I decided to write this the other night, while lying on my stomach during a one-hour aromatherapy massage in Pakse City. The masseuse pulled the towel down my back, saw my tattoos and momentarily hesitated. It isn’t unusual for people with tattoos to visit Southeast Asian countries, so I know she wasn’t surprised by the fact that I have tattoos; she was probably surprised by what I have tattooed on my back – your name, in Lao script.
I vaguely remember the first time I felt the urge to visit you. I must have been in college when I read a short piece written about you in some book or magazine, and something clicked into place.
I am someone you could describe as “outdoorsy”. I grew up in the mountains, among the trees, loving open spaces. You have an abundance of this, and life here – the cultural diversity, the basic friendliness and simplicity of your people, the sleepy cities, the food and liquor - it fits with who I am, and what I look for to be happy. It provides a counterpoint to the storm I have inside my head, and it brings me peace.
It takes some imagination to picture what a Lao city is like. It feels spacious because the population is sparse and there aren’t any skyscrapers or imposing buildings. There are hardly any neon lights, and nothing much to do past a certain point at night except have a cold Beer Lao and count the chickens and dogs strolling down the road. Vientiane, the capital city, is a bit different, but still the same. For example, there was an 11 pm curfew in effect the first time I visited, and my friend Kris and I would walk back to the guesthouse just before that, after having what passes for a few drinks when you’re 22 years old. It isn’t that I love curfews, but this helps illustrate how Lao cities are different, in my experience, at least. It’s like I have to rest here.
I first visited Lao in 2006. My mother and I stayed in a small guesthouse in Luang Prabang. Nothing grand, but every bit of that experience has been seared into my brain – the wooden floor under my bare feet, the smell of fresh laundry coming through the open window, the taste of the banana pancakes the guesthouse owner made every day, the lights of the lanterns sold in the night market. In Luang Nam Tha... A secret wish of mine was granted when we went on an early-morning hike through rice fields before the mist had lifted.
I visited Luang Prabang again in the summer of 2007, and also made stops in Vientiane, Vang Vieng, and Phonsavan. A quiet memory I have from that trip is of Kris and I going from one riverside eatery to the next, looking for the best mango-banana smoothie in Luang Prabang. The Vang Vieng of 2007 lacked streetlights, and did not have the sprawling luxury resorts it has today. Kris and I walked into ‘Ghostbear’s’ guesthouse and were shepherded to a second-floor room with a balcony overlooking the Nam Song river. Our days in Vang Vieng were spent hiking and kayaking for hours (“don’t think, just row”). My fondest memories are of the 2-day “Secret Eden or life” hike and kayak trip, where we took turns trapezing into the river after having shots of Lao Lao (a note: apparently, free shots by the river were banned in 2012) and which ended with us swimming across the river after our guide who had, without prior warning, stripped down to his green underwear and plunged in. On one night, we had to pry open the window after getting locked out on our balcony (we did not want to break the still of the night by shouting for help).
The only reasons Kris and I were able to pull ourselves away from you that summer were because we were low on funds and we had already bought our tickets to Cambodia. Otherwise, we may really have permanently disappeared into the mountains. Upon our return from Cambodia, I got your name tattooed on my back, along with a mountain scene from a picture I took on our hike to a Khmu village.
I returned to Vientiane in 2011, as an intern for a project to improve your urban water supply systems. That year, I met a girl, Galit, from across the world who was also on a (semi) short visit in the country, who also has a soft spot for you and has now become one of my best friends.
It is now 2016. After burning out at 31 years old due to my unsustainable work habits, I decided to pack up and visit you (and my dad, who has a project in Pakse) for a week, to rest, and to experience life away from the hectic world I’ve built for myself. One of the outputs of this trip is this letter.
I fly out in less than 5 hours. This goodbye is not as sad as previous ones, because you are more accessible to me now. My job, while being too much most of the time, has also allowed me to become independent (financially and otherwise), which is basically what I’d always aimed to be. I’ve grown up. I’m not the lost 21-year old girl I was in 2006 but some things don’t change, and it seems that my love for you has become one of my core characteristics. While the world keeps turning and undergoes (sometimes) irrevocable transformations, it is my hope that you will also stay the same in some core ways – same same, but different.
(March 28, 2016)