex and I were heading to Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand.