Then There Is The River

Pakbeng, halfway from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, from the Photos I Wish I'd Taken series.

The insanity and the madness of the river’s beauty, the land’s beauty…the god who made this place was a madman exiled from heaven for his lunacy. So while the other gods were ordering Rome and New York City, and while some were forsaking those parts of the Amazon visited by the rebel Aguirre, this god made Southeast Asia, a region stranger and more severe than any I’ve seen. Then there is the river, the brown water, the so-called “Big Muddy”, pouring through mountains of jungle, where each tree tries to climb over its fellows with branches draped in leaves and moss. The crazy god sculpted them that way. Somehow you always find yourself lying down and looking up at the curving peaks, which only makes them seem that much more massive and miraculous, though they’re nothing to the otherworldly towers of karst you see in Thailand buried in the earth like the armor plates of a stegosaur. Gray, black as coal, impossibly massive, set behind a flat floodplain of dry rice paddies perfect for someone to sprint across, you must see them with your own eyes.

Then there is the river, where natives wave from the shore, and young boys make faces in response to yours if you sit in the back of the riverboat and breathe all the fumes from the engine, all the clouds of blue cigarette smoke, and all the smoke from the fires lit throughout the land. Once the children on board are finished serving the passengers they climb the ladder at the front of the ship and wander into the windy compartment upstairs, where the pilot sits with a young monk wreathed in orange, and a pair of women talking about betrayals and loser boyfriends, and an Irishman and a woman from Corsica discussing their lives of exploration, and perhaps even the author, who is drenching himself in these overheard conversations, the pleasure of eavesdropping. Then there is the river, the darkness, the mist and the rainfall; once you get off at Luang Prabang and walk up the cement ramp to the city which is more jungle than city you will find yourself overwhelmed with wonder, especially when you see all the rectangular riverboats moored together on the shore. The old world is the new.

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