By Courtney Ridgel
Laos is the most overlooked destination that we work with and while it may not make the news and travel magazines as often as neighboring Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam do, our guests routinely tell us that Laos is the highlight of their trips. I was there myself last November and I can certainly see why. Laos certainly has an alluring peaceful atmosphere all its own.
One of the best examples of this spirit may be found in the beautiful and sleepy town of Luang Prabang, nestled on the banks of the Mighty Mekong River, carving its way through the steep hillsides covered in dense green jungle. Our Laos Country Director, Onkeo or ‘Keo’ for short, offered me a spur of the moment invitation to join him, and his young sons, Anan and James, on a sunset boat ride with his friend Pet (who also goes by ‘Johnny’). I am always up for an adventure and I love boats, so I was naturally thrilled.
I don’t speak Laotian, but I could tell that as we made our way down one of the many steep staircases to the water’s edge, Keo did his best to discourage his energetic boys from sprinting full tilt down the steep stairs at the river’s edge. Here on the other side of the world, it was a strangely familiar scene that reminded me of my own childhood (the boys had also apparently rebelled earlier that afternoon, refusing to wear shoes, and were merrily skipping along barefoot). As sunset approaches, and the water began to glow with the golden light of evening, and I could see other travelers gathering at the water’s edge to snap photos.
We were fortunate enough to have Pet cruise smoothly up to the dock and welcome us aboard, and his wife offered us cold beers and chips. (James and Anan quickly attacked the bowl of chips.) As we set off upriver, taking in the stunning views of the setting sun, Pet recounted me with the story of his life. He is from a remote village far upriver and became severely ill as a child. His parents, fearing for his life, brought him to Luang Prabang to receive medical care. He pulled through his illness and his parents enrolled him in one of the many monasteries in Luang Prabang, to both give thanks for his life and to ensure that he would get an education as they feared that he may not have the constitution for the hard labor that accompanies farm life in rural Laos. He learned English during his time as a monk and later went on to work at some of the high end hotel properties around Luang Prabang. He saved up enough money to purchase the boat we were sitting on and went into business for himself, ferrying travelers and locals on the river, and living on his boat with his wife.
As we cruised along, Keo and Pet regaled me with tales about life on the river, local legends and interesting facts about nearby villages and temples. This was James’s first river cruise and both boys were quite excited, pointing out interesting sights as we cruised along, in between munching handfuls of chips. As the sun went down, Pet steered us to where the local boatmen spend the night, tied to the bank, and his wife hopped on to the next boat over to say hello to a friend. The boats are tied side by side, creating a strange temporary floating neighborhood each evening.
As twilight set in, we bid farewell to Pet, and headed up the riverbank to a local BBQ place. Laotian BBQ, much like Khmer BBQ, involves sizzling a variety of ingredients selected from a buffet in hot oil in a strange pot & grill combination set into the center of the table over hot coals. I was amused to notice that although Anan and James selected lots of shrimp and mushrooms which they kindly spooned onto my plate, they also favored something that looked suspiciously like French fries and mini hot dogs. As we all grew sleepy and full (after a minor mishap where James stepped on an anthill with his bare feet and was soothed with desert), we bid each other goodnight and headed home for the evening. All in all, it was a stunningly beautiful evening spent with new friends and delicious food, and I would highly recommend this experience to any traveler heading to Laos, especially those looking for personal connections that are meaningful, memorable and unique.