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Luang Prabang

Updated: Feb 22


Luang Prabang is incredible. Everyone describes it at charming. Everyone who arrived before me told me I would love it. They were right -- and it's all true. This town is an absolute gem of a place!
There are lots of small streets- like an old European village. Not quite all cobblestone streets. They're paved. But the only vehicles allowed on some through roads are tuk tuks and scooters.
The streets are lined with storefronts -- nice ones. They've built this with visitors in mind. This town is the easiest way to see and feel the culture of Laos and to get a sense of its Buddhist roots. All of the hot spots (the waterfall, caves, bears, temples, Hmong villages etc.) are organized tours. It is, however, entirely possible (and safe) to wander on your own! People rent bikes, scooters, or drivers and see the sights. Right away I knew It would be hard to leave this little village. It feels like a little German town in a snow globe-- minus the snow and the Germans. 
The Polish guys and I hopped out of the van as they decided where to book a hotel. The South Korean girl walked to her hostel and I grabbed a Tuk Tuk to my guest house. 
Guest houses are common in Luang Prabang and can best be described as Bed & Breakfasts. The hosts are on-site. The homes are large. The rooms are private. And, the cost includes breakfast. They're nicer than hostels -- but not as pricey or fancy as hotels. I paid $44 per night for a place right off the river which was lovely. It's a quieter corner of the town with restaurants, temples and shops all nearby. I prefer this to the loud, busy center of town where noise permeates; I get that enough living in the city of Dallas.  
After arrival, I quickly changed clothes as my Latin and Italian friends were ready to eat. They had taken an earlier train to Luang Prabang and we agreed to meet for dinner. I walked through the night market (WOW!!! JUST INCREDIBLE) and met up with Yeonsil and the guys: Roberto, Camilo and Giovanni at the main food court area. What a lively scene.

I remember walking through a similar vibe in Chiang Mai last year-- but I just walked through by myself. Energetically, I was in a different place. At that time, I hired a private driver, didn't meet anyone, bought food, ate it while walking through the streets and the driver took me back to my hotel. That summarizes a majority of my time in Thailand last year-- I very much kept to myself.
This year, I must be vibrating on a different frequency. I'm meeting people, eating with them, making plans for coffee with them, having interesting conversations with them... it's a trip how energetically open I am... how my frequency has shifted, and how I am received by others as a result.  
Dinner was uneventful... we enjoyed taking photos and videos and a few laughs but called it a night after the markets closed. They turn off lights at 11pm here. Luang Prabang is not really a place for partying (although some people do find that here as well).
I appreciate my nucleus of people for not being that crowd. These guys are researching waterfalls and remote villages over dumplings and cashews. I find them to be so genuine-- safe-- respectful-- yet still so cool, fun and hilarious. The Polish guys found and joined us at dinnertime, and were nice enough to walk me mostly all the way back to my hotel. The streets were quiet and dark -- but so safe. There is no fear... and so much trust. I felt like a bird cradled in a nest... a safe haven. 
I slept really well and woke up with so much excitement about this simple day that I envisioned. 
As I looked in the mirror to brush my teeth, I actually saw my face and wild hair -- Medusa style-- smiled, then audibly giggled. I loved the happiness that was reflected back to me in this moment. I was oozing with enthusiasm. How is it possible to live this way every day?
Photo By: Sonia Azad
I meditated, messaged with my new friends and was escorted to breakfast by a sweet and soft spoken girl at the front desk. The riverfront seating was gorgeous. The breakfast was simple-- but did the trick. A subpar coffee, some fried eggs with a little fried rice and a Lao-style banana cake. As I ate in silence, I thought about my friends back home and whether or not people would appreciate the simplicity of this place. It's nothing fancy, extravagant, elegant, or over the top. It is, however, special. I think it's beautiful to live among so little and to love it so much. There is a presence of something greater here... something that cannot be seen with eyes, only felt. 
