Day 143: Laos monks prepare for Festival of Lights
A novice monk lights a candle in Luang Prabang. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A NOVICE monk swaddled in a saffron orange rob bends down to light a single candle that has gone out. Hundreds of small lanterns fill the temple courtyard, their pulpboard paper sides tinting the orange light hues of blue, green, pink and white, filling the entire open area with a warm glow. The lanterns are lined up evenly on a grid with the backdrop of a a heavily decorated longboat and the shimmering gold of a temple.
The candles' flames waver, each with the strength and inconsistency of a single person's life. Yet, when we sit down low, allowing our eyes to lose focus, no longer following the young monks as they silently drift through the court yard, like smooth faced ghosts, the candles pulse. Our minds desperate for order, searching for patterns, they derive consistency from the flickers of light, gathering moments of lesser light and greater light, assembling them into a single comprehensible picture, like the tiny glinting fragments of tile used for the murals on the walls of the temple.
“It's so special. Thank you for bringing me here,” Jess says as we slip out into the darkness of a side street abreast to Wat Nong Sikhoumuang.
“Thank you for being here to share it with me,” I reply, knowing full well I did nothing to bring her here; it was our dear friend's idea. Mrs Meat, also known as Mother Bear, table the idea after she heard that Jess's plans to Sri Lanka were canceled.
Sometimes the paper of the lanterns catch fire. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Instead of Sri Lanka, Jess decided to fly into Luang Prabang, and then traveling to Chiang Mai with my on Rocinante, my Honda CB500X. To make room, I'll be putting my backpack on the slow boat to the Thai border at Huay Xai, replacing it with her for the drive. It will be the last gallop on my dear Rocinante.
This morning, I refused to get out of my bungalow in Muang Ngoi before it was absolutely necessary.
A man on a stilt platform a few meters down a side path from the boat landing sells me a ticket down river for 25,000 Kip. From time to time I raise my head from my novel, the Unbearable Lightness of Being, to scan the riverside as we drift toward Nong Khaiw. There are the same dramatic mountain peaks draped in jungle, with the same stillness that I had the pleasure of witnessing for the last couple of days.
The brown Ou River runs slowly, weaving around the occasional sandy island with tattered river bushes.
Back at Joy Restaurant, connected to Sunrise Bungalows, the dice order a banana pancake with chocolate, while I pull my bag out of storage and start re-packing for the ride from Nong Khaiw. The bent old woman, the mother of the woman who runs the bungalows and guesthouse, asks if I'll be stay another night.
If I had another night to spare, I would have spent it up river. However, I don't have another day. In fact, I would argue that I don't have another hour. Jess's connecting AirAsia flight out of Bangkok, arrives at 3:30pm. It's nearly 11am, and it's a long drive to Luang Prabang, or at least some backpackers told me it's a long bus drive.
What that means for the motorcycle, I can't say.
“I've got three to five hours of driving ahead of me. Depending on road conditions,” I write.
“Realized that we have no plan for how to meet up 555.”
It's agreed that I'll do my best to make it to the airport to pick her up, though it seems unlikely that I'll make it. If that fails, we'll meet at Luang Prabang Bakery Guesthouse, were I first met Ana.
Though time is of the essence, I stop off at Pha Kuang Cave to say hi to Thom and get some photographs of the cave for the TripAdvisor and Facebook pages that I'm setting up for him. Feeling a bit risky, I walk into the yawning loins of the mountain, thinking that perhaps I'll be able to get drone footage of the inside of the cave and fly out of it.
The drone's been misbehaving a little bit, not hovering properly and slipping one way or the other in the air. As soon as she's up, she starts heading into a wall. My thumbs attempt to immediately ground her and stop the blades from spinning, but she bounces of a chunk of rock, attempts to get some air, stumbles sideways into the cave wall and then tumbles down the rocky hill. The blades stop spinning when the battery comes bouncing out.
Back down by Thom's restaurant, a few kids watch as I put her back up in the air, making sure she's okay. Up she goes, no problem. Such an unbelievably durable piece of tech.
The road isn't nearly as bad as the backpackers said it would be. There are a few places were it is broken up by a large rut that needs to be slowly navigated and other places that the road spills out into gravel, then replaced by madonic road and finally more asphalt. However, it's the best road I've seen since being in Laos, allowing Rocinante to finally gallop, not at full speed, but at least breaking 100km/hr speed marker for the first time in almost a month.
Unlike in the mountains, and further afield, the children aren't runnigg to the road and wave. In fact, many of them give my blank stare as I wave to them. Only a handful wave back.
A single hilltop is plated gold with the single-harvest type of rice paddy that promote the slash-and-burn agriculture along the mountain's steep slopes. Among the gold, like a balding head above the dense green forest below, is a single thatch bungalow. It would make fantastic drone footage. However, I'm on a time crunch, so I give the dice the option. They think it's best I stay on the bike.
Passing a minivan full of tourists, I catch the distinct outline of Lina's face. Then, in my side view mirrors it looks like Yosua waving to me from the front passenger seat.
