One of the reasons I wanted to go to Laos was because I’d learned it is the most heavily bombed country per capita—over 260 million bombs dropped by the U.S. from 1964-1973. What would a place like that look like? I pictured gaping holes in the ground, faces of Munch’s The Scream… I’d also heard from friends who’d visited Laos that its people are some of the kindest, gentlest they’d ever encountered. That in Laos, unlike in Thailand or Cambodia, nobody yells to offer you a tuk tuk ride. I wanted to understand how that tenderness comes from loss.
Two months before I went to Laos, I’d experienced my own loss. During what I thought would be a simple and respectful conversation with an ex, I was hurt. And when someone who used to love you is unkind to you, it is a wound and a loss. My eyes filled with tears during that conversation, but I had planned to go to Walgreens afterwards to have the photo taken for my Laos visa, and I didn’t want to change my plan. So I went to Walgreens anyway. First the photo technician couldn’t operate the machine. Then she couldn’t figure out how to print multiple copies. “Just finish so I can go home and cry,” I kept thinking. It is the worst photo of me ever taken. And it was with this photo, a lingering loss, and a deep desire to get the f*ck out of town, that I went to Laos.
By the time my tour group arrived in Laos, much of that hurt was already gone. We’d spent a couple days in Bangkok before taking an overnight train to Chiang Mai. In Chiang Mai we visited gold temples with elephants coming out of the walls and ruins lined with monks in orange robes. We bicycled through the countryside across rivers and winding dirt roads, stopping for sticky rice made by 87-year old woman who’d lived her entire life in one house. We walked around a white temple, its roofs and eaves glistening like wedding cake frosting. We watched lady boys do uncanny impersonations of Nicki Minaj and Rihanna. I remember one of the first times I laughed out loud on the trip. You wouldn’t think my own laughter would catch me by surprise, but laughing so hard with people I’d just met was unexpected and awesome. Throughout the trip laughter kept bubbling up, making me feel lighter each moment of the journey. Four days into the tour at the Thailand-Laos border I handed the official $35 US dollars and the Walgreens photo for my visa. He looked at the photo, then at my face across the counter, as if to say, “We’re done being sad. We’re not going to feel this way anymore.” And with two heavy thuds of a stamp in my passport, I crossed from loss into Laos.
My tour group spent the next two days leisurely cruising the Mekong. It was a time many of us recalled as our favorite part of Laos. Because, I think, it was a time we were able to connect with each other and with ourselves on our own time, without constraints. We drifted in and out of naps, books, conversations, and Beerlao listening to some of their favorite hits like “Sittin’ On the Dock Of The Bay.” On the second day I read Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh’s “You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment” while my travel mates napped and played with the boat owner’s son. I noticed their pink feet. The rumpled blankets. The rhythm of the waves. The small oranges the little boy placed in a toy dump truck and then handed back to my friend. Three oranges in the dump truck. Three in her hand. Over and over again. I could feel myself melting and softening—becoming lighter, prettier, and happier. I felt, as the book encourages, that the most wonderful moment of my life was happening right then. I experienced a supreme happiness that was both exuberant joy and quiet fulfillment. Watching my sleeping friends and the oranges pass from hand to hand, I was completely content.
Those kinds of moments continued for our week in Laos. We explored caves with hundreds of Buddha statues. We watched weavers create silk with quiet fervor. We swam in tiered waterfalls, letting the current carry us where it wanted. We zip lined. We kayaked and capsized (sorry, buddy!). We jumped into a blue lagoon. We took a million selfies. We clowned around with the Gothic statues of Buddha Park. We ate a lot of curries, spring rolls, spicy soups, and chicken intestines grilled on the side of the road. We sat on a balcony overlooking the Mekong talking about international politics, sharing loss and empathy for what is happening and what could be. We sat in French cafes sipping coffee and beer while the town started its day. We were blessed by a local family with bountiful food and rope bracelets. We stayed with host families in the countryside who spoke no English. We traversed the country’s winding roads while karst mountains rose and fell like an irregular cardiogram. We watched monks give alms at sunrise, scooping handfuls of sticky rice as the stray dogs trotted past. Once a butterfly landed on my foot and stayed long enough for my friends to take pictures. That butterfly landing was a kind of magic that reminded me of love—a kind of magic I hadn’t felt in a long time.
