By the River

It felt a fitting end that we spent our final evening in Vientiane, by the bank of the Mekong River.

Laos is a country bordered by rivers, but there’s something about the Mekong in particular that sets apart from the rest. I still don’t quite understand it myself – perhaps I’ve simply bought into the mythic kind of quality it possesses, or that I┬árecognize it’s significance as a “lifeline” for so many.

Whatever the reason, I revere this river, it being the subject of so many books, it being the path upon which so many journeys have been taken.

My path, meanwhile, was simply to walk alongside it, along with hundreds of other locals who have it as a privilege to run, jog, and stroll on the newly paved road right by this body of water. Hoards of women have even taken to performing high intensity, guided aerobic workouts at sunset, a sight that, at first, a curious thing to witness, turned quickly into the one spectacle about this incredible gathering of locals by the riverside that interrupted the tranquility of the late afternoon transitioning to dusk.

The sunset was majestic. I’ve seen my share of incredible sunsets in my travels, but this one in particular will be seared into my memory for years to come. I think it’s because this one felt the least bit private. It was almost, communal, as though everyone had gathered by the river bank to witness something sacred together – the meeting of sun and river – and it implored stillness from my restless soul.

After a long walk, we met up again with a friend from Malaysia, Tommy, who is on an internship in Laos for a language program. We walked back the opposite way, basking in the waning moments of sunlight, meandering slowly through crowds starting to gather at the night market. Finally, we arrived at a bustling local restaurant, which felt more like an after-work drinks destination, mostly for locals looking to end their day with Beer Lao served with ice, a platter of steamed fish and vegetables, and a view.

Doing as the locals do, we opted for the same meal we saw on everyone else’s table, and sure enough, it didn’t disappoint. It was the right meal, for the right way to end the trip – simple and unceremonious, but supremely satisfying nonetheless.

We had a quiet evening despite the crowds becoming increasingly raucous by the river, and our night would end earlier than most other evenings we spent throughout our travels the past two weeks. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I wouldn’t have done any of our trip, any other way, for that matter. Not even the unbearably long bus rides through hills, and valleys, and hardly-inhabited rural towns. Nor the uninformed adventurousness of our street food sampling that likely led to several days worth of stomach pains. And certainly not having to walk, everywhere. That is, whenever we weren’t boarding a boat or bus or train. For me, the walking might’ve very well been, everything.

Surely, there are things I’d never do again. But I want to make a distinction between regretting what we had done, versus learning not to do those things again. Chances are, I’m never choosing to do an 11-hour bus ride again. Or an 8-hour one, for that matter. Or eating meat parts from a roadside stall whose origins were a little too ambiguous.

Never again, for some things. Glad, nonetheless, that at least, I had.

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