Day 145: Witness ephemeral beauty at Festival of Lights
The elaborate boats with their bellies full of fire were paraded through town before they were launched into the Mekong River. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Andy, the picture of hospitality, takes our breakfast order, pointing out that the jellies served with the freshly toasted croissants are all homemade. The Festival of Lights parade is tonight, but there's plenty of time for adventures before then.
“How'd you sleep?” I ask Jess.
“Well, after you were done harassing me, I slept fine.”
“Harassing?” I say, slightly offended.
“I'm kidding. I'm kidding, hey.”
Our omelets, full of fresh tomatoes and basil, are heavenly – probably not worth the extra money, but what can you do?
Yosua, Lina and their crew are up for visiting one of the two waterfalls near Luang Prabang for a wine picnic at about 1pm, which gives Jess and I enough time to speed out to the coffee plantations to get some drone footage. Already, my head is spinning with potential story ideas to pitch to the high-end Naa Magazine Thailand, which has recently cast its net across Southeast Asia.
“If you get the drone up, I'm sure you'll be able to spot them,” Derek, the volunteer manager of Saffron Coffee, told us yesterday.
Derek is wrong.
I think I spot a couple coffee trees as we're driving through the mountains, but I'm not sure if they're part of one of the villages Saffron works with or not.
“It's shade-grown coffee. How the hell are we supposed to find it from a bird-eye view?” I whine to Jess.
Heading up one of the steep mountain hills I spot a man lying on the side of the road.
“Did you see that guy?” I ask Jess.
“That's the third time I've passed by that spot. Each time he's just laying their staring up at the sky or playing with a lighter. So strange.”
Time is slipping by. We're going to be late. There is the creeping tension and frustration that comes with knowing you'll be late to somewhere and it's out of your control.
A golden hill of rice looms above us, the hump of dragon's body. A small cottage among a couple dead trees is visible. We turn around.
Parking the bike in a clearing alongside the road, I pull out Dorsey the drone to see what we can see. At the very least we'll get some stunning pastoral scenes that can accompany a story about Saffron Coffee.
When she turns on, the gimbal doesn't move; it hangs there like a broken limb. I power her down and try again. The gimbal is lifeless, causing the camera to uselessly flop around.
“No idea what's wrong,” I tell Jess.
“Good thing we didn't get to the coffee yesterday.”
What to do? At this point, I want to get back to the guesthouse and start taking her apart – Doresy, not Jess. Maybe it's something I can fix.
“Do you think the novice monks broke it when they were messing with it?” Jess asks.
“I don't know, maybe. I did see one of them pushing a bit hard on the camera.”
“Yeah, I saw that too, but figured you wouldn't let them play with it if it was going to break.”
“Well, that's not entirely true. Though it's more likely they just pushed on something that was already mostly broken from when I crashed it in the cave. It was a pretty bad crash.”
Back at the guesthouse, Andy is able to track down a jeweler's screwdriver for us.
The YouTube video I'm trying to watch about how to fix the drone is about to drive me insane. Correction, the internet connection that's taking fucking ages to load the video is driving me insane. I want to at least get an idea of what's going on before we meet up with Yosua, who's now waiting at Joma for us.
The whole reason we're staying another night is so I can get some incredible footage of the parade of boats tonight. But as things stand, this bird isn't flying.
“Okay, fuck it. Let's just go,” I say.
By the time we reach Joma, a popular chain cafe in Laos and Vietnam, I have a message from Yosua explaining that they've switched which waterfall they want to go to and have already left.
Jess and I roll the dice. I'm pleased to see that it's sending us to Kwang Si Waterfall, which was the one I explored a few Sundays ago. Though there is a park entrance to the Bear Sanctuary and waterfall, there also a back road that leads up to a magical place near the source of the gushing waterfall.
Jess orders a turkey wrap and salad from Joma to-go, while I decided to save a bit of cash and grab local food for my part of the picnic. Though being on different budgets could be uncomfortable, Jess handles it with a simple grace that keeps everything chugging along smoothly. That said, I do pitch in for my half of a bottle of red wine.
With the warm afternoon sun on our skin, we head toward the waterfall. I pause to buy a bundle of Job's Tears, which I've been seeing everywhere since Xu told me about them. Well out of town, we spot a woman selling sticky rice cooked in bamboo stalks. I buy a couple of those to round out my local picnic.
After passing the butterfly garden, we veer left onto a dirt and rock road that cuts through the small village in front of the gate to the waterfall.