The idea of magic kept coming up. At the end of a group dinner our tour guide decided to tell us his love story. There were several chapters—as there are to any good love story—but what I remember most is the part when he shared his early married days: He got up at five to work one job, then taught English at another, grocery-shopped, made dinner, picked up his wife from work, ate dinner, showered, and went to bed at midnight. But he was not tired, he said. He asked us, to explain this lack of exhaustion, “Do you know magic?” And with an inward sigh I thought, “Yes, I did know magic.” At least I had known magic. I’d known that magic sparkle of two that makes the schedules, work, and annoying habits not seem to matter. But in the past year I’d trained myself to think that love was more “showing up” and “doing the work” than magic. And while I believe love is partly the former, when our guide—and the beautiful, gentle country of Laos—started to remind me of the magic of love, I couldn’t let it go. I started to remember that love isn’t just work, but that it should be fun. It should feel good. I started to believe in wild, unpredictable magic again.
At Gary’s Irish Bar in Vang Vieng, all 14 of us sang along with the Irish guitarist playing “Wonderwall.” Each of us, from seven different countries, knew all the words. As I sang along I thought about the people I was with. People with an unstoppable hunger and thirst for Laos. People fascinated by its history. People who, no matter how hot and tired they were, never complained. People who were inquisitive and curious. People with respect for schedules and order who were also incredibly fun. People who knew their limits and took time to recharge when they needed it. People who were always upbeat and offered suggestions on what to do. People who took over planning when they sensed the group was tired. People who shared their love stories and listened to mine. People who shared their food. People who were on their own world tour and intrapersonal journey yet still made every effort to connect with the group. People whose native language wasn’t English yet communicated all day, every day in our shared language. People who navigated their romantic relationships while navigating Laos. People who got the joke, said I got funnier every day, and made me laugh out loud. Every single one of them showed up open-minded and open-hearted every single day. Collectively, they had all the best qualities I would want in a partner and yet, I had just met them. There was no algorithm to feel the kind of love I was feeling. I hadn’t found them through a dating app, living within a one-mile radius, sharing three to five interests, and two to three life goals. We’d simply signed up to travel in the same countries on the same two weeks of the year. It was a surprising, new, strange, wonderful kind of love. As the song finished I realized that these people and these places—as the song says—“were the ones that saved me.” They were my wonderwall.
I spent the last full day in Laos wandering around the capital city of Vientiane in a group of six. We lunched and drank and saw a stunning brick stupa. And one of us, thankfully, took charge and guided us to the city’s national monument. I was happy he took the lead so I could enjoy walking through the temples and taking in the city. We arrived at the monument, also called Patuaxi Victory monument, at dusk. Patuaxi is an arch built with funds from the U.S. government to honor Laos’ resilience and independence from France. And, although I’ve never been to Paris, to me it looks exactly like the Arc de Triumph. We lingered on benches surrounding a fountain outside the monument for a few minutes, watching the sky turn pink against the palm trees. We took a few selfies and then got up to walk through the arch. As we got closer, one friend jokingly suggested we should be playing French music. “La vie en rose!” I exclaimed.
“I have it on my phone,” he said.
As the first few notes started to play, I felt a rush of emotion. Paris is the one place I’ve always wanted to go but haven’t because I’ve been dreamily, romantically, waiting for the right time, with the right person. But somehow, in some magical way, on this magical trip with this magical group of people, Paris had come to me. The music swelled as we walked under the arch and, as if on the cue, the lights inside lit up the gold ceiling. On the other side monks crossed our path against the navy blue sky while La vie en rose played on. I’d crossed over again, from Laos to love.
Suddenly it no longer mattered if I ever got to Paris. In fact, the next day the TV news showed riots along the Champs-Élysées, tear gas clouding over the romantic spots I’d seen in so many movies. Loss is everywhere, but so is love. And I could spend my whole life plotting where and when I thought loss and love would fall, but it wouldn’t work. So it was with surprise and supreme gratitude that I'd walked under the arch to love. That was my Paris. And if I could have these feelings in the middle of Laos with people I’d known for just over a week, what would real love feel like? I could only begin to imagine. But I knew, whatever country it was in, whoever it was with, it would be nothing short of magic.