Luang Prabang – When travel gets messy – Part 1

In my previous thirst-provoking post I hinted at one of my trips. From the photo you surely guessed I was in Laos. While sampling local beer was fun, the same couldn’t really be said about the trip itself. Though it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t find silver linings. So, in these two upcoming posts, I will reveal both the good and the bad of my trip to Luang Prabang, though in reverse order. Let’s go!

 

Getting philosophical

Anthony Bourdain once said travel isn’t always pleasant. I second that adding that it shouldn’t be. Viktor Frankl, who gives us more substantial reasons to look up to him, said in his masterpiece Man’s search for meaning that man needs tension to be able to thrive and find purpose in his existence. You may wonder why I talk about two seemingly unrelated figures and what on earth they have to do with my trip to Laos. Well, I liked Bourdain for his unpretentious outlook on things and yes, my trip to Laos was anything but pleasant. And thanks to Frankl I know that it’s great to experience seemingly bad moments as often they are the ones that make us more alive. After all, Frankl, by surviving a concentration camp, shows us that the daily complaints we may have are completely pointless. I am not a whiner, or at least I have been working hard not to be one, though occasional rants, albeit short-lived, do occur too. In this post you will learn about the gloomy side of one of my trips but rather than a rant, it should also serve as a reminder to anyone travelling to certain parts of Southeast Asia in spring.

Canvas with a buddha-like face
Close your eyes and feel

Catching up with unfinished past

Since I somehow can’t help myself and metaphors and quotes pop up in my brain like crazy, I will also use my all-time favourite Heraclitus’ quote You can’t step twice in the same river. Should you, however, step into a river to which you never arrived due to external circumstances? I guess you should. Covid-19 prevented me from Laos, so in 2023 I planned for it again. And I could see already from the beginning that something was amiss. A week before the trip, Air Asia changed my connecting flight, forcing me into a stopover in Bangkok. Not a biggie. A night in Bangkok should never be an issue.  In hindsight though I wonder whether it could have been interpreted as a sign. Though in words of Samantha in Sex and the city, and by now I too have become seriously worried about the number of quotes I impose on you, if we listen to every little voice in our head or translate everything into a sign we might as well go nuts. So obviously I attached zero importance to this. Funnily enough, not before long after setting my foot in Luang Prabang (LPQ) I was back in Bangkok in a state I’d call slightly desperate.

Door closed with sun coming through and curtain attached to it
What’s behind the door?

Beating around the bush

Truth is I was looking forward to this trip like a little girl. I just dreamt of chilling and doing nothing except for little exploring, taking photos and soaking up the atmosphere. I knew that LPQ was supposed to be one those destinations where you just go with the flow – something I have been always very good at. Weeks before the trip I contacted the hostess regarding payment. Since the beginning of our conversation, I felt pressure for money as she mentioned how cheap my room rate was. This annoyed me slightly but it’s hardly something I’d consider off-putting enough to make it influence my excitement. While generally speaking nationality shouldn’t matter, to be thorough I will mention that the hostess was Vietnamese as are many tourism property owners in Luang Prabang. It would be unfortunate if one were to create wrong or stereotypical assumptions towards a nation based on one example but let’s keep facts straight. Anyway, the hostess made it otherwise sound like paradise was awaiting, sending me photos of her baby and pretending that nothing stood in the way of my long 10-day stay in Luang Prabang. “Why don’t you stay longer? For the New Year Celebration?” the hostess kept eagerly arousing my interest. Little did I know this was all tactics employed by her to avoid addressing the colossal elephant in the room. At this stage though I still kept building imaginary castles. I was picturing tuk-tuk and bicycle rides, sampling local food and aimless days filled with connecting to the local culture.

Crossroads with tuk-tuks in Luang Prabang
The images of daily life

Harsh arrival

But arriving in Luang Prabang quickly set a different tone. The minute I got off the plane a weird sensation hit my senses. The air was just so heavy and unwelcoming. I also remember thinking that it was quite unusual not to see anything from the plane when we were landing. I recall asking myself whether it were plausible for clouds to be so low as it felt like flying through a thick fog of clouds. Since I went straight into the arrival hall to process my visa there wasn’t really time to think about it in great depth. During the transfer to the guesthouse I didn’t feel any wiser either, but I did notice a very strange hue in the air and an overall unusual colouring of the atmosphere. Occasionally I saw small pieces of something that I couldn’t identify fall from the sky. It only hit me properly when I got to the guesthouse since the hostess in her sudden and probably unplanned honesty became increasingly interested in the air quality in Bangkok. “How’s air pollution in Bangkok now?” she asked looking at me somewhat ironically. “Okay,” I said but didn’t really understand the question at all at first. It’s the weirdest thing to be asked upon checking in.

