I didn't even know I was looking for it but I found the San Miguel, the Holy Grail of SE Asia. And it is Luang Prabang, Laos. As much as I loved Thailand I adored Laos even more. Maybe it was the combination of things we did, the food we ate, the sites we saw, or the history lessons we learned. All in a really small-town setting where we rode bikes everywhere, and where Sam and I could sit on the banks of the Mekong with a cold beer while the kids swam in its muddy waters below.
For me hearing the word Mekong makes me think of palm trees and jungles and the whir of a helicopter blade in Vietnam. This image is indelible from movies like Apocalypse Now and Good Morning Vietnam (RIP Robin Williams who died today). But these are all set in Vietnam; until this trip I knew nothing about Laos; I didn't even know it was on the Mekong. I didn't know it was involved in the Vietnam War. I didn't know there is a large population of Laotians in Modesto, California, all refugees from 35 years ago when the U.S. bombed the bejeezus out of northern Laos while routing out Northern Vietnamese who were using the Ho Chi Minh trail to move supplies and to hide out. Visiting these countries and learning about the war in situ--through museums and more often from locals was a tragic and often awkward (and worse) experience. We were most definitely on the wrong side of that war. We had no business being there. There was little we were going to solve and even less to be gained fighting a war in which we were utterly mismatched through terrain, geography and skills. Our politicians lied and so many lives were lost needlessly. Not just those on the wall in Washington but all over the harmless and innocent villages of this beautiful region. It was one of the saddest lessons I learned all trip.
Thanks to my literate friend and follower, Janet Grady, I read the book The Spirit Moves You and You Fall Down just before hitting Laos. So I had a helpful dose of background going in. Its story is one of a Hmong family living in California who confronts the American medical system while trying to heal their severely epileptic young daughter. A fascinating study in the clash of cultures between these rural Laotians with centuries of animistic and other beliefs transplanted, without much choice or desire, in the U.S. after the war.
Luang Prabang, just a couple hundred kilometres from the center of the war, was not as affected by its neighbors. So its French colonial architecture was mostly unscathed by the bombing. Yet it's smack dab in the center of northern Laos and there's no avoiding remnants of the damage inflicted on the area by the U.S. Like Cambodia. there are many people missing limbs or blind or otherwise disabled by the landmines and unexploded ordinance (UXOs) that still infect the region. Per capita, Laos has the grim distinction of being the most heavily bombed place on the planet; more bombs landed here than in all of Europe during WW2. Six hundred pounds of bombs were dropped for everyone man, woman and child in Laos. There was bombing campaign every six minutes for four years. Just try to imagine that noise.
I loved that country. I loved the landscape, the limestone cliffs, the caves and lagoons and the river flowing through the entire country; the life on the river, the tiny kids paddling boats with a bamboo pole up and down that river, the women washing their clothes and brushing their teeth on the banks, my own children playing it that river for hours, being kids, just like me growing up.