After breakfast, I walked to meet Delia from Romania. She and I connected on a Facebook yoga & travel group and she is even more delightful in person than I imagined from our online interactions. She is a 46-year-old stunning and regal woman-- tall, with olive skin, beautiful energy and a bright purple head wrap fit for a Middle Eastern queen. She lives in the U.K. and works as a psychotherapist. She is divorced and has a 19-year-old daughter. To me, she is absolutely radiant. We talked over coffee and met another solo traveler-- a 27-year-old girl from China who took a train 7 hours to visit Laos. She joined us after I told her how beautiful she is. "Really? Really?" She kept saying over and over. God how I wish women knew how beautiful they truly are. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
I left them after a short time to make an 11am yoga class. Camilo, my friend from Uruguay (who lives in Spain) decided to come with me. He'd never taken a yoga class but was up for the adventure. This class was held in a beautiful space above a steak house (LOL). It was a great place to practice. The teacher struggled with English a bit, so we held poses for a LONG time while she got her rights and lefts untangled. There is a strong Ashtanga base of practitioners in Laos. She contorted my body (perhaps too aggressively) to get me into some locks and binds that... happened.  
As Camilo and I walked out of class, we ran into Delia again. She was at a nearby café smoking a cigarette and having a coffee following lunch. So European. I love it. She complained of having a headache and I offered her Tylenol which was back at my hotel, so Camilo left us and she and I walked to my place. We sat outside in the sun together talking about shared joy-- and being happy for others who find themselves in a sweet spot of life.
How rare it is to have conversations like this. We shared so much heart in such a short amount of time. She is my people. We agreed that this would not be the last time we would see each other-- it's just the beginning of our friendship. It was a fast and effortless connection to sit and be with her. We are on the same vibration-- and share the same feeling and frequency for and about life. 
The sun was hot and my plan was to visit local temples and see what magic finds me along the way. 
By mid-afternoon, I started exploring. I walked for hours without the desire to stop. Despite the sun beating down on me, I really enjoyed seeing, reading and learning about these spiritual centers that drew me here. Each of the temples I visited were distinctly different from others I'd seen in Thailand and Cambodia. I paused at one of them for longer than expected to listen to novice monks beating drums and gongs. 
Camilo and Giovanni were planning to head up to Pouthi Hill to watch sunset from a viewpoint where you could see the city below. I decided to drop off my backpack and meet them. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
This town is so perfect because it's small enough to be walkable-- but big enough to find a million fun and random things to do from day-to-day.
The stairs up the hill were nothing like the daunting hikes I'd experienced. This was child's play. 
The trek was quite nice and adorned with Buddhas on the path to the top. Once there, I immediately saw a huge crowd with phones and cameras pointing toward the setting sun. Giovanni had his sunglasses on and looked defeated sitting on the steps of the temple area with his head in this hands. I just laughed. These guys hate touristy stuff-- which I get-- but we are also visitors. It's expected that everyone wants to find the best place to watch sunset. I said a quick hello to the guys and snuggled my way into the perfect spot along the railing just as a man turned to leave. I stood against the guardrail and had a perfect view of the end of daylight. It was crowded, but I was able to tune it all out and just focus on the visual of that sun, dropping behind the clouds-- the mountains in the background-- and the reflection of it all hitting the river below. To me, it was splendid. 
We made our way back down to the night market and split up. I needed a shower. We decided to meet up again later that night. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
Roberto texted me while I was walking back to my place. He'd gone to see a waterfall that day and just got back to town. He sounded so energized and enthusiastic about his adventure! We decided to meet for dinner and share details of our respective days. 
Things in Luang Prabang close pretty early. The night market wraps up by 10pm and by 11pm, everything-- shops, restaurants, massage places, bars-- closes. 
It's tough to find dinner if you go late and don't move fast. 