Motorbike riders on a road in Luang Prabang
Going forward, yet unsure about the vibe

Ugly truth

Then the penny dropped. As we proceeded to the room the hostess gave me all the details about the air pollution in LPQ. “It’s crazy the burning these days,” she would passionately explain as if she had been waiting for this moment to brief me. I was still puzzled at this mystery that is until we reached the room, and the hostess opened the balcony with an apologetic look. “You know we are cleaning and cleaning but it’s pointless. In a couple of minutes the dirt is back,” she continued. “Dirt?” I asked quizzically but a response wasn’t necessary as I suddenly noticed that little something I saw on my way to the guesthouse fall graciously from the sky and gently settle on the balcony glass table. “Yeah, ashes,” she conveyed energetically and added how many tragedies occur during the slash burning season as farmers often die on their fields during this procedure. Bloody hell, Holy mishmash!!! I exclaimed on the inside as it had all just sunk in. I have clearly become part of an apocalypse. And if not an apocalypse then the worst pollution I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.

A man washing his hands by the river with thick smog around
Splash my face

Haze me up

Just as the hostess closed the door leaving me with the bittersweet thoughts and strange stillness of the room, I opened the balcony door again to check if this was for real. Being on my own, not having to focus on someone else’s chatter I could feel the sensation properly. Once I leaned towards the balcony rail, an invasive smell of smog and burnt hit my face. My eyes and my nostrils were in agony. I closed the door at once and collapsed onto bed, falling into deep thinking. At first, I couldn’t believe it. I’ve been aware of haze, but this felt so different, so surreal. I recalled my time in KL where you would experience brief periods of this weird air pollution and I even had a flash back of my first day in this country which was marked by haze, to that day that a phenomenon I had never heard of or experienced before. I remember it so vividly.

Panorama during sunset with people sitting at a cafe ans un showing in tree branches, from the bank of Laos river with hazy air
Hiding sun

Reviving old memories

On 3 October 2015 I appeared with my luggage at the arrival gate of KLIA 1 airport. Confused and jetlagged the first thing that I noticed was the smell. Unique, strange, a bit smoky odour that I remember to this day. It felt utterly exotic to me. The company driver was there to pick me up (red carpet service, indeed) and as he rode off, I stared from the window with a curious look on my face. It was the sunset time, and I could see the sun in its glory, but it felt strange because the sun didn’t burn. I could look at it without hurting my eyes or squinting. The huge orange ball just hovered on the horizon as if covered by a thin silk veil. “I am sorry you had to arrive to this,” said the driver apologetically. “To what?” I asked because to me it seemed pretty awesome, so I didn’t really understand what he was apologising for. “The haze,” he replied. “It’s really bad this time,” he added trying to be as sympathetic as possible. “Oh,” I muttered because it was the first time I had heard the word haze in my life. My first encounter with haze was memorable and romantic. It never made me hate the phenomenon. In a weird way I also liked the smell and the strange stillness it brought about. Since then, I would only experience a couple of similar days in KL. But never to a point where it would prevent me from living my life, let alone put me in a risky situation from the health point of view.

Worker in red coverall walking around fog from mosquite fogging
Fogging? Piece of cake!

LPQ Hardcore

But the haze in Luang Prabang? That was something else. Absolute hardcore. Probably ten to twenty times worse from what I had experienced before. Truly apocalyptic. I’ll leave the romantic crap like you couldn’t see the blue sky aside and get to the core straight away. After the first day I felt visibly weak and got a mild nose bleeding which slowly but surely progressed in severity. As an asthmatic I could see it coming and every day I felt a new symptom emerge until I reached a state of an unbearable mental irritation and anxiety. I tried to pretend that it didn’t exist, but it was futile. The smog got just about everywhere. You couldn’t escape it even indoors. It made it into every crack of every building. You would wake up and go to bed with it. Wearing a mask day and night would help a bit, at least until the point where it would absorb the smell and you’d need to change it.

