A Venice Day on the Mekong River

In our family, we have a tradition passed down from my Aunt Cappy of demarcating rare and fabulous days that you savor far into the future as a Venice Day.  It dates back to a trip she made to Venice with her husband, Red, in the 1950s that could bring a smile to her face until her last days.

Yesterday was right up there in such experiences for me.  Tony and I headed off onto the Mekong to visit Pak Ou caves, 25 km north of Luang Prabang.  They are set in a dramatic limestone cliff at the point where the Mekong joins the Nam Ou River and have been the repository for thousands of years of Buddha icons now numbering over 4,000.

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While I was sure the caves would be interesting, I waivered on whether to take a day away from Luang Prabang since there were so many nooks and crannies left to explore.  Some of the guide books and blog posts I read complained of long boat rides crowded with tourists taking more than two hours one-way.  After our tradition of breakfast in the market at street food stands serving sticky rice, jeow bong (sweet and spicy Lao chili paste) and various grilled and fried delicacies, we walked to the docks only to realize that we had missed the tour boats that left at 8:30am.  Tony counseled patience and we slowly strolled up the riverside.  A few minutes later, we were approached by Nam Kom and offered a private ride up to the caves in his boat so off we went.

The caves and a stop at a village known for its Lao Lao, rice whiskey, were worthy destinations but I would not have had any second thoughts if we skipped them.  I would however have missed out if I didn’t get on the boat—the ride itself was pure joy.  The vistas were glorious, the breeze cool and the sound of the engine and the water soothing.  We snapped pictures of life along the river–fisherman, water buffalo, mist shrouded mountains, a major new bridge under construction, villages and garden plots.  I’d take breaks to read lessons from a famous Vietnamese monk, Thich Naht Hanh, and then gaze at the scenery.  It was absolutely glorious.

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The caves were fascinating but it was the journey that transformed the day.  As I looked at Nam Kom at the front of the boat maneuvering us downstream, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude.  What a gift he had bestowed.

When we arrived back in Luang Prabang, we took a siesta and then walked across a narrow bamboo bridge to Dyen Sabai for happy hour.  With a cocktail in hand we were looking over the Nam khan river just as a major thunderstorm rolled in.  What is better than gazing out at thunder and lightning over an idyllic scene while drinking with a friend and reclining on a lovely veranda safe and secure from the downpour?

What a day!  When I lose sight of my many blessings, I look forward to calling up this memory.


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