To Luang Prabang by Rail and Road

| April 6, 2010 | 21 Comments

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo-HomeAway travel writing competition, sponsored by Grantourismo and ‘HomeAway Holiday Rentals’. Each month, a different topic is announced and the topic for April is “On The Road”. Hence, eligible entries must touch upon the experience of travelling and being on the move, observations from the road and reflections on ‘the journey’. This month, however, there is an additional requirement—entries must be about, or reflect upon, a train journey. Stories and photographs must be original and should derive from a firsthand travel experience. For more information, check out Grantourismo. Our entry follows!

Taking the train to Laos is a great option—not only to save money but also to see the countryside. It’s a relaxed way of travelling—board in Bangkok in the evening, sleep through the night and awake to majestic views in the morning light. Only the thin scar of the railroad breaks the landscape of jungle and sky. The passage is beautiful—and humbling—and I found myself smiling bemusedly at Graham Greene whose Lawless Roads I had just been reading before I looked out the train’s window.

Decidedly not a Romantic, Greene judged a landscape by its value to man: “Nature appals me,” he wrote, “when unemployed or unemployable.” Romantics would have loved this landscape, finding God in the verdant jungle that fronted the rocky crags which thrust upwards into the underbellies of soft, white clouds. But it was obvious neither God nor man dwelt here any longer—just the memory of man rolling onwards in the surfaced track and the memory of God, pushing in on all sides through the fecundity of the jungle.

route13grantourismentry To Luang Prabang by Rail and Road
Click to enlarge…

The jungle, finally, gave way to Vientiane. But this bustling city wasn’t my ultimate destination and I chose instead to push on to Luang Prabang—an eight hour drive.

My bus spat me out at a guesthouse clinging to the shoulder of the highway. Its porch was framed by a pair of lamps that gathered back the night with thin fingers of light. Out front, a young girl passed with slow step among the tourists selling old coins while road weary foreigners sat smoking on the porch, staring at the point where the highway disappeared into the mountains. Despite the night and the dust, it appeared they were still hungry for a little more geography in which to consider their own dissatisfaction.

In Luang Prabang there is everywhere—hidden behind stilthouses and juxtaposed against temples—the reminders of conflict being eaten by time and water—and converted to the strangest of uses. Here, an old bombshell, once carrying a payload of shrapnel, was turned nose down and made to hold up a lotus. There, an impotent anti-aircraft gun was frustrated into a makeshift merry-go-round by giggling schoolchildren.

It’s in such a place that mundane events are amplified into inexplicable beauty. I’ll never forget the image of a child running after his brother—the white soles of his bare feet appearing like stars against the inky dusk—and his laughing brother shouting encouragement in a beautiful language I could never pretend to understand.

It seemed that breezes passed with perfect ease about the whole of South East Asia to touch me where I slept that evening: the night air of Halong Bay, charged with the shine of stars; the fitful cough of Saigon; the panting of Phnom Penh, rolling with the scent of the Mekong; and sweet with the stink of rot and life, the heaving sigh of Bangkok—all came to my side that night, whispering: “Truly a kind of heaven, this”. [498 words]

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Category: Blog

About the Author ()

For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. His latest book, The Physics of Flocking, gathers his favourite writing featured over the past two years on Two Go Round-The-World in columns like 'Looking Back' and 'The Whole Picture'—along with new reflections.

Comments (21)

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  1. Flip says:

    made me remember my roadtrip to luang prabang from huay xai. thanks for sharing.

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks, Flip! We’re pretty excited about this writing contest — we had a look at the entries from March and there were some amazing pieces!

  2. Keith says:

    Excellent entry! Go, go, go! :-)

    All the best,

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks, Keith. It’s cool that the folks over at Grantourismo are making this a monthly feature. Fun stuff! Good prizes, too!

  3. Amelia says:

    Beautifully written. Makes me want to go there. Good luck on the contest!