Ferry with people and cars approaching the bank of the river. All covered in haze
Looking for a horizon

Time to run

After about three days, when I could sense my otherwise healthy lungs were starting to act up and it seemed like getting sick was inevitable if I stayed longer, I decided I had had enough of this haze invasion and immediately booked a flight to Bangkok. I informed the hostess who unsurprisingly tried to play on the sympathy and empathy note heavily, pretty much making me feel bad for cancelling the accommodation. “My kids are sick too,” she would say when I explained the reasons behind. I tried to be nice about it but the hostess replied somewhat annoyingly, “Seems I don’t have any other option.” In hindsight it amazed me how nice I was to her despite her making me feel bad at every point. Nevertheless, the hostess’ litanies were not my concern anymore. I eagerly packed, settled my bill, getting rid of all the local currency, which only underlined my strong feelings as I always keep some notes from countries I travel to, and the next day I was at the airport at 6am ready to fly towards a better tomorrow.

Man on a motorbike holding two white mannequins in their crotch (just bottoms) transporting them to the market
Acquiring the right attitude

Not so fast my little bird

At the airport I started feeling so much better. Like a bird who’s been released from its cage. I was proud of myself for disregarding the financial aspect of it and prioritising my health, looking forward to staying in Bangkok for the rest of the holiday, picturing it at as a shrine of cleanliness and purity. It’s such a paradox but Bangkok was now a Shangri-la in my mind. I guess that’s what happens when we escape places hastily. To celebrate the occasion and upon finding a shop that would accept debit cards I bought a few cans of my favourite beer – you remember which one it is? – some dried fruit and parked myself in chairs on the second floor of the airport near the aircon. I am a stickler for time, so I arrive everywhere super early.

Emptz seat at LPQ airport with 'Bangkok airways' on the glass window in the background during golden hour
Alone and dreaming of Bangkok

I could therefore ‘enjoy’ the airport pretty much on my own, wondering about the rather derelict state of it and picturing myself strolling around Bangkok, enjoying the hotel pool and having a slice of dolce vita at last. My daydreaming was occasionally interrupted by passengers slowly emerging from the escalators and spreading disorderly in the area, grabbing seats to their liking. The hall started slowly filling up with travellers like me who were escaping the apocalypse. Sporadically there were airport announcements. I was so absorbed by the upcoming Bangkok adventure that I paid little attention to them. I reassured myself occasionally glancing at the gate board which displayed details of my flight. At some point however, and by the time the hall was full of impatient passengers flying to different parts of Asia, the wait started becoming more eventful.

A close up of a bird in a cage
Can I leave or not?

Patience essential

Suddenly the board displayed a delay of the flight. Two hours. Not so bad. There was always the shop with beer. The funny thing was however that none of the flights that were supposed to leave before mine seemed to operate. The airport was completely still. The staff inconspicuously started locking the airport gates, there was no movement, and certainly no planes. While the board for the Bangkok flight, put into operation painstakingly by one of the airport staff,  was still functional, it seemed it was just a diversion tactics to prevent chaos.

A mam at the airport taking a selfie near a gate
Finding ways of killing time

At this point, mildly puzzled, I started talking to other passengers. Everybody was slightly upset, and everyone had a story to tell. Many were using Flightradar24, looking up the Air Asia flight number online. The plane was apparently near Luang Prabang, but it suddenly disappeared from the radar. A minute later announcements started to pierce the heavy stillness of the airport and get significantly more interesting.

U-turn necessary

First, a flight to Cambodia was cancelled, then one to Vietnam, then another one and only after about three hours later mine was cancelled too. Since this was Laos and things take time in this part of the world it took another three hours for the airport to get their act together and organise all from collecting luggage, giving us the appropriate paperwork and organising a flight the next day. Just for the record, the plane didn’t disappear from the radar. It simply made a U-turn and went back to Bangkok. Apparently the pilot didn’t want to risk landing in this milky and clearly disaster-inducing hue. I am not sure how I’d feel had I been on that plane from Bangkok. Guess I was still better off monitoring the airport and its not updated boards.

