There we were floating down the murky greyish waters of Mekong. Our little plastic kayaks were the only barrier between us and the watery world around when the black rain started falling upon us from nowhere. It was a pretty surreal experience, dream-like I would add, if you are the kind of person to dream random and weird dreams. But it was also profoundly beautiful in a way, as beautiful as it was scary.
Because, what was falling upon us was ashes.
And soon, as we made our way around the river bend, the vegetation along the banks might have been burning.
How did we get there you may wonder?
By plane. A small toy-like propeller plane.
As we were approaching to land it was already late in the evening, and the sight below was little short of magical. I am not sure what we were expecting, but we were certainly not expecting to see a few warmly, some may say dimly, lit streets with just 3 to 4 vehicles moving about. One of the biggest cities in the country – Luang Prabang, was so cozy and beautiful in its simplicity. We were instantly charmed.
Upon waking up and getting out in the street the next day, I could not believe my eyes. The fact is that I never in my life took time to stop and portray paradise, but this, a sudden realization swept over me, hit really close to the mark. Trees full of flowers and fruits intertwined harmoniously blending with temples and houses. And just a short walk further we were rewarded with glimpses of the quietly flowing Mekong. For the first time in our South-East Asian adventure we found a peaceful and serene refuge. No one was pulling our sleeves, shouting or rushing us to take their goods or services. Tuk-tuk drivers would surrender before we even had the chance to say no. The people were kind and cheerful but pretty quiet. And I became enchanted – by the place and its inhabitants.
A roller coaster of random experiences ensued, from taking a stroll in the lovely colorful night-market and becoming spellbound by the fairy-lights, to waking up in the middle of the night to a flood in our room. We explored a variety of magical fruit juices (those things are downright magical, especially when made with soy-milk and coconut water), discovered beautiful temples, many of which we had all for ourselves, and ended up swimming and basking in dreamy waterfalls. It was a weird mix of peaceful and intense, and it was lots of fun.
Finally, to spice things up, we decided to go on a tour – and chose a kayaking tour down the Mekong. There were five of us including our guide, and we had most of the majestic scenery to ourselves. Truth to be told, we paddled for hours, but in the end, due to our general lack of stamina (something to work on), we ended up mostly just floating downstream.
Now we reach the part with the ashes. It turns out that early March in these areas is the period in which farmers prepare to cultivate crops by pretty much burning everything around, and the little town of Luang Prabang gets enveloped by smoke. It also turns out that that was the time we chose for our visit. The tours, however, still go on. That is how we ended up having our otherworldly experience, watching as the big and small chunks of ashes fell from the sky, ending up on the river surface.
I was awestruck by this experience – even though it was all sorts of wrong. I am truly grateful that I not only got to experience the beauties and wonders of Luang Prabang, but also experienced first-hand the other side of its story, not often shared with tourists, which may require more attention and awareness. I am grateful to all the amazing Laotians who made our stay in their town so pleasant and unforgettable. I am grateful that they have taken such good care of their heritage, for all of humanity to enjoy today. Luang Prabang may not have mega-structures, but its serene atmosphere and its proximity to nature make it a unique and wonderful gem, and as I decided soon after, my Shambala. And now I know that the outskirts of my Shambala are occasionally burning.
I am profoundly grateful that we did not go for the tour package that included hiking, because those people ended up running through the burning forest for their lives.
I really hope one day to return to my paradise again, and see it flourish and prosper without the thick veil of smoke. I will be dreaming of you, Mekong, till then.
About the Author: Biljana Novkovic, PhD in Environmental Science, moved to Japan for her graduate studies in 2008, and has since travelled in Asia whenever the opportunity presented itself. She loves hiking, traveling and writing.