By the time Roberto and I met up, it was nearly 9 or 9:30p. He really wanted Italian food-- or as he called it, "western" food. He was over the rice dishes. We tried several places -- one was out of pizza dough because they'd been so busy earlier. Essentially, we were striking out. Roberto looked at Google maps and found a random place down an alley off the main street. What the hell, let's try it. 
We walked into what looked like someone's home-- with an extension or converted garage area that served as a restaurant specializing in fusion Lao-Italian cuisine.
Photo By: Sonia Azad
The whole place was empty with the exception of two guys finishing off a bottle of red wine. We looked at the menu-- scribbled on a chalkboard on the wall-- and ordered. As we waited, we looked around at this tiny place with space for maybe 20 customers. There were some cute paintings on the walls, tiny kittens perching themselves on bookshelves and a little light music. 
The guys at the other table were American. I could tell by their/ our accent :)
I struck up a conversation to learn they're longtime best friends living in different places -- but via Houston! So the Texas bond was instant. Najee is a big black dude with braids. He grew up on a farm in Alabama. He's former U.S. Army and told us that the took retirement and moved to Mexico where life is more affordable and enjoyable. His friend Eli is a tall white guy who talked less but laughed loud. He is super laid back and cool. Both guys are in their mid-30s and we shared a little chuckle about how we've suddenly become the older travelers in these backpacker circles. Everyone we're around is typically in their 20s-- though also generally from places other than America. Everyone else is out here for "48 days" or "6 months" or they "don't have a flight home yet." I was excited to have found some cool, likeminded Americans! 
Roberto and I ate as the American guys wrapped up their meal and left. I got Najee's contact info to connect later during the week. 
Roberto gave the pesto pasta two thumbs up-- a huge compliment for the woman running the place, as she knew he was from Italy. I ordered a delicious curry pasta! I can't even remember the last time I ate pasta. 
By this part in the trip, I'm eating what's available. It's too hard to be gluten free, dairy free, soy free and meat free in places like Luang Prabang. Aside from maybe the nicest, higher-end hotels and restaurants, people would look at you like you're crazy if you asked whether they offer any gluten free menu items (how do you even translate that?)! I mean, it is a little crazy. (TBH: I am starting to question the oils used for cooking because I'm either super inflamed or just gaining weight.) 
Either way, the pasta was enjoyable! 
Roberto and I had a chat with the chef as we paid her an incredibly small amount for this delicious meal. She told us the story about the restaurant. She worked for a French family for 15 years, and they helped her to open this place. She didn't give details but it sounded like perhaps she was a nanny, caretaker or au pair -- and when the kids grew up and she was no longer needed in that capacity, the French couple who hired her wanted to help her stay afloat, on her feet, and earning income. They invested in her. I love the circular nature of this concept. This woman is now living out a passion, in her backyard-- and you can tell she loves cooking for people and making them happy. Her English is definitely decent and while she welcomes online reviews and having us recommend her place, she said she wants to preserve the small nature of the restaurant-- to maintain the vibe and not create stress for herself. 
We left and headed to meet the other guys who were near the night market. 
That's where the night took a turn that none of us could have predicted. 
While things close by 10 or 11, we sat around a table with Giovanni and Camilo debriefing on the day and the meal we just had. There was a nearby table of locals drinking from a VERY big bottle of vodka. It's the kind you see at a table at a club in Vegas. Giovanni, being the outgoing Italian, went to their table and before you know it, he was sitting with them, laughing and being offered shots of vodka. The rest of us joined the table and we sat there laughing, exchanging stories, getting to know about these guys and their lives-- from tennis, to hand making noodles, to what there is to do in Luang Prabang after-hours. Apparently, everyone goes bowling. That's not code for something else- it's just a bowling alley. These guys were going to sit here and get drunk enough to move the party to the bowling alley. What I didn't know then was afterward, they would go to a club called QQ.
Typically, I would be down to explore a foreign club scene, especially because I felt safe in the presence of the guys I'd been hanging out with since Vang Vieng. But I was SO tired from a full day.
