We got to the ‘bus depot’, and sure enough were shown to a minivan with the words ‘VIP’ splashed across the front. I got in behind the driver and next to the window, with Crystal in the middle and a guy from Singapore next to her. I felt sick straight away. As the van set off I was almost at the point of no return, my hands clammy, and my heartbeat weak. Somehow, I pulled myself back from the brink, and managed not to hurl. I closed my eyes for most of the trip, and found myself flying through tunnels lined with multi-coloured neon lights, though most of them were green. The tunnel bent and curved with the direction of the mini-van, and it was quite a special little trip.
After 3 hours, we made a pit-stop for a sandwich. As Crystal wasn’t talking much to anyone, I mustered up the energy to make conversation with the others in our bus over a quick sandwich. We met a friendly German bloke who spoke English with a strong American accent and looked just like Ray Lamontagne. Back in the bus I felt slightly better, and began chatting to the Singaporean guy. 5 hours later we arrived at a small bus depot in Luang Prabang and spilled out to stretch out limbs. A waiting bemo then took us past the night market and to the Mekong river. I had images of Luang Prabang as a quiet, elegant colonial city, but we’d arrived in the wrong part of town and it didn’t immediately charm. Lugging our huge backpacks and trying to beat other human turtles to hotels didn’t help. Many places were full, and the sun was setting over the Mekong. A large group of Swedish backpackers marched past with their huge backpacks, all of them clutching the Lonely Planet. “Fuck you Lonely Planet!” I heard one of them scream. Obviously all the accomodation listed in there had been taken up by other disciples.
Accomodation by the river was ridiculously overpriced, so we eventually opted for a place just up from the Mekong – LauLu guesthouse. By now it was dusk, and we weren’t in the best of moods after such a long day. We decided to take a stroll and see if any of the tales of the quiet beauty of Luang Prabang were true. Down by the Mekong, with bemos, jumbos and motorbikes zipping around, it certainly didn’t seem so. We were soon to be enchanted, however. Away from the river, we came across the old colonial area, and saw why many have fallen in love with the place. The wide streets are lined with beautiful French-provincial buildings. European couples stroll hand in hand past the French, Lao and Italian restaurants, enjoying the cool air and the romantic ambience. An air of calm atiquity envelops the place. Crystal and I chose a lovely Italian place for dinner, and people-watched as we enjoyed wood-fire pizza. We then strolled around, and found a hive of activity at the Talat Dala Night Market. Hundreds of stalls were here, where local villagers come to sell their wares. It was quite busy, but minus the shouting and chaos of a typical market. People working and shopping here observed a quietness that gave the market a special kind of magic. It felt very christmassy. Crystal was reminded of night markets back in Taiwan, and more specifically Tainan – her hometown. She felt at home here, and we promised ourselves we’d return later and do some souvenir shopping.
We walked through to the other end of the market and sat down to have a coffee and watch the vendors begin to wrap up their goods, some jolly from a good night’s selling, others depressed after a fruitless evening. I wondered how some of them made a living…..many stalls sold near-identical things. Perhaps they shared the sales with their village group. After a nice coffee, we headed back to the lodge, looking forward to exploring Luang Prabang the next day.