I knew I’d found a new world when I first saw the Mekong River from Thailand. I’d passed god knows how many hours on the road in a headlong dash to the ancient forest city of Luang Prabang, which I thought I could reach in a day but which took three days to see, with a gasp of wonder and for the first time in a rainy and unseasonable darkness. I had to stop for the night at Huay Xai. On the way there the driver scammed me out of more money than I’d agreed to pay, feigning some kind of misunderstanding, but I didn’t care because there were pillars of stone supporting the sky, and clouds like citadels.
“I’m writing to you from the wonderful city of —!” says my journal, though Huay Xai was just a few yellow colonial guesthouses huddled on a hill above the river. To cross it you must take a motorboat which is more like a long canoe or a wooden knife slicing through the waves, and leap over the side with all your belongings, and crush the dark sand with new footprints. I took a perfect photograph there I will probably never see again, a picture of a boy walking up a golden street; I asked for a haircut that a woman refused to give me (“women only!”), I ate the most spectacular chicken of my life (simple barbecue), I laughed with some British people over chickens mistaking themselves for peacocks and got a little drunk on a bottle or two of infinite Beerlao, I thought of the stray dog without a front-right paw that used its wrinkled snout to help push itself up from the street, the smoky woman with dirty, clumped hair who freely dressed herself in soiled rags, a young monk who spoke to me in rapid English that he’d learned from a book, just after he tied a string of yarn around my wrist which I still wear, and a naked toddler who was making strange noises and twisting her body around behind me while I wrote emails to friends, only stopping when I whirled around and saw her.
Downstairs, under the slippery wood floors of the spectacular colonial guesthouse with red hammer-and-sickle flags flying out front, an Australian with curly blond hair greets me: “Ow ah yah!”