Five Billion Star Hotel

Dec 18th, 2014 (This is the last part of this long day, I promise!! :D)
I stood there, did not move for a few minutes, just to give the reality some time to sink into my mind. — I ARRIVED in Luang Prabang.

It’s wet and cold. I put on my jacket and walked past some stores, towards the riverside. There were some grams of dust in my mouth. I chewed it and it tasted raw, rough, sandy — the taste of the road.

“Along the river there should be some meadow on the shore and I can sleep there!” I thought. It’s the brink of the city. A tourist was a scene there. When a group of Laotian girls in traditional clothes saw me with a backpack, they started laughing and pointing to me for each other. I smiled and waved to them, which made them laugh even more.

Some people, a family presumably, were sitting outside their house, eating, drinking and talking. I went confirm the direction.
–“Excuse me, does anybody speak English?”
A very young guy, a teenager I assumed, said:”Yes, sir. How can I help you?” His cheeks were plumb but he had a pretty serious face.
He showed me on his iPad the direction. I told him that I would sleep outside and asked if it’s possible along the river. He did not freak out or shrink away when he heard “sleep outside”. “You walk straight, see a temple. There is a pagoda, look like half a watermelon. Very easy to see. You can sleep there.” Cool kid! I thanked him and was about to go. “Wait, it’s cold in the evening. Drink this. You feel warm!”; he handed me a small cup of some liquor, still with his serious face. I drank it, bottom up. Normally I do not drink. I do not like the taste of alcohol. When I was in Europe for 6 years, I tried all my best to avoid drinking, but right there, how could I refuse such lovely hospitality from a kid?
The strong smell and pungent taste over-filled my faculties. I felt awakened, gave him a big smile and moved on.
I saw the pagoda, some young people hanging out around it. Their faces were reddish, were talking very loudly and they laughed like nobody else was around. I entered the temple, or better said, the Buddhist monastery. I saw the half-watermelon pagoda and a couple climbing on it to take photos. There was a temple just some steps away from the pagoda. Further away some temple-style houses stood among the coconut trees and meadows. Meadows!!!
I was delighted. After back in China for 35 days, I was glad and thankful to be out of it and see anything different from Chinese style! I went up to the temple. It was closed but there was light, some chairs and a table under the eaves, where I could lay my backpack and take a rest. A young monk came up. He was in a bright orange dress. He was a bit shy but I could see curiosity in his eyes.
–“Hello?” I greeted him.
His English turned out to be quite limited and our communication was done by “I ask and he says yes to every question” style. Even when I asked “How many monks live here?” He also said yes, nodding his head politely and smiled. Like many Laotian people I already saw, he had a dark complexion and was very polite. The Laotian is a gentle lot, not hard to discover. I signed to him that first I would go around to have a look and then I would come back to sleep here. He said yes again.

It’s too early to sleep. Come on! That’s my first night in South East Asia, SLEEP?!
I walked along the riverside. I saw tons of guesthouses, which were basically hostels like in Europe, just without kitchens. Parallel to the Mekong river, there were several streets. These streets were swarmed by only travel agencies, hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, bars, and clubs, nothing else. The only people you saw there were foreigners, mostly Caucasian looking and only a few locals who worked there. It’s touristic, perhaps the most touristic place I had ever seen. I felt like this part SOLELY existed because of the tourists. In Europe or Middle East I never saw a city like this. This record was soon to be broken. So many places in SEA are like this, and most of all, Thailand.

The music from different bars and clubs was buzzing on the street and made a weird mix of sounds. The neon lights half-exposed the dark trees and rocks behind these bars and clubs. Some tuk-tuk drivers were on the street, waiting or bustling around to hunt for business. Sometimes I could see about 10 guesthouses/hotels in a row, with nothing in between…… Touristic, touristic…… I saw backpackers like me, mostly in groups, looking lost, roaming around to find a room to sleep, or find a bar to get drunk. Some travel guide web pages would term it as “a paradise of backpackers”, but to me it’s not a paradise. I know that the arrival of tourists must have fed so many hungry bellies and brought so many new chances to the locals, but It’s just not something for me. I love places which are not that touristic and sometimes even with zero tourist. I love mingling with real locals.

I came back to the monastery about 1 hour later. It’s quiet. I wanted to go to ask the monks where the toilet was, but as I approached their dorms, 3 not-that-big but ferocious dogs jumped out and barked at me powerfully…… I tried several times to cross them, no way…… Luckily I found the toilet by myself. It looked rather primitive but that would suffice for a hitchhiker, a low-budget traveller, a NOMAD like me. 🙂

There were some coconut trees behind the toilets, a bit far from both the ferocious dogs and the wall of the monastery, which separated the calmness from the occasionally noisy streets. Under these sparsely scattered trees was grass. I lay my sleeping bag there, capsuled myself in. It was still, except for the noise of a couple of mosquitoes…… and occasional passing of scooters from a distance away. Looking up, I saw the grayish blue sky, dotted by countless stars, some veiled by grayish white clouds. I stared at this endless dome and felt dizzy. I was still stimulated by the cold air, the smell of grass and those scenes earlier today, but just a few minutes later the calmness overpowered me and I fell deeply asleep.
Who needs a five star hotel when there is a Five Billion Star Hotel?

The "Five Billion Star Hotel" where I stayed for my first night in SEA
The “Five Billion Star Hotel” where I stayed for my first night in SEA

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