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Let’s Get Lost – Mekong Zen

From Travel + Leisure (October 2011)

From Travel + Leisure (October 2011)

By Andrew McCarthy

It takes me a long time to find a bike in Luang Prabang. When I do, it’s because a tall young American woman with unwashed hair is shouting at an old Laotian man by the gutter.

“I won’t pay. Do you hear me? I won’t pay it! This might be a bad bike. Do you understand? Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

As far as I can tell, Luang Prabang—and all of Laos—is a fairly serene place. This rant, while perhaps routine in midtown Manhattan, seems almost violent here.

The old man hunches over a little further and fills the bicycle’s tire from an ancient foot pump. I cross the street.

“Can I rent bike a here?” I ask gingerly. The old man looks up, then lowers his watery eyes and continues pumping.

The woman spins to face me. “Make sure he gives you a good one. I went through hell in Vientiane with a bad bike. He’s not charging me 5,000 kip when I don’t know what I’m getting.” I do the calculation: 5,000 kip is about 60 cents.

The old man finishes filling the tire. The woman starts in again. “Just take it,” he says. Triumphant, she throws her leg over and rides away.

“She talk too much.”

“Do you have another bike?”

“Come.” We go inside, through a kitchen where a young woman is preparing lunch. The air smells of garlic. Meat simmers. We enter a room filled with broken furniture, clothes, an old sewing machine. Several bikes hang from hooks. “Which you want?”

They all look the same. I shrug. His stringy arms lift a red bike. For three days I pedal around town. I eat a wonderful watercress soup. I watch the sunset from atop Mount Phousi. At Wat Xieng Thong, I meet a monk with a long scar down the side of his face. When no one is near, he whispers about his friend who can take me up the Mekong River.

Down by the water I find the man with a wispy mustache beside a wooden plank canoe powered by a lawn mower engine strapped to a long stick. It’s the slowest boat on the river.

I’ve not always had the gift to realize when I’m happy, but grinding upriver, it’s easy to know I am.

A few days later I’m at the airport, waiting for my plane to arrive. The only other passenger, an Englishwoman, eventually speaks. “I saw a most extraordinary young woman. At the Royal Palace. She was shouting. Can you imagine? Shouting! In Laos?”

“What was she saying?”

“She was shouting— ‘I want five minutes! Five minutes! I’m leaving tomorrow! Don’t you understand? Don’t you understand what I’m saying?’ They threw her out and she rode away on a bicycle, still shouting.”

I look out across the valley into the A nnamese Cordillera, the shadows long. The arriving plane barely clears a high peak and it dawns on me—wherever you go, there you are.

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