On Having Too Much Beer Lao and Meeting a Man Named Chai in Luang Prabang, Laos
STORY: Three years have passed since i met a man named Chai. Is it Chai? Choi? Chei? To tell you honestly, i was too drunk to remember.
When i visited Laos then, my intention was to discover the country through the famed Vang Vieng parties. A week has passed, and i was venturing into Luang Prabang. The city is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The cobbled streets, and enticing old houses were just too damn beautiful to see. I was told now that Luang Prabang now has gone too commercialized with the old houses and structures turned into guest houses and travel agencies. Yet, i bet Luang Prabang still does have that impeccable charm, and timeless beauty.
As i try to recall my experiences in Luang Prabang, suddenly the historical sites seemed forgettable. There's tons of world heritage sites similar to the city, where tourism is still not at its ripe moment. The beautiful Mekong from Luang Prabang may be not as beautiful as it was before due to change of tides. But the man named Chai will always ring a bell to my ear forever.
I met Chai while looking for a boat to take me around Mekong. This man wore a shirt that he must have had since he was a teenager. He wore a hat that looked like it was borrowed from someone from the village. His face looked like typical Laotian - soft facial features and small framed. His eyes looked sad but his smile is like that of a rockstar. For an unbelievable price, he said yes to a sunset cruise around Mekong. I didn't feel bothered that he was asking too cheaply for such an epic trip. Knowing the price he quoted is the same amount as the blah lunch you would order in a fancy restaurant just so you can Instagram it. I knew this man would earn more from me.
As we sail on the calm waters of the Mekong River, we started to chat. I would often repeat whatever i am saying because he can't understand it. And whenever he talks, i would only understand a bit of what he's trying to tell me. As a visitor, it is my responsibility to understand the language he's speaking. It's not his problem that i don't understand it. Furthermore, speaking English doesn't mean you're more intelligent. But in this day and age, a good conversational English is welcoming.
From what i understood, he's a family man living on a village at the southern end of the Mekong. He's in Luang Prabang because he earns money from touring travelers like me. But during low tide, where water is too shallow to pursue a boat trip, and again on monsoon season, where water is too rough to navigate a wooden boat like what he has, he is left jobless. The boat is his only prized possession. It's this boat that puts food to his family's table. It's this boat that brings money to support his kids' education.
If i had more time in my hands then, i could have sworn to visit his family. Although the trip would take more than three hours along the river system, i reckon it would be one for the books. But since, i was nearing my time to leave Luang Prabang, i needed to make do with what i have.
He puffed his cigarette, his last two of his second pack for the day, he said to me. I wonder how long will this man live? With a very unhealthy habit, and poor living conditions, i regret that he may not live too long to see his grandchild.
I regret every single day that i was too drunk then. I had my days of Beer Lao, and the fancy sunset seemed like a perfect happy hour moment. Not minding that now, as i write this, Beer Lao may be a thing of a past, and Luang Prabang may not be as beautiful as it was before, but the man who sailed the boat along the Mekong was such an unbelievably kind-hearted fellow i will never ever forget.
I still have his phone number written in the back of his cigarette pack which he tore for me. I am pretty sure this number is not anymore in service. I promised him that i will come back soon. Now, as i try to plan my come back tour to Laos, i hope to meet him again. This time, i will savor every moment talking to this man. The real pleasure of traveling to Luang Prabang again for me is meeting Chai.