Just past the entrance to the waterfall is a bear rescue center. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
An old woman sits at the turn off, bare breasted. I'd noticed her last time as well, her face and hair are dirty, disheveled. It's hard to not assume she has mental health issues.
Completely relaxed, Jess holds on to the bike as we bump up the steep, rocky road.
There's a booming, crashing sound behind us.
I stop the bike, fearing the top box broke off. It's still there, but several dozen meters behind us is one of Rocinante's panniers.
Nothing broke. The screws had come loose and the road was jogging the bike hard enough that it had broken free of the rack, but not broken.
With a bit of effort, we manage to get the box back on.
“That's an amazing tree,” Jess exclaims as we pass under an enormous Banyan tree, which stands alongside the trail like a sentry tower in the forest.
“I'm so glad you said so.”
The first time I saw the tree, when I was hiking down from the fall, I'd been alone in my head all day. Surrounded by the mesmerizing beauty of the rainbows from the mist of the waterfall, kaleidoscopes of butterflies and the magic of the fast running water near the source of the falls. I took all of this in, in silence. Then, coming down the road, I spotted the tree and it needed to be raised to a new level, beyond the words echoing around the caves in my mind.
We skipped the waterfall, heading to the source. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“My what a beautiful tree,” I had exclaimed to the world, unable to silently bare its majesty.
A tractor of tourists is being driven down the slope toward us. The Laos man at the wheel gives us a thumbs up.
The road conditions worsen as we continue up hill, taking the left-hand fork in the road.
Pulling up in the shade of some trees, I lean down and pick up a small nut from the dirt trail.
“Here, try this,” I say, cracking the thin shell of the nut with my teeth.
The soft meat of the nut is reminiscent of the creaminess you get in a macadamia nut. I've no idea what these nuts are called. Walking along the path by myself a few weeks ago, I bumped into a local man carry a large knife and collecting the nuts. I stopped to see what he was doing. He shared couple of the scrumptious little morsels.
At the top of a small hill, the path starts to get dangerous. Deep ruts, deep enough to swallow up the CB500X's tire, run down the steep slope.
“I can walk,” Jess offers.
“It's okay. We'll be fine.”
Delicately, Rocinante maneuvers her weight down the slippery slope, then through a stream.
Four young backpackers, probably in their mid 20s, are on the path in front of us, which sucks. I'd hoped to have the place to ourselves like I did last time.
The road has gone swampy, a dark brown, fertile mud interlocks with a large puddle stretching the width of the path.
We give the bike gas, the back wheel spins and threatens to kick out, but catches traction and we're through. Down a gently slopping grassy hill to the river we go.
I park the bike.
Wide-eyed, Jess scans the scenery. It's magical.
A wooden bench and table stand above where a stone bridge use to connect the grassy meadow, spotted with trees, to the jungle on the far side. The river, running a cold aqua blue, speeds past the table before spreading out, engulfing the slender trunks of a forest of trees farther down stream. The afternoon sun breaks through the light cover of the foliage with a warm, dusty glow. Now, instead of the bridge, a single log has been laid out above the water, running from the base of an enormous Banyan tree to the other side.
It's a magical place away from the crowds around the waterfall. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A Laos man in charge of snacks at a shut down bamboo shelter, smiles as he sees us park the bike.
The young lads hoped that there was functioning restaurant up here, as had I the first time I made the hike, which is a reasonable hope given that there are several signs along the path saying that their is a restaurant.
However, there's not.
“40,000 Kip for Pringles! I'm not paying that,” one of the Aussies says, careening away from the man and marching back to his friends.
“You guys want to try some of these,” I ask, holding up the stalks of steamed Job's Tears, heavy with grain.
“Sure, what are they?”
Though we're being polite, Jess and I both wish the lot of them would shove off and leave the place to us, but that doesn't appear to be happening just yet.
One of the four pulls off his shirt, grabs the rope swing hanging from the Banyan tree and splashes into the water. He then attempts to cross the log, but falls off.
The old Laos man, with a sweet little smile, walks across the log and back without an issue.
I offer him some Job's Tears, which he gladly excepts.
After about ten minutes the backpackers hit the road, leaving Jess, the old man and myself alone by the river.
“It's like a fairly land, isn't it?” I ask.
“That's exactly what it is.”
After sipping on our wine and snacking a bit, Jess sharing some of her delicious turkey wrap with me, we strip down to our bathing suits and jump in.
The water is a thrilling ice cold. Not so cold that it would prepare you for a polar bear plunge, but cold enough to awaken your body.
Laughing, Jess and I both splash down from the rope swing. The water gathers us up and sweeps us down to where a thin log has been placed across the river to keep people from being taken all the way down to, and possibly over, the water fall.
