Hanging Out on the Mystical Mekong

Location: Luang Prabang, Laos

This is a beautiful, beautiful place. The streets in the touristy area of Luang Prabang are like a fantastical painting set somewhere long, long ago in a fairytale land far, far away. It’s a lush paradise of pink-blossomed trees, cliffs overlooking the murky green Mekong river, distant shadows of mountains, bumpy cobblestone streets, and french colonial architecture embellished with an Asian flare. The afternoon sun is crisp instead of overbearing and it breaks through the haze of the riverside in a shade slightly lighter than that of a boiled egg yolk. 

You can wander up and down the Mekong for an hour or two each way, passing quaint gardens and restaurants decorated with star-shaped paper lanterns, potted plants, and strings of classic, white Christmas tree lights. At night, the main street is blocked off for night markets, crepe stands, and fruit shake vendors that are more than happy to add a splash of Lao Lao to your mango smoothie if you so desire. The village is big enough to get lost in but small enough to know you’ll eventually find your way home; just follow the Mekong. And I could get lost in this kind of whimsical world for some time. 

But most of its occupants are strangely transient. Tourists don’t stay in this quiet, peaceful village for more than a few days; they check out the waterfalls and caves in the country, visit the gaudy, gold-painted temple up on the closest mountainside and move on. Maybe that’s what keeps it all so quaint, though. Nobody sticks around to fuck it up.

There are also some strange sights to see; I was passing one of the riverside cafes by the Mekong this morning when I heard a hoot and the clanging of something against metal. When I squeezed myself between a couple fence posts, I found myself amidst several small metal cages, some simply tucked under a table beside a restaurant.

“Sabaidee!” A crow-sized black bird with a yellow beak croaked at me from one of the larger enclosures. I leapt back. It didn’t look like a parrot, but it spoke like one. When I went in for a closer inspection, I felt something tiny and finger-like grip my knee. I let out a yelp; the cage underneath held two small monkeys. They were delighted by my reaction and shook the metal bars with joy, hooting and crawling over each other. 

I’m still not really sure what was up with the mini-zoo. It didn’t seem like an attraction; it was nearly totally blocked off from the road. I’ve read that Laotians keep birds and release them for good luck, but I’ve never seen such a strange assortment of pets. The owner, an unsmiling, middle aged man, watched from afar as my friends and I let the monkeys grab at us and try to steal the shiny, fake aquamarine ring off one of my fingers. He only stepped in to stop us when Baby attempted to feed them beer, sternly shaking his head. 

Rules are few and far between in Laos, but I guess that one is more just common sense: never get a monkey drunk. 

Travel Tips:

  • Don't feed random street animals! Also, probably don't pet them...I spent a good while scrubbing down my arms with soap after I played with the monkeys.