In the lifetime of every traveler, we encounter two distinct types of unforgettable cities. There are the cities we love so much that we wish we could return there every year. For me, this list includes such places as Rome, Bangkok, Miami, and Vancouver. Then there are the cities we love so much that we must never, ever go back again. For me, that list is short: Luang Prabang, Laos. It’s the only city I’ve ever encountered that is so marvelous that I refuse to revisit it, because I can’t take the psychological risk that anything might disturb my perfect memories of the place.
I was in Luang Prabang in August 2006, traveling with a man whom I had not yet married. We were in love but under a tremendous amount of stress. It had been a tough year. Six months earlier, the Department of Homeland Security had thrown my unoffending Brazilian sweetheart out of the United States—where we had been living together—and we couldn’t return home until Felipe’s application for a fiancé visa was approved. Thus, we’d been traveling in exiled limbo, all throughout Asia, trying to pass time without spending money, as we waited for bureaucratic permission to come back to the U.S. and wed. We were tired and worried and without a home. Our budget was tight, and our future rested in the hands of some nameless civil servants back in Washington, D.C., who did not seem to be in any hurry to resolve our problem. All this anxiety made us restless, and our restlessness kept us moving from place to place, simply to keep our minds off our troubles. Somebody in Thailand told us we might like Laos. That’s how we ended up there. We weren’t expecting much. We were kind of numb by that point. We were just going someplace in order to go someplace.
But I ought to have known that we were heading for something unusual just from the plane ride in. We flew into Laos from Chiang Mai, and I have never seen a more magnificent approach to a place than the flight to Luang Prabang. We flew over a wild, verdant geography of insanely configured, jungle-dense mountain-ettes (some with round peaks, some with sharp peaks, some shaped like strange, giant replicas of Abe Lincoln’s hat). We pressed our faces against the airplane windows and gasped at this crazy, jutting landscape in dumbstruck wonder, acting for all the world like we’d never been off the farm. We landed in a tiny airport and watched as our luggage was carried from the plane by a team of oxen. A bicycle taxi took us into town, on the only paved road around. A cheerful, shirtless boy ran alongside us with a slingshot in one hand and a fishing pole in the other: a Southeast Asian Norman Rockwell painting come to life.
Then, quite suddenly, we were there—in this tiny, glittering, peninsular city in the middle of the jungle, embraced by the scary curves of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. Oz-like, this town felt more conjured than constructed. Every bit of it was a piece of wizardry. There were elaborate, bejeweled Buddhist temples everywhere (more than 30 of them, we later learned) and small, golden-skinned novice Buddhist monk-boys everywhere, too (a countless number of them, it turned out, as Luang Prabang is the spiritual center of Laos, and it seemed like the monk-to-non-monk ratio was five to one). And then there was the beautiful, crumbling colonial influence—the relics of French Indochina—with all the collapsing mansions and the sweeping verandas and the graceful boulevards and the endearingly Francophile cafés. Luang Prabang was a place where you could eat an extremely nice baguette as you sat on a riverbank and gazed out at the fishermen in their conical Southeast Asian hats.
We found a room in a decaying French mansion for $4 a night—just right for our budget. There was no air-conditioning, but the slow, ticking ceiling fan made me feel like Graham Greene. I awoke at 4:30 in the morning to the sound of temple bells. I heard a muffled—almost polite—sort of commotion from the street outside. I padded out there in my pajamas and bare feet and soon witnessed the most extraordinary sight: the townspeople of Luang Prabang were kneeling in the sidewalks while endless lines of monks and novices streamed out from every temple. The monks were carrying small bowls with them. I watched the townspeople place rice inside each monk’s bowl, while the monks offered blessings in return. I soon discovered that this was a daily ritual in Luang Prabang—a centuries-old practice meant to teach humility (through begging) to the monks and compassion (through almsgiving) to the locals. I found myself rising before dawn the next day and watching from a respectful distance as this wise and gracious custom played itself out again. After a few more mornings, I was down on my knees, too, putting rice in the monks’ bowls, and eliminating, with every handful offered, a little more restlessness, a little more discontent, and a little more stupidity from my soul.
Was this the world’s most perfect place?
SOME VISITORS MIGHT NOT have found Luang Prabang to be perfect. It was difficult to get a good Internet connection. There was no movie theater, if you need that sort of thing. No shopping, aside from the night market. No amenities to speak of. Laos is a nation that suffered behind a brutal bamboo curtain of repression for decades, and poverty is evident—not as crushing as in other parts of the country, but decidedly evident. It was a terribly quiet place, both by day and by night. The flimsy mattress in our hotel room bent around our bodies like a big, damp taco. Also, it was hot. Some people might even have called it insufferably hot. I’d seen some heat in my day, but the climate of Luang Prabang was absolutely bananas. It took the breath out of my lungs, sucked the strength from my muscles, swamped me with sweat from sunup to sundown, and nearly made me hallucinate. It was interrupted only by long bouts of cataclysmic rain, which did not make anything cooler, but did make everything stickier and muddier. And there were mosquitoes.