With plenty of experience on a slack line, I hop onto the log to easily cross it. At first, I think Jess and the old man are fucking with me, rocking it so I fall off, which I do. Several attempts later, it turns out that crossing it is a lot harder than it looks.
“Okay, it's nearly 4pm, we should be heading back soon Jess. The parade starts at sunset I think.”
Though the sun is still in they sky, Sisavangvong Road is congested with people and parade floats preparing for this evening. With a bit of patience, we manage to wiggle our way back to Andy's guesthouse.
A green-faced monkey warrior, fangs barred, charges a group of children standing alongside the road. With frightened screams they scurry behind their smiling parents. The monkey warrior, a golden crown part of the mask, dances back to his compatriots as they prowl ahead of one of the floats.
The monkey warriors kept the crowd on their toes, especially the youngest kids watching the performance. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Near the judges tent, high above the festivities, the warriors stop and begin an elaborate, choreographed dance. Heads bowed, poised on one knee, their back feet keep time before they spring up and into dance.
Behind them is one of many long,elaborately-decorated boats formed with the lightest of wood and thin paper. Candles in their bowels light the boats up like giant lanterns as hundreds of more candles run along their sides. Several dozen of these boats are being rolled down the street, each more complex and intricate than the previous.
Accompanying them are dozens of women and men of all ages, wrapped in traditional garb, each seeming to represent a specific village, temple or ethnic group.
The faces of hundreds of participants are warmed by the glow of the candles they hold, silver jewelry on men and women glistening in the darkness.
Several of the boats have taken on the form of Phaya Nga, a mythical serpent like creature believed by locals to live in the Mekong River. It is thought that sightings of Oarfish are the source of the myth. However, it's the bright white glow of the enormous mythical bird Fenghuang that is the most startlingly beautiful of the floats. The full-bodied beast towers over the crowd, guarding five glowing white eggs settled in a nest before her. Her loosely woven substructure creates a pattern of interlocking diamonds beneath her opaque feathers.
The boats took the form of mythical beasts. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
School girls snicker as they flirt with young boys also dressed for the occasion. The entire city is alive with the sound of pounding drums, the sidewalks are packed with onlookers, some of who step into the road for a quick selfie before retreating back into the crowd.
Young schoolgirls took part in the parade. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Novice monks stand outside of Wat Sene, camera phones in hand, capturing the festivities. Others, have climbed into a nearby tree, hanging from the branches as the procession passes by.
Even the young monks got out their camera phones. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Though my camera isn't having it, I'm doing my best to capture the moment, having given up on getting any quality drone footage.
Poor Jess has nearly had it with all the walking, despite having gotten a good laugh at the smoking wooden puppets earlier: a real cigarette dangled from the puppets lips, the tip glowing orange as the puppeteer drew in a breath on a clear tube connected to the filter.
The full moon, a pale glow contrasting with the flames of thousands of candles lighting up Luang Prabang, rises up above a tall palm tree and the colonial buildings lining the street.
A couple hours into the festivities, Jess is hungry. She forewarned me that if a sullen silence ever crept in that it wasn't personal, she just needed food. That silence is loud and clear.
“Let's just grab the noodles back there. We're not finding anything here,” I say, also getting a bit testy from all the walking.
With noodles in hand – I managed to scarf down my spring rolls immediately – Jess and I find stairs down to the steep, sandy slopes of the Mekong River.
A group of young boys, perhaps ten years old, have buried a fire cracker in the sand not far from us. Leaning forward in the dark, one of them attempts to light the fuse. It's standard boy play, but here – in the most heavily bombed country in the world – their play is a dreadful reminder of the real danger from unexploded ordinances that these children face.
After several attempts, the boys run. The fuse is lit. It spits sparks before letting out the most pitiful pop.
Jess leans against me, tears in her eyes as she thinks about a the recent trial for a family friend who was murdered. What is justice? Sitting their, holding her shoulder I look out at the river, listening. At first, when she started to talk about what happened, I hadn't realized the gravity of the conversation. How to know what to say to those closes to victims, or even to victims who have survived grave injustice?
In front of us, farther down by the bank, Laos are lighting krathom, small floats filled with candles, joss sticks and other offerings. Heads bowed, the say a prayer, make a wish and then gently push the floats out into the river.
Though there is plenty of party left in Luang Prabang, Jess and I are tired – neither of us are walkers. Back in the room, we curl up in our beds, knowing that tomorrow will be a very long day as we attempt to make up time in our race for the Thai border.