Luang Prabang supposed to be the second the biggest city in Laos. We got there after a day of hitchhiking and found a guesthouse that in fact was a family house adapted for tourists. Pretty family atmosphere: kids going to school, mum cooking and grandma blindly watching TV all day long. I knew I shouldn’t have expected a huge agglomeration but Luang looked more like an oversized village than a city. The main street filled with fancy French style restaurants and souvenir shops was quite busy but when you stood by the Mekong river’s shore you could see nothing but the countryside. Although tiny, the city was really charming and well prepared for a flood of French tourists who probably felt there like at home. Not that I mind them, I actually should thank them for their baquettes, red wine and cheese that were left after more than 50 years of French colonization. We didn’t bother with the temples as most of them had entrance fees so we decided to admire them from the entrance gate. Instead of that, we visited very interesting UXO museum where we could learn a little about the turbulent history of the country. UXO is nothing else but “Unexploded Ordnance”, millions of bombs dropped during the Vietnamese war to this territory that has made Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world. Who? America, of course. The thing is that around 30% of the bombs (mostly cluster bombs) didn’t explode so they remained in the ground until today. Imagine you can’t freely farm or let your kids play outside because they could die… Although the government works hard to remove UXO, the war that happened 50 years ago will affect people’s lives still for a long time.
Although travel services in the city were even more expensive than normally, the second day we rented a bike for 100 kip as it was the cheapest option to get to Kuang Si waterfalls. We started our trip from Sanghai, called Whiskey village. Local people make their own magical drink, enriching it by adding some dead scorpion or snake to it. Delicious. And strong. While the strong smell alone can make you drunk we were offered a little tasting by every stall after which our smiles became a lot wider. The village was tiny and there was not much to do except watching the ladies weaving the scarfs on their bamboo cloth spinners but at least we bought a homemade red wine for half the price. The road to Kuang Si waterfall was long but beautiful. Once again we could enjoy the beautiful green scenery of Lao countryside and observe the peaceful life of local people on the way. A couple of friendly bears welcomed us after we entered a dense forest where waterfall was hidden. A few of them were seriously injured because of the poachers and here they had their oasis. Although they definitely didn’t have enough space they didn’t seem to mind much, playing and enjoying their mini playground. Kuang Si falls were beautiful. Even though dry season finished off most of the waterfalls, these remained as blue and deep as always. Most of the pools were full of people so we decided to break few of the rules and climb to the top pool, where swimming was prohibited. Unfortunately few other people had the same idea so we had to share our privacy with the others but the water and the views were definitely better than on the bottom. After a long ride home I still had energy to share my English skills (Callum would question a word “skills”…) with the Lao students who came for a class to Big brother mouse library. All of them were amazing but I spent most of my time with a boy who was just the beginner. I admired his enthusiasm and motivation for learning. He was coming to the library very often even though his village was far away and most of the time he had to help his parents on the farm along with 7 other siblings. Incredible spirit.
Luang Prabang was a good place to chill (I guess like the whole Laos…) and if you looked properly you could find few great places to hang around. One of them was La Pistoche Pool bar where we spent almost the whole afternoon swimming, relaxing and sneakily sipping our red wine. There were two pools and although it was full of locals it was worth its price. As we were far from the center anyway, I found another place of entertainment, Bowling Alley, which was only nearby. As always, “nearby” changed to “I’m sure we are close…” so after about 1 hour we finally found it being the only players in the hall. As it was an afterparty place (it’s open until 3am while everything closes at 12) the owners were quite surprised seeing us at 7pm but we still enjoyed our game. I didn’t mention about Lao markets. In every town there is always some day, night, food or “everything” market and Luang Prabang had all of them. The best of all was the food market, a narrow hidden street filled with a smell of everything you ever wanted… meat, vegetables, fruits, pancakes, they even had donuts! I must admit that I jumped to a buffet like a Polish on holiday (Callum wasn’t much better), filling my bowl with everything I could, such an opportunity comes once in a lifetime ye? I ate so much that the next day I chose to eat only a sandwich in the other market where a row of ladies tried to advertise themselves as best as they could. The moment I started to eat my sandwich suddenly everyone started to shout and move from their seats. The first monsoon storm arrived. Within 2 seconds a powerful wind and rain came trying to rip apart the roof construction above the stalls. For a second I felt like in a movie: all the people shouting and holding the metal supports, trying to remove the water from the roof, Callum calling me to leave it and finally me, frozen and stubbornly supporting the construction. “I can’t leave them!”, I thought right before Callum pulled me to run to the nearest restaurant to hide. We came back home totally drenched, I’ve never thought mondoon can be so powerful.
