I am five months into our time in Port Vila now, and it’s been almost six months since Cyclone Pam devastated large parts of Vanuatu. All things considered, we’re settling in well. One thing that’s caught me by surprise during this move, however, is how much I think back to Laos. We spent five years there—three in Luang Prabang and two in Vientiane—and I didn’t realize just how deeply those five years had engraved Laos upon me until we were gone. Has that ever happened to you?
This month, in honor of the deeply important role that our secondary homes can have in shaping our lives, I want to share with you a piece I wrote almost a year ago now called Memories Of A Million Footsteps.
Last week we returned to Luang Prabang for the first time since we left here, more than a year ago. Those of you who have visited Luang Prabang will know what I mean when I say it’s a special place. Those of you who haven’t, imagine a small town nestled in between two rivers and cradled by jungle-covered mountains. Imagine grand and gilded temples alongside old-world French architecture. Imagine purple orchids and saffron-robed monks and sticky rice steaming in small bamboo baskets.
We didn’t own a car during the three years we lived in Luang Prabang, so most evenings after Mike got home from work we would strike out on foot. Walking those streets for three years etched Luang Prabang into my internal map like no other place I have ever lived. It is maybe the only place in the world where you could drop me anywhere in town and I would know exactly where I was.
(Here, Mike would doubtless say that you would certainly hope so, given that the Old Town is entirely contained within three parallel roads, but that is beside the point.)
The point is that I know Luang Prabang. A million footsteps mapped it into me, and coming back was a sort of coming home.
Mike and I weathered some very difficult times during the years we lived in Luang Prabang – broken bones and medical emergencies, two spinal surgeries, depression, isolation, and post-natal anxiety. It was here that we both floundered in stormy internal seas during our first year as parents. It was here that we sometimes wondered whether those seas would swamp us completely.
But when I go back to Luang Prabang now I have to purposefully reach to pull those difficult times into view. As Mike and I walked around those familiar streets, it was all the good things about living there that flooded back – all the happy evenings and favorite restaurants and the lush, pervasive, and perfectly proportioned beauty of the place.
We timed this return visit to coincide with the annual Fire Lantern Festival that marks the end of Buddhist lent, so our first two nights here were lit by thousands of flickering candles that adorned the temples and the singular brilliance of hundreds of paper lanterns ascending from all over town into a still, dark sky.
We went back to our favorite waterfalls and we drank fresh lime juice by swimming pools. Waiters and market vendors remembered our names and did a double take to see red-headed baby number two in tow. We reconnected with old friends and we spent (too much?) money on beautiful silk scarves and wall hangings.
We remembered all over again that there have been many, many things that we have loved about our time here in Laos. And that we were lucky to have lived in Luang Prabang for three of those years. And that even when times feel awfully thick and dark, future days can bring the hushed serenity of candlelight and the fierce brilliance of fire rising, rising, rising into the night.