The days in Luang Prabang were often slow, sometimes shimmering with light cast off the golden temples, and at other times, like this particular day, heavy with cloud and drizzle. Like other tourists, Eric and I were trying not to be tourists. We wandered into places (like a particular market or a hair salon), causing bewilderment among Laotians.
Although there are upmarket massage parlours and spas around town, we had a feeling these were yet another amalgamation of tourists trying to blend in, ultimately only blending in with each other. We had heard that most locals enjoyed a visit to the Sauna after work, so after some discussion with our hotel staff, we found our way to a little place at the the tip of the peninsula. A space where the muddy rivers meet and boatmen desperately want to take you out, anywhere, on the water.
A building like any other in this part of Luang Prabang, on the road, across from the river. White walls, wooden columns, tiled roof, and a balcony with a few worn, wooden benches. Not a single tourist in sight! Our find rewarded us with blank stares from the people lounging on the balcony above, and surliness from the woman handing us a towel and faded Laotian sarong each. She took our Kip and pointed upstairs, where we assumed she would follow us to explain the procedure. This turned out not to be the case. So up we went on our own, looking only slightly more confused than the regular patrons. Upstairs, we discovered half a dozen sweaty, relaxing Laotians sitting in sarongs drinking Bael tea.
The sauna, it turned out, were two tiny sweat closets with a single bench in each, enough for four people to squeeze into next to each other – as long as you don’t mind rubbing up with strangers! The saunas were segregated by gender, so my fiancé and I split up and went on our own adventures. The blank stares melted in the steam, forming curious smiles – maybe I am friendlier while sweating in a sarong? One of the ladies from our hotel was there, she who would always bring us breakfast with a small smile, now all giggles and whispers with her friend. After a few fumbling attempts at conversation, we relaxed back into smiles and the universal gestures people in saunas tend to have – wiping sweat from our brows, legs with wet towels, readjusting our sarongs, trying to breathe in the heady steam, until someone would break away and cool air would rush in for the briefest of moments. Eric was directly behind me, separated by a wall with a small gap at the top, and when either of us was too warm, we would knock and meet outside. A cup full of slightly bitter Bael tea and to the balcony to stare down blankly at the passersby, while our bodies slowly came back to room temperature.
The lady from our hotel and her friend left, replaced by an outgoing transvestite with more interest in conversing than sitting. She sