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12 September 2011

A Wrinkle in Time

After deboarding, visa administering, and a gut wrenching race to the squat toilet, I am approached by a man garbed entirely in pink. Glowing softly in the afternoon light, he asks me if I want to buy slow-boat tickets to Luang Prabang, two days downriver from Houaysai. I say yes indeed, I need two. I unload what seems like an absurd amount of money, hundreds of thousands of kip, having just exchanged my Thai baht for the considerably more inflated Laos kip. He tells me to show up tomorrow at the pier west of town. I tell him I want a receipt. And then watch him run away up the street with our cash.
The slowboat that will take us to Luang Prabang

Mildly perturbed by his hasty departure with such a massive wad of our funds, I walk back to where Erin is lazing and inform her of the interaction. She appears unfazed. Something about the quiet river and her disposition and the air hanging about us just oozes with relaxation. So I succumb to this unseen power and plop down to await our fate.
The man in pink soon returns with the desired documents, bids us a pleasant evening, and wanders off on some further entrepreneurial endeavor.
Ascending from the riverside we come to what appears to be main street. A quiet avenue with shops lining both sides, people leisurely walking and talking, a few vehicles scattered about. The two story buildings along the narrow roadway show the gentle touch of time, built with native construction materials and indigenous architecture. A bucolic riverside town.
Laotion flags hang above the pier
There is also a stillness in the air; as if upon uttering a word it gets sucked into a vacuum and disappears. I find myself speaking in whispers so as not to disturb the tranquility, the soft silence. Chiang Kong’s previously pleasant hustle and bustle now seems harsh and strident, a bare cement room of rebounding acoustics compared to this comfortable den of throw pillows and drapes.
There is a profound feeling of having traversed back in years, the Mekong functioning as a portal between ages, a wrinkle in time.
We pass a brilliantly painted gateway marking the entrance to a long flight of stairs ascending a hillside. The undulating walls adjacent to the steps are forest green dragon torsos, their gaping white-toothed maws and wide-eyed faces spilling out onto the street where we stand. Young monks in bright orange robes traverse the upper reaches towards the dragons’ tails.
We continue on to seek lodging.
Dusk approaches and the serpentine barriers guide us onward and upward. Our feet carry us up the long flight of low angle steps while child monks play with cell phones and harass each other nearby. At the terminus appears a central temple surrounded by a courtyard and a ring of smaller structures. Some serve as living quarters and dining areas for the young inhabitants, and others contain golden images of Buddha, his disciples, and various figures I don’t recognize.
Dragons leading a large ritual vessel, Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
Several of the buildings have intricate, striking paintings on their outer walls, linking traditional Buddhist images with animistic influences. Like many regions that Buddhism traveled to after leaving India, the pre-existing local beliefs were integrated into the new faith, creating a geographically and culturally unique strain of the religion. The elemental, protector, and malevolent spirits of Laos animism shape local belief systems, and more than half of Laos’ present population practices some form of animism. The artistic style of these paintings reflects a raw kind of pulsating energy, with bold colors and defiant figures. Quite different from the generally more subdued and refined art I saw in Thailand.
Erin and I wander separately about the grounds, taking in the various features of the temple surroundings. I amble around the front of the building and gaze upon the lazy Mekong below, breathing deeply as the red orb of the setting sun approaches the horizon in the distance. Suddenly, swarms of young monks come scurrying from all corners of the compound, answering the bell calls emitting from the center hall. I make my way toward the main entrance of the temple proper and look in at the young ones seated in front of a tall Buddha statue. Some fidget in the back while others settle onto their cushions toward the front.
An elder monk guides the congregation and they begin to chant.
Buddha images at Wat Xieng Thong
The combined voices rumble through the sacred space and pour out into the twilight. Their words carry weight, and I can feel them press over my body. I am moved to sit on a stone step at the temple’s edge and close my eyes, absorbing only the sound and shutting the other sense doors. The mutterings resonate through my eardrums and fill me up, an empty vessel slowly becoming saturated with warm vibrations. Aromas of incense and night time flow into my nostrils. I sway gently to the song of the youthful, the faithful.
A timeless trance.
When the chanting halts, I open my eyes. Unable yet to move from my perch, I mirthfully observe the interested and genuinely surprised stares from the children as they file out around me. Erin is gone. In time I stand and begin to walk slowly down the hewn steps. I glance once more at the hill top refuge and move quietly into the comfortable darkness.

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