I don’t know why we didn’t mind any of this. Maybe we were seduced by the orchids that grew wild in the local trees or by the tiny adorable stray dogs with unaccountably giant ears that roamed the streets in friendly, shaggy gangs as though rendered by Pixar. Maybe it was the monks on bicycles who charmed me. Maybe it was the waterfall we hiked to that one day, where we found dozens of local women and children doing laundry and bathing and laughing, while the men cleaned their water buffaloes downstream, as though at a giant all-natural car wash. Maybe it was the Kuang Si Falls we hiked to, high in the nearby mountains, with their glittering cascades and swirling mists.
Or it might very well have been the food. Felipe and I had the best meal of our entire lives in Luang Prabang, sitting outside an old French hotel one balmy night, sharing a bottle of ice-cold local rice wine. The food in northern Laos is unlike anything I have encountered. It’s not Chinese, nor Thai, nor Vietnamese, nor French—though it reminds you somewhat of all those things. Laos has a different geography than the rest of Southeast Asia, and so they eat differently there. Luang Prabang is mountainous, isolated, rugged, and the food reflects that—venison and wild boar, river fish and mysterious herbs. We had a stew that night that was so transformative, so perfectly exotic, that we haven’t stopped talking about it since. It was a slow-cooked potage of buffalo meat and local vegetables with the oddest and most surprising ingredient—a sizable chunk of wood, like a small piece of kindling, boiled right into the mix. We asked our waiter about this strange addition, and he told us that the wood was a chip of bark from a local tree whose flesh was permeated by a strong, mentholated oil. We were instructed to suck on the wood when our stew was finished, and to trust... and so we did. The long-boiled wood released a spicy explosion into our mouths—something sort of pepperminty, sort of cinnamony, sort of pine-pitchy—that was the single most breathtaking (literally) flavor I have encountered anywhere in the world. Then I splashed some of the fizzy, cold rice wine into my still-astonished mouth and the spicy peppermint-cinnamon-pine-pitch sensation only doubled. I swear to the heavens I saw stars. At that moment I thought, Well, that’s finished—I can now stop looking for the best meal on earth, because I’ve just had it.
As we were eating, the restaurant lights kept flickering on and off from a thunderstorm that was gathering. Groups of young monks walked slowly down the sidewalk in the dark and the rain, carrying umbrellas and candlelit lanterns, looking in their orange robes like small patches of flame in the night.
My not-yet-husband cast me a look of desperate desire and said to me, “Let’s stay here.”
He did not mean, “Let’s stay here in Luang Prabang for a little while longer, while we ride out our Homeland Security visa-application problems.” He meant, “Let’s stay here forever.” I could see it in his face. Maybe it was just the tree-bark oil talking, but I very nearly agreed. We almost decided that night never to come back to the United States again—to give up on the immigration battle, give up on the modern world, give up on traveling, and settle in this tiny, 1,300-year-old mountain city between the two great muddy rivers.
ULTIMATELY, OF COURSE, WE didn’t. What would we—a Brazilian and an American—have done in Luang Prabang for the rest of our lives? Eventually, we came home. At last we were given permission to marry. Now we live in New Jersey, which is kind of exotic.
By the end of that impossibly beautiful meal, we were already sad, because we knew we would have to go and never return. Luang Prabang had been tinted for us by a patina of nostalgia and melancholy and regret—as though we were already remembering this place with longing, even while we were still there. I’ve never had such a feeling about a place before or since.
So you should go there, is what I’m saying. You really should. Luang Prabang will still be beautiful, I promise. From all I hear, the town has not been ruined, despite a sharp increase in tourism in recent years. The nice people at Unesco have made Luang Prabang a World Heritage site, drawing a talismanic, protective circle around its sublime marvels to protect it forever. There will never be a Hard Rock Casino there. There will never be Dunkin’ Donuts. In many ways, it is safe forever. But since I won’t be going back—since I can’t bring myself ever to go back—will you do me a favor? I ask this in the nicest possible way, but should you ever be so lucky as to find yourself in Luang Prabang on a hot and rainy evening, dining at a crumbling French mansion with your mate, listening to the sound of thunder and watching the monks flicker through the darkness, please take a moment to suck on a chunk of wood, watch the stars explode across your brain, and remember me.