The Polish guys texted me to see what everyone was doing so they joined the roundtable in just enough time to slurp down a few drinks with the group and head out toward the party stops, which were mainly for young Europeans who wanted to have a good time. 
The only person who didn't want to go was Camilo, so we walked back and had a conversation that ranged from lively and lighthearted to deep and serious. He's only 24 but harbors a lot of heart, soul and spirituality. 
This type of travel gives people the chance to be themselves, share what they want and move in authentic ways -- without being judged by people who've known you for a long time. By 2am, I had to sleep-- my alarm was set for 5:30am to see the monks for Sai Bat. Camilo decided he would go, too. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
The Alms ceremony is deeply rooted in Lao Buddhist tradition. As far as visitor participation, it can be kind of confusing. I wanted to participate -- but you can also just observe. Participation cost me 100,000 Kip ($5 USD). You walk either toward a temple or along the monks procession route. You are given a small stool where you can sit with a basket of sticky rice and traditional sweets that local women have prepared for the monks. You hand it to them (in silence) as they walk by with their baskets to collect food. Once your food contents are gone, you can either pay an additional fee to the women for more food or you can leave. 
The whole thing happened so fast. You don't speak to or interact with the monks so they just walk past you and you serve them a little food. 
Camilo and I decided that one round was sufficient and we'd check out the procession from a different viewpoint. 
My guest house was just across the street from a temple and had an upstairs balcony.
I've stayed in Bed & Breakfasts before in the U.S., but what I've never seen is front desk staff sleeping in the lobby. This was the case at my guest house in Luang Prabang. Every night, the 19-year old guy named Kim who works there would sleep, covered by one blanket, on a hard couch/ bench pushed against the wall in the lobby. Camilo and I tiptoed inside so not to wake him. It was still quite dark at 6:15am. We walked upstairs where there were three older British people sitting and watching the monks procession. It was a good enough view. It wasn't crowded and I got some video without feeling like I was being disruptive or disrespectful. 
By 7am when roads re-opened to small vehicles and pedestrians and the procession was over, I had to go back to sleep. Three hours was just not enough. 
The plan for later that morning was to head to a well-known waterfall about 50 minutes outside of the main town. 
I woke up (again) around 9a, dragged myself to breakfast and connected with the guys for the game plan. 
While I could've just taken a Tuk Tuk or hired a driver to the waterfall, everyone was encouraging me to go by scooter. Giovanni and Camilo would share one scooter and I could ride with Roberto. 
It's $7.50 to rent a scooter for a whole day plus... it's another adventure! I trust Roberto - he's not wild and crazy. He's grounded, calculated and steady-- but still fun. He told me that in Italy he had a motor bike for some time and spent a holiday driving a Vespa through the Italian countryside. I felt like he was trying to reassure me that I'd be okay. 
I agreed to go with him and meet the other guys there. We were all moving slowly on this day after a pretty late night.  
I met Roberto for my second coffee of the day and laughed wildly as he told me stories about last night's bowling and nightclub adventures.
Photo By: Sonia Azad
The ride to the waterfall was awesome. The temperature was perfect. I loved feeling the warmth and wind on my skin. I loved seeing villagers and children on their turf. There were small, intimate moments of their daily life that I caught glimpses of that were so endearing. The simplicity of everyday life.
It's easy to miss out on these details when you're in a car or taxi. 
Everyone wears helmets and this scooter trip was nothing like my experience in Hanoi. Here, the roads are just two lanes, paved most of the way and in the sections of dirt road, we slowed down. Roberto asked if I wanted to try my hand at driving but... nah, I'm not ready for that just yet. 
We arrived at the famous Kuang Si waterfall location at the same time as the other two and went in together.
Similar to a theme park, you take a trolley from the parking area to purchase an entry ticket. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
Once inside, the waterfall is not a far walk. There's a butterfly garden and bear rescue area as well. The guys wanted to jump into the water right away and I felt like wandering around. (Pro Tip: Never stop at the beginning... you may not make it to discover the magic hidden beyond!)  