I rumble across the wooden suspension bridge stretching across the Nam Khan River, and into town.
This is the start of high season in Luang Prabang. There are no rooms free at Kinnaly Guesthouse, which is no surprise or at Villa Champa, where I stayed the first night, or at the place across the street that I spent most of nights last time I was in town. Down a side street, a sign advertising vacancies for Saynamkhan Ban Vatnong seems promising, if a bit expensive. After a few moments of ringing a bell, a young Laos man arrives at the front desk to inform me that the sign advertising vacancies is for tomorrow night. They are booked full tonight.
Putting along the Mekong River, I continue the hunt for accommodations. It would be ideal to pick Jess up first, so we can make the decision together or let the die make the decision. However, there is a huge bag where Jess needs to sit on the motorcycle, so I have to drop it off first. Part of the reason I'm struggling with finding a place, outside of everything being booked, is that Jess has offered to cover the accommodation costs for the week that we're traveling together and I don't know the price range at which she wants to book a room.
Up a side road, I pull through the ornate metal gates of Manichan Guesthouse.
“Do you have any rooms available?”
While the young Laos woman goes to check, Andy, the owner of the guesthouse strolls in from another property he owns across the street. Wiping his hands of on his jeans he reaches out and shakes my hand.
“Is the room only you?”
“No, I need to pick up a friend from the airport.”
“Well, we have a room with two twin beds. Then tomorrow night, a room with a queen-sized bed opens up.”
“”Okay, can I leave my bags here and then go grab my friend and see what she thinks?”
“Sure, but I can't be responsible for the safety of the stuff.”
“Of course. I totally understand.”
Andy, a Jew originally from New York, helps me situate my bags where they will be safe.
Luang Prabang's airport is a small affair with a large parking lot on the outskirts of town. Still decked out in my riding gear, I find a seat behind a small desk at the arrival gate. I'm dirty, sweaty, hungry and early.
I check the arrival times after about thirty minutes of reading the Unbearable Lightness of Being. Jess's flight from Bangkok has been delayed.
I crumbs of over-priced Pringles, sour cream and onion, collect on my lap as I wait. I'm thirsty, but the water seems stupidly expensive, so I stick to the crisps.
Shortly after an airport employee took my seat at the desk, Lukas the German with a rat-tail hanging out of the back of his baseball cap who I'd been hanging out with last time I was in town shows up. He's here with Greg's friend Paul, who flew up from Australia with a couple thousand dollars of spare parts for Greg's KTM 640. However, the bag was lost, so Paul's back today to pick it up. Lukas on the other hand is picking up a ladyboy love he flew up from Thailand for the Festival of Lights.
He's girl shows up, tall, skinny and wearing bit too much makeup. Her hair is perfectly straight and dyed a light brown.
Jess still hasn't shown up. Standing their, I realize I forgot to trim my pubes. Jess and I had a little spark over the Christmas holiday, and though I'm determined to not let things get romantic, it seemed like a reasonable precaution to take. However, I forgot.
The crowd thins.
Jess comes bustling out the doors with a outdoorsy jacket and a small silver backpack. She's a thin woman with a narrow face, beautiful blue eyes and the softest blond hair. Hair so blond it's nearly white.
We give each other a quick hello hug that's a bit awkward due to the luggage.
“I need an ATM,” Jess says in her soft, firm Canadian accent.
“Don't worry about it. We can take care of that in town.”
“No, I still need to pay for my visa.”
I have enough cash on my to make up the difference for the visa fee, so I give her money, and she disappears back into the arrivals area, which seems like a security risk. However, nobody raises an eyebrow.
“Sorry about that,” says Jess, who significantly suffers from Canadian Sorry Syndrome.
Because of the recent death of HM the King of Thailand, every ATM Jess had tried to take money out of earlier today was a flat black screen.
We climb onto the bike, drive back across the rickety suspension bridge and arrive at the guesthouse.
Andy is there to welcome us.
“Twin beds okay?” I ask Jess.
“Sure, that's good.”
We have a cute little room near the back courtyard of the guesthouse. Andy gives us and a couple more new guests the welcome talk. Explaining that there is free coffee, real coffee, and tea on the china table next to a communal dining table in the open air courtyard.
“There's milk in the fridge and water over there,” he says. “Breakfast isn't included in the price of your stay.”
Jess is hungry, as am I, but I also need a shower. After quick rinse, I'm standing in the bedroom talking to Jess in my underwear.
Am I sucking in my tummy a little? Yes, yes, I am. I laugh at myself, though also notice Jess's eyes accidentally drifting a little too far south for polite company.
After dinner we go for a stroll. Though the Festival of Lights hasn't started yet, the temple grounds are glowing with lines of paper lanterns hanging from a grid work of thin wires. On the ground, below the laps are more lamps, the paper softening the light further, casting the entire grounds in a fairyland glow.
Swept away by the magic, we walk from temple to temple, until we're too tired to continue. We return to our room, climb into our beds and pass out.