Northern Laos – Lazy Days on the Mekong

Morning over the Mekong River in Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

Occasionally in my travels I stumble upon one of those rare places in the world where time slows down, colors sharpen, and I become vividly aware of the interconnectedness of myself with the world around me. Perched above the banks of the Mekong River in a remote northern village of Laos, watching the flaming orb of the setting sun reflected off a golden Buddhist stupa, I became acutely aware that this was one of those moments. All was good in the world, and a warm feeling of calmness drifted over me.

Sunset over Thailand, looking across the Mekong River from Laos

Here, surrounded by curious teenage monks emblazoned in burnt orange robes, I took stock of my life, my family, and humanity. The bothersome minutia that typically flits about annoyingly now faded away into obscurity and I was left with a simple feeling of bliss. By the end of my trip here to Northern Laos, I had been an honored guest in a Laotian wedding, sampled some exquisitely sublime food, and cleared my mind in one of the most relaxing places I have visited to date.

My journey to Laos came about on a speaking trip to Southeast Asia in January 2013 with my good friend and colleague Joel Oleson. We were in between speaking engagements in Hong Kong and Singapore, and spent the time exploring the Chiang Rai region, an experience covered in my previous post on Northern Thailand. Our voyage had also taken us to the secretive nation of Burma (Myanmar,) and to the banks of the Mekong River in Chiang Khong. From here, we officially left behind the Kingdom of Thailand and jumped aboard a longboat which quickly spirited us across the ancient river to the opposite bank.

Crossing the Mekong River from Chiang Khong, Thailand into Laos

The crossing took only a few minutes, and after filling out the requisite visa-on-arrival paperwork and having our passports stamped, we wandered into the city of Ban Houayxay. This small city is mainly considered to be a launching-off point for points beyond in Laos, which is really quite unfortunate as it is an extremely relaxing and enjoyable place to spend some time in.

Crossing the Mekong River from Chiang Khong, Thailand into Laos

Many of the sights of the city are within walking distance, while some of them like the morning market typically require a lift on one of the many waiting songthaews or rickshaws. The morning market is packed with rows upon rows of vendors selling a bewildering array of exotic vegetables and meats.

Morning market in Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

Just up the hill and overlooking the Mekong is the old French Fort Carnot, now a crumbling pile of bricks just barely held up by some makeshift scaffolding, a fading reminder of French control of Laos.

The French Fort Carnot, Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

What’s particularly surprising about this region of the world is the number of Buddhist monasteries that are here that cater to teenage Buddhist monks. We ran into all number of underage teenage monks, apparently unaccompanied, that worshipped and lived in the various monasteries in the region. These monks were as fascinating to us as our technology was to them.

Teenage Buddhist monks fascinated by an iPhone in Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

One of the monks even found a particular liking to my Saddleback Leather travel bag that I carry with me on all of my travels.

Teenage Buddhist monks taking my Saddleback Leather Messenger Bag for a test run in Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

Our real treat in Laos was granted to us by a taxi driver named ‘Ocean’ who showed us around the city during the day. A respected member of the community, he gave us access to places we would normally never have been able to see. One particularly interesting sight he pointed out were the village houses that were built on to of shells from American B-52 bomb casings that were left unexploded in the area.

Village house supported by B-52 bomb casings in Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

These bombs had their explosive charges removed (for fishing in the Mekong, so I’m told) and were converted into peaceful purposes – a real ‘swords to plowshares’ moment for us.

Village house supported by B-52 bomb casings in Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

Indeed, the people of Laos that inhabited these villages were an amazingly friendly sort, and we were extremely popular during our time there.

Friendly citizens of Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

Smiles, laughter, and curiosity was everywhere to be found amongst this beautiful population.

Friendly children of Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

In fact, of all the enduring experiences of this trip, it was the people itself that most sticks out in my mind.

Friendly villager in Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

Just knowing that places like this exist in the world restored my faith in humanity and humbled me.

Friendly hill people in Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

Our friend Ocean had one more surprise for us that day. Approaching us, he asked us if we ‘”Wouldn’t mind” tagging along with him to a friend’s wedding that he was invited to that day. Serious? A honored guest at a Laotian wedding? He didn’t have to ask us twice.

Author in a Laotian Wedding in Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

An interesting tradition had the Bride and Groom wearing ‘donations’ on their wrists. All guest brought various denominations and physically attached it to their wrists, and we were no exception to this. What was interesting to me was that I noted US Dollars, Thai Baht, Euros, and Laotian money all tied up to their wrists, an interesting but effective way to defray the costs of the wedding.

Laotian Wedding in Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

The Laotian wedding was the highlight of the day for us, and we spent the rest of the afternoon dancing our cares away.

Honored Guests in a Laotian Wedding in Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

At the same time, copious amounts of mouth-watering food were being directly catered to the tables from hard-working cooks that were producing hand-made Laotian delicacies on the sidelines of the wedding. The food I ate here could go head to head with some of the best Thai food I’ve eaten in my life.

Hard working caterers at a Laotian Wedding in Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

At the end of our time in Laos, we both agreed that it was a completely underrated tourist destination, and we absolutely needed to figure out a way to return here and spend more time in this absolutely amazing country!

Joel and I with teenage Buddhist monks in  Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

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