I wandered off and didn't see the guys again til later that night when we all got back to town. 
There were signs to trek, which I followed. They led me up the cascading waterfalls with beautiful turquoise clear water. But there were so many people... tourists and cameras and children. I craved a quieter spot. So I went in search of one. 
I climbed until I reached a path that led to a series of springs with far less people. The path continued to a cave entry ahead, so I kept walking. About 1.5 km into the walk, the path diverged -- one arrow pointed toward a restaurant and cave. Eh, I wasn't feeling that. But I heard rushing water very close. I followed the sound and behind some bushes, I discovered another natural spring. No one was in it. 

Photo By: Sonia Azad
I creatively maneuvered my way through tall grass, over a wood plank and around moss covered rocks, but I got there. And then I got in.
This was probably one of the bravest things I've done. These springs are refreshing-- but because of the minerals in the water, you can't see what's right underneath you. I found myself slowly walking into the unknown. I had my water shoes on, and about three steps in, I suddenly sank. My right leg was calf-deep in really sticky, gooey mud. Shoot. I mustered a good deal of strength and pulled myself out of that and to solid ground, where I stayed for about an hour.
The time in the natural spring was satisfying. I didn't just feel an appreciation for nature-- I was one with nature. I was on their turf-- the spiders, the flies, the whatever else was lurking beneath me that I didn't want to think about. There was no one coming to save me. The guys didn't know where I was, cell service was spotty at best, and I had to rely on myself and my strength to get out of any possible situation that would arise. I let the sun pour over my face and exposed upper body while the coolness of the mountain spring water cleansed my lower half. 
As the sun started her descent, the water cooled. It was time for me to find a way out of here. The surest bet was probably just the way I got in. 
I carefully backtracked my way toward solid ground. This time, I expected the drop into the muddy earth. 
I washed off my hands and feet with the water, but with no towel it would get cold if I didn't start moving. I gathered my backpack and checked my phone. The last message I received from the guys was that they were heading toward the cave. Great! That's nearby! I figured -- if they walked by, I would certainly hear the sound of their voices carrying on. 
I was wrong. I waited for a while but then just messaged them saying that I would meet them at the bottom of the falls or the parking lot. The area would close at 5pm so I assumed they would return before closing time.
I was wrong again. They're guys in their 20s -- no one is keeping track of time for fear they could be stuck in the middle of nowhere at dark. They'd shrug it off, climb a fence and go on with their night. 
Me? I was out of those gates before 5. I hiked all the way back down and paused at the entry point only to buy a snack of dried vegetable chips. I checked to make sure their scooters were still in the same place we left them- and they were. So they were still around here somewhere. 
I decided to sit and eat my vegetable chips in the parking lot. A few minutes later, a British woman approached me asking if I spoke English. She was looking for a ride back to town. I told her my saga and that I was waiting for friends, and she turned around and walked toward a group of Asian people who were leaving. 
This woman -- from the moment she spoke with me-- gave me reporter vibes. Her voice. Her tone. The way she approached me, the way she approached them. She had to be a journalist at some point in her life I thought. (Why I would think this -- I have no idea. It was just a feeling.) 
She agreed to go back with them and signaled to me to come along if I wanted. Why the hell not. I didn't want to sit in this parking lot endlessly. We hopped in the van. Charlotte, the British woman, had a lot of energy. I did not.
The two bus loads of Chinese tourists were students who travel around competing in extreme sports (if I understood properly).
They didn't speak English. We didn't speak Chinese. So, we tried to communicate via translator apps as best as possible. I felt myself growing tired of the inability to communicate with ease. It would just be nice to have a quiet ride instead of the struggle to get someone's life story and understand where they came from, why they're here and where they'll go next. 