Board panel with announcements of cancelled or delayed flights
Still keeping futile hopes alive

Like a fool

I felt like a fool. Not only did I spend the whole day at the airport, but I had to do a U-turn too and ask for the room and transfer back in the guesthouse that I so hastily and ostentatiously left. So, there I was again. The same scenario, even worse smog and a tad lower morale. C’est la vie. If it hadn’t been for some cheap travelling leeches who somehow managed to use the transfer with me without paying, it would have been more bearable. Upon resettling into the familiar smoky reality I grabbed quick dinner and repeated the same procedure again the next day. Transfer and wait at the airport. Sitting at the same bench and seeing the same faces faces from the day before. It almost looked like we wouldn’t leave.

A woman carrying baskets hanged on a pole on her shoulder walking towards a busy street
Grin and bear it

The haze got so bad that it was impossible to see anything. The flight disappeared from the radar again and the airport staff was cryptic. I almost thought the hostess had done some voodoo on me so that I would keep coming back. But as I was about to accept the harsh reality of being infinitely stuck there and getting ready to type another message asking for a transfer and room, a small miracle happened. The pilot did something of an emergency landing and the whole airport erupted in loud cheers and claps of anxious but incredibly relieved passengers. People were genuinely happy, myself included. We were finally leaving.

Air Asia plane on the runway surrounded by thick smog
It stills seems unreal

Sink in deeper in Bangkok

When I arrived in Bangkok, I felt such an incredible relief that I couldn’t describe it. But it was too late. I managed to enjoy the first two days and then my body completely gave up on me. I was sick as a dog and spent the entire rest of the holiday in my room grappling with all the unpleasant symptoms of the exposure to the incredible air pollution. That also meant that from Bangkok I went straight to the doctor’s office. Luckily my state wasn’t as bad to be hospitalised. I guess being in a nice hotel, staying in bed and medicating myself as much as possible had helped.

A school kid dancing outside a school gate teasing his classmates who are locked inside
Already free but still locked

Lesson learned

So here you go. This was my messy April trip. I guess as long as it was a learning experience it’s fine. The lesson that the trip to Luang Prabang has taught me was to always check the air quality before flying anywhere and not to book trips to certain parts of Asia during the farming season, that is from February to May. This year many countries have shown how much out of control it can get. I asked myself whether I would go on that trip had I known about the pollution. Honestly, I don’t know. I would probably dismiss it as ‘unnecessary to panic’ given my experience with haze in KL. It’s only the real experience with hazardous levels of PM2.5 in the air that has taught me that once it exceeds the moderate mark it really isn’t worth it and should be a no-no.

Reflection of my feet in a mirror hung on a wall wearing black sandals and skirt
My all-time fave – always an opportunity to reflect

Coming uninformed

The fact remains that I had absolutely no clue about the situation until I arrived. Once in Luang Prabang I started googling it all. While the media was flooded with news about Chiang Mai becoming the most polluted city in the entire world during that time, informing tourists of the serious hazards, Laos seemed to try to hush things up. Chiang Mai made the headlines of news worldwide as at one point it even surpassed Delhi in the level of pollution. That’s no mean feat. Laotian government, however, didn’t reveal much, and locals seemed to be more concerned about losing money than the potential consequences on travellers.

A money collection box of wood and glass with bank notes hanging on the crack through which it is slipped into it
The money is almost ours

On the fence

Honestly, I still don’t know what to think about this. I know Laos is an incredibly poor country. But since most rooms in Luang Prabang became nonrefundable on Booking.com during that time it really made me feel uneasy. I felt cheated. I came for 10 days and had I stayed for the entire time I could have ended up in the hospital given my medical history. At the airport there were also elderly people who claimed it was unbearable and were cutting their holidays short immediately upon their arrival. I bet it would have been more professional if we had been informed. I know it’s hard to pass judgement when livelihood is in stake but so was the health of many unsuspecting visitors who fell into this trap.

A monk sitting on a bench looking at his phone
Think, feel, rinse and repeat

Would I go to Luang Prabang again? I guess I would. Similarly to Bangkok, as I’ll soon write about, some places deserve a second chance so let’s see. To be frank though, this trip was etched in my memory like no other. While this destination probably won’t appear on my wish list for quite some time, there is still this weird satisfaction of being able to experience something unusual and create long-lasting memories even if I was so miserable. Stay tuned 🙂

 

To be continued …

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