The last day we spent on relaxation and buying few souvenirs as it was the last chance to get something before we leave Laos. Nong Khiaw, which was our last destination, was a tiny village with only few shops and guesthouses but it was undeniably gorgeous. The landscape was similar to Vang Vieng except the river was huge and… brown (dry season?). After getting off the bus we quickly found a nice guesthouse, avoiding any bamboo bungalows with possible rat occupants. We couldn’t be more lucky with the food- right next door we found Deen’s restaurant which served our beloved Indian food. Ready to chill for few days alone we got a message from Sean and Doireann. “It can’t be!”, I thought. Yes, they were coming to Nong Khiaw! Although only for 2 days, it was great to meet our old Irish friends again, especially before their trip to South America. Right after they arrived I took Doireann to a herbal sauna where we steamed for few hours sipping a secret recipe tea (no idea what it was). Right before we introduced them to the Deen’s the monsoon hit again. Fortunately we were already altogether so a terrible storm turned up to be a nice smoky chat by the candle light.
As Sean’s foot (yeah, that foot again) still wasn’t ready to use we went together with Doireann for a trek to the viewpoint right above the town. It wasn’t a typical “viewpoint” as you can imagine but a proper mountain covered with the living jungle. After two hours of sweating and listening of the splendid voice of a nearby wedding musicians we were rewarded by wonderful views of the Ou river gorge. We met there a French guy Tom who joined us later for a dinner with his Spanish friend Roberto. To my surprise, Roberto has actually lived for the past 3 years in Cracow and considered it home. It was great to hear news from my home city and, what’s better, hear Polish language from a Spaniard! We all ended our evening in Qbar being the last living creatures in Nong Khiaw as the storm silenced all the village, including the wedding musicians.
The last day, the last goodbye, each time it gets harder. In the morning after breakfast we had to say goodbye to Sean and Doireann who left to the next village by boat. I felt sad, we were only two again… We used the last day efficiently though, establishing our travel plans and buying flight tickets to Philippines. We were excited. That was the end of the good part though. Dinner in Makara restaurant wasn’t worth wandering in the dark to the other side of the village, nor coming to Delilah where we watched probably the worst film in our life (“Ultimate life”, not recommended). We came back home ready to hitch the next morning. And then it happened. Whoever says there’s no intuition or “sixth sense”, as they call it, is wrong. Going to the bathroom I thought of my grandma who recently had problems with her stomach and was waiting for the results. As soon as I left the bathroom I saw a message from my mum. “It’s a cancer…”. My heart exploded, it couldn’t be true. But it was and it came suddenly like the worse nightmare after which you can’t come back to reality. Of course I thought of the worst, what else could I think? You hear this word everywhere: cancer here, cancer there… Usually it means one thing. I called my auntie, she said talking to grandma wasn’t the best idea, there would be an operation and I should wait. You may think: “Ok, it’s just the grandma, she’s old, everyone dies one day”. Yes, she’s 75 but she doesn’t deserve pain, like no one does. And besides that, she’s my best friend. She took care of me when I was a baby, playing with me when I was a kid, standing my nights out when I started my studies. Although she was from a different generation somehow she always understood, always supported. Last year we went to Rome together, it was her dream to go by plane at least one time in her life. She loved Vatican. And now, after 8 months of travelling I wish I could have given her more. Leaving my grandparents last August was so obvious to me, not the first, not the last time. Not for her. She had something in her eyes and now I know what it was.
We thought of leaving one day later to wait for the news but I couldn’t stay at home so we decided to leave towards China. Hitchhiking was impossible so after an hour of waiting for the bus to fill up we took a bus to Outomxay. Hitching from there was as unsuccessful as before so we decided to stay overnight and take a bus the next day. The whole day was a nightmare and the only thing I thought of was coming home. Fortunately my mum got the news. The stomach can be removed and my grandma can live, although on a diet. Operation is on May 11th, it’s amazing what must happen for a person to start praying again…