Charlotte was at the beginning of her time in Asia and I was at the end of my trip. It made sense that she was enthusiastic about asking questions and communicating. She shared parts of her story with me (in English) as we sat in the back seat of this van-- and guess what? She, in fact, was a TV presenter for ABN! I knew it! We talked about how she'd covered Asia in the 90s! (She is now in her 50s, mother to a 19-year-old daughter and lives outside of London.) She is no stranger to Laos, Cambodia, or Thailand -- although admittedly, so much of this region has changed -- quickly-- and continues to evolve. 
The Chinese kids wanted to stop for a coffee and Charlotte was kindly trying to tell them about some ice cream place-- so they thought she wanted to stop for ice cream.... Oh my... I just wanted to get back. But, the vans stopped at a local village. I thought, a coffee would actually do me good.
I climbed out with them and found right in front of me the sweetest view of the sunset over the Mekong River at this tiny open-air café. I ordered an Americano and sat to soak it in.
The Chinese adventure kids wanted to keep talking and taking pictures with me -- so we did. 
One kid offered me a cigarette. I had to laugh. This must be a gesture of kindness. There we were, taking in sunset at this random café in the middle of Laos: a Brit, an American and a bunch of Chinese tourists. 
There's no way the guys I'd left behind could top this, I thought. 
By now I'd heard from them. Once they climbed back down from the waterfall cave area, they regained cell service. They were profusely apologetic- and I told them it's no big deal, I'm safe, it's all good. 
We agreed to connect once back in Luang Prabang. 
There are many reasons why choosing to flow rather than fight with what's happening provides peace of mind, general ease and a more enjoyable experience. 
The ride back was dark, cooler and windy. It was far better to have experienced it in a van rather than on a scooter. 
It turns out the guys stopped to play soccer with some local kids-- and to stargaze in the middle of nowhere since there was no light pollution. 
They didn't get back until later and... Roberto's scooter broke down one village outside of Luang Prabang. 
(**I am so glad I wasn't there for that BUT... he had such a great time with it! Villagers helped him to connect with mechanics who helped him connect to the scooter rental company, based on his Google map history. He drank Lao beer with the villagers -- communicating only through gestures, smiles and a word or two here and there. Eventually, the scooter company arrived with a new scooter for him and a rope to haul away the other one.) 
I got the full story over cocktails at a rooftop bar back in Luang Prabang.
In short, we both lived out versions of the afternoon and evening that were perfect for us.  
I knew where I wanted to eat dinner because I had walked by it a thousand times and it caught my attention. It was right across the street from this rooftop bar, and it closed at 11pm.
This cocktail bar which doubles as a tea house closed at 10:30pm. We grabbed one quick drink and headed down to dinner. Giovanni met us halfway in -- while Camilo ran around to find groceries ahead of their departure the next day. Everyone was leaving early the following morning for some pretty wild off-road adventures. Giovanni and Camilo would be taking the slow boat toward the border of Thailand to get to Chiang Rai. Roberto would go farther north in Laos to some remote villages without electricity or running water. 
I know very few Americans their age (and older) who would take the long, slow, disconnected route! Is that a fair statement? A sweeping generalization? I'm so in awe of their life choices and curiosities at an early age.
Dinner was so delicious - steamed rice and tofu vegetable curry and fresh spring rolls to die for. 
The three of us called it an early night. It had been a long day for all. We said our final goodbyes as the crew would officially be splitting by sunrise. 
The culmination of this part of the journey with them did make me feel sad... and a bit nostalgic. They still had so many adventures ahead, and I was winding down my time in Asia and getting ready to head back.
I had a whole day to myself to tie a bow on the journey across Laos, Southeast Asia, and really this whole 6-week adventure which included New Zealand. One last day to myself was probably a good thing, as it would allow time for reflection.