  4. lara dunston says:

    Amelia is right – this is a truly beautiful piece of travel writing, Daniel. You really took me there – well done.

    And, yes, you’ve satisfied all the requirements and more.

    Thank you so much entering the Grantourismo competition! Good luck!

  5. Daniel,

    What a lovely essay! I think my favorite part of Grantourismo’s contest is that I get to discover other traveling writers/bloggers. I’ll be waiting on more from you.

    Lisa (@TheWorldCalls)

    • Daniel says:

      Thank you, Lisa. Your kind words mean a lot! We’ll be sure to link up to The World Is Calling and keep abreast of your posts, too!

    • I agree with the above comment, I really love reading other people’s notes and observations on their travels – more than anything it says more about who they are as a person than the place they’re visiting – but the fine detail of this really stuck out – especially the bits about the soles of the child’s feet. A nice touch.

  6. Shannon OD says:

    Absolutely beautiful – best of luck – this piece evokes so much of the strange wonderment that I found in myself my first days in Laos :-)

  7. Lucylin says:

    That was beautiful. I was on the train next to you!

  8. Cate says:

    Just took a trip down memory lane!! I remember buses pulling up and “spitting” you out, a bus ride from hell. Great story and well done.

  9. terry says:

    Sorry mate but I thought that was self conscious pretentious crap.Graham Greene went there,did it and got many T shirts. He wrote from the heart and head and basically got it all right without pontificating. My advise is keep your writing honest and don’t think about winning the Booker prize.

    • Daniel says:

      No worries, Terry. I realize that a piece such as this is subjective, and often communicates more about the writer than it does the geography in which they are travelling. That being said, I’m sorry that you feel it comes off as self-conscious and pretentious. That’s a charge that might be valid if the piece were written for The Guardian, say. I guess that’s why context is important. But it hardly qualifies as pontificating, I’m merely sharing how I felt at a particular juncture of time and geography. That Greene’s description of desolation resonated with me at that time is perhaps telling of how I was feeling when travelling through that particular area.

      I discovered Graham Greene when travelling through South East Asia after picking up a tattered copy of The Quiet American. By the time I had made it to Malaysia, I had read his entire collection, even his non-fiction pieces. So I’m familiar with his work. To be fair, the quote cited above was from his book The Lawless Roads. I don’t have a copy with me but I’m pretty sure he was describing a trip from Mexico City to San Luis Potosi. It was there he looked at the desert scrub around him with a decidely ‘modern’ English eye, counting its barrenness for nothing and railing against its inhospitality. When travelling through Laos, that passage kept rattling around in my head. It made it into my journal, in fact, and was distilled into what you read above. I realize that Greene travelled through South East Asia, as well, and was conscious of it when writing the passage above.

      Greene is a fabulous writer. I’m agreed with you on that. I’m sorry that you felt the piece was disingenuous but it is, contrary to your assertion, very personal and honest. The only thing I take issue with is that implicit in your criticism is the idea that I’ve misrepresented Greene. And that’s just not true. I think that I’ve been very fair. As a sidenote, I’m reading The Power and the Glory right now. And a lot of Greene’s description of the Yucatan resonate with the ideas presented in the quote above.

      But thank you for reading, regardless!

  10. jessiev says:

    what a lovely, lovely piece. you’ve certainly made me feel as if i were there. good luck!

  11. Katja says:

    I love the images of the bombshell and the anti-aircraft gun being converted to different uses. People’s ingenuity amazes me at times.

  12. Anca Popa says:

    Just thought I should let you know that this month Grantourismo is running a new competition with the theme ‘Food and Travel’, so if you have a memorable food experience from your travels please feel free to share it with us. We’d love to hear from you again!

  13. I loved that bus ride, I remember looking up at a huge waterfall through the trees and off a cliff in the distance and thinking how that would be a huge tourist attraction almost anywhere else. There were some locals eating chicken feet next to us, and they kept throwing up really quietly into little baggies. Good times

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