When I woke up that average September day, the last thing I thought I’d be doing was brushing off my passport to book a flight to a region of the world that I had been dreaming about visiting for years. For months, my boyfriend Evan and I would occasionally discover affordable flight deals from the west coast to far off destinations abroad, and we always joked about just booking one on a whim. When it came to the discovery of an affordable flight to the country of Laos in Southeast Asia, I could no longer joke about the situation. We have to do this, I thought, imagining the adventures that awaited us in such a culturally vibrant and intriguingly exotic region of the world. For a moment, we paused to ask ourselves if we knew anyone that had been to Laos. No we didn't. Did we know.. anything about Laos? Nope. We'd only heard about many people traveling to Thailand and maybe Vietnam. That was about it. “Okay, let’s just do it!,” I said as I hovered the computer cursor over the “Book Now” button and clicked. That was that! We’d figure everything else out later.
Six months later, we found ourselves stepping off the airplane and engulfed into the warmth and tropical humidity of Luang Prabang, Laos. A UNESCO world heritage site, Luang Prabang is a little ancient city in the heart of Laos. A slight haze lifted through the mountains, as the haze of our jet lag began to wear off by the excitement of our first look around this new and foreign world. Those first few hours were eye opening to say the least. I’ll never forget the bewilderment I felt in our ride from the airport to the guesthouse we were staying in. As the van traversed the roads, dodging motorbikes that whizzed by so effortlessly, my eyes were glued to the windows of the transport van. Everywhere I looked, I saw something I had never seen before. Golden stupas shimmering in the sun, towering palm trees and bright green tropical plants clustered among bamboo houses, and the occasional glimpse of a centuries old Buddhist temple with huge swooping rooftops and ornate red and gold detailing. As we pulled into town and were delivered to a cramped 8 foot wide alleyway that could hardly be defined as a street, the historic presence of the French became apparent from the architecture around us and the sweet scent of fresh baguettes wafting through the air.
Among those calm days of wandering the town, we created some of the most memorable moments we brought home with us when we left. You see, when your plans are free you leave part of your trip to an element of chance and if you allow the time to take that chance you could find yourself in one of those life changing travel moments that everyone who has ever traveled is searching for. Ours came one night as the sun was setting on a bustling night market held every night in town. We had attempted a second climb up Mt. Phou Si, a popular tourist draw especially for sunset. The crowds were less than romantic at the top, so we spent a couple minutes there and made our way right back down the hundreds of stair steps. We paused at the base of the giant hill to rest on a landing that overlooked the night market. “Excuse me, do you speak English?” I heard someone say to me in an accent. I turned around to a Lao teenager grinning widely, notebook and pencil in hand, explaining that he was in an English class and was looking for some conversational experience. “We’d love to help you!” I exclaimed, and a couple hours later we would find ourselves amidst a crowd of 20 of his classmates, all excited to be conversing with fahlangs (foreigners). Eventually their teacher approached us and invited us along on a field trip they were taking that weekend, and to help in their classroom next week if we had the time. “Absolutely!” we said.
It was the unknown exotic culture and the beauty of the temples that had drawn us to Laos, to wake up that morning and click the “Book Flight” button. But what had created such a connection to this country within us, what truly made this place unforgettable, was the outwardly compassionate, welcoming, joyful, and humble people of Laos. Teachers Jer and his cousin inviting two strangers from the west into their homes, connecting us with their students so that these kids would have a chance to spend a day with english speaking foreigners and allow them the opportunity to expand their learning were moments we are so grateful for. The compassion they had for their students was simply tremendous. The Lao people will accept you with open arms, and it goes so far beyond the fact that they are looking to take your tourist dollars. It was unbelievably heartwarming to be surrounded by such curious and humble students, genuinely interested in our culture.