Without question, I would miss everyone I'd met here. There is an element of fun, joy, adventure-- waking up each morning and making plans for the day in a new place with random people. Even better: knowing that these people were down for pretty much anything. The Polish guys and Delia had already left Luang Prabang, so by sunrise, I would really be on my own once again. It's such a microcosm of life: friends come and go at different times, in various stages, you cross paths with people when you do-- then continue on, just grateful for the time you had together. 
Camilo and I had another long conversation that night.
We said our goodbyes late into the morning hours and I went to sleep -- without a big plan for my last full day. 
Typically during major travel, I like to squeeze in one last adventure so as not to feel like I've "wasted" a full day. Top it off with something big, you know?!
I woke up and had breakfast at my usual spot with a view of the Mekong River. 
A sweet Korean girl asked if the other seats at my table were taken and then sat down across from me. Two families-- hers and another-- were here on vacation together. We talked about Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng -- what I did, where I stayed, what I recommended, what I didn't ...  then I politely excused myself and told them to have an incredible time.
Photo By: Sonia Azad
I walked to Big Brother Mouse, just up the street from my Guest House. It's a local organization that helps Lao and Hmong kids to practice their English. I didn't sign up -- just showed up and walked right in. The lead volunteer sat me in front of two boys-- ages 15 and 24. They were shy and small-- nothing like their respective ages in the U.S. 
Big Brother Mouse has daily volunteer times (9-11am and 5-7pm) where English speaking visitors can go to give back-- rather than just take-- while they're in Luang Prabang. I loved this concept. I'd walked by the place and picked up a flyer earlier in the week and I'd read about this place online. 
I desperately wanted to visit a remote village on my last day-- but this was even better. 
The conversation with these boys was simple but so sweet. We talked about food, schooling, siblings and family life, what they want to study, how they celebrate their birthdays. I showed them pictures of my family back home. They explained to me that Hmong people don't celebrate Lunar New Year. I never knew that. So we were indeed learning from each other. All around the small room there were tables set up with English speakers and clusters of young Asian children. It was such a sweet sight. I asked if pictures were allowed and they said yes absolutely. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
The lead volunteer invited me to lunch with some of the students after the classroom part of the session was over. Sure, I'm flowing. 
We walked to a place just down the street with the most incredible (and cheap!) spring rolls. I wish I'd known about this spot sooner. Our crew kept performing mental gymnastics around where to eat day after day. This place would've been perfect for them! 
I sat between Max, Jerry and the staffer at my guesthouse, Kim. Two other women were on our side of the long table-- a woman from China who'd moved to Laos 8 months ago to study English herself, and an older British woman who'd been to Laos many times. 
KIm is sweet, soft spoken and polite. Max and Jerry speak VERY good English! They've got Facebook pages and YouTube channels. Jerry is self taught in guitar and edits videos for YouTube! Max has applied to scholarships in Hungary and Boston to study psychology. He told me that people in his country aren't aware of mental health and he thinks they should be. He wants to study outside of Laos and then return to help people with emotional and mental health struggles. I asked how he learned about mental health if it wasn't taught to him. YouTube. 
I paid for my lunch after talking to the boys and getting some video with them to share on Instagram. They were so proud of that. They displayed their English language skills so well. Jerry doesn't know how old he is because he was born in a remote village and his parents don't follow a calendar. He said he thinks he might be 24 or 25. I can't imagine growing up without knowing my age, a birth certificate, or knowing what day is what. My parents had similar experiences. During the time they were born (in the 1940s and 50s) in Iran, there were no birth certificates in villages. Their birthdates converted in the U.S. were just estimates.
I asked Jerry and Max why there aren't more girls at Big Brother Mouse who want to learn English. They responded just as I predicted: They're busy helping in the household. But nowadays, they told me, it is their choice. If they want to study, they can. Some are simply too shy to do it. 
They boys left as they were done eating. They wanted to nap before work in the afternoon. 
As I walked away from the restaurant, I felt tears sliding down my cheeks. A familiar narrative crisscrosses my mind: we can't help circumstances around where, when or how we are born. These kids are making every effort to change the story for their families and their own futures. 
I stopped at Saffron Café for a latte. Roberto recommended it and I've walked past it several times. Purchases here help local farmers who grow the coffee sold here. I sat in silence staring at the Mekong River with my Lao Latte replaying what I'd just experienced with these young Lao natives.
By the time I finished my latte and stood up to leave I was really fighting tears. Maybe I should just let them out. 
I made a conscious decision to walk back to my room to cry. 
Just as I stepped onto the sidewalk, I got a message on WhatsApp from Najee, one of the American guys I'd met a few nights ago at the Italian-Lao dinner spot. 
His friend Eli went to the waterfall today but he didn't feel like going. He asked if I wanted to walk around the town. Perfect! Yes! Thank you! I really didn't want to be sad today. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
Najee walked over to a café across the street from my place. 
I sat down next to him and as soon as we started talking, I knew this dude was deep. He is spiritual, kind, mature, conscious, open-minded and hilarious! I felt like I had met a soul brother. We see the world the same way without having to explain anything. I must admit, it was nice to be in effortless conversation. I feel guilty even typing that-- but there was no cultural hurdle or language barrier or confusing dynamic, gaps or space for misunderstanding -- I was so grateful. He knew I needed to buy some last minute souvenirs and a new bag (my luggage would be staying behind) so he said, why don't we go do that? We agreed that true friends should be able to run errands together-- not just be there in fun times, but for the ordinary, mundane, everyday, boring, lame stuff too.
I do have some friends like that in America (shoutout: Liz!) and boy do I appreciate them. 
Najee and I price matched and haggled and tried to bargain for my bag... store after store. At some point, a trio of novice monks started following us. Far away at first-- then they got closer. Their giggles got louder. I was trippin. I felt like these monk children were guiding us. I turned to Najee to ask his thoughts and he already knew where my mind was. 
We enjoyed the enlightened escorts up and down the main streets of Luang Prabang-- with people watching on, wondering, I'm sure, what the heck was actually happening here. 
It went back to a conversation Najee and I had earlier about how it's good for Americans to be in Asia and to feel and experience what it's like to be a minority just based on how you look. 
Monks face the same. Their robes draw eyeballs, cameras, whispers, finger pointing... I felt like I (almost) knew what it felt like to be a monk walking through these streets. One of the monk children handed Najee a one dollar bill. 
What in the hell? 
I told him to save that forever. Where did this monk get a one dollar bill and why was he handing it over? I didn't know if I could take pictures or videos of this- but I absolutely had to document this moment. It felt too magical. 
We wondered how long to walk before the monks would turn away from us. Ultimately, we decided that it would be up to us to turn in a different direction and away from them.
Najee and I followed our inner compass -- and without saying it out loud-- we turned a corner and found a beautiful, quiet, outdoor courtyard. I grabbed a fresh watermelon juice and snacked on peanuts and fries. Najee went all out: burger, chicken wings, beer... this dude is straight American. I was laughing at him. I loved it. 
Earlier on our walk, we had passed a yoga studio that I hadn't seen before. I made note of the 6pm class time and by the time Eli joined us post-waterfall adventure, it was nearly time for me to get to class. As it turns out, the yoga studio was just around the corner- less than a 3 minute walk- from where we were called to stop for food. 
The details of the conversations Najee and I had can't be replicated or explained. I told him that typically I go off on a big adventure to round out each trip... but thanked him for saving me from the sadness and loneliness that was knocking on my heart that morning.
This had been just perfect. I said goodbye to the guys and went to yoga. 
Class was in a beautiful space. The teacher was nearly brand new. If she can teach yoga in beautiful places all over the world, why can't I? This thought keeps crossing my mind. 
Too often we stop ourselves from doing things we really want to do because they don't seem logical. 
But, there comes a time when we must step out of our own way. 

Only then can we begin to live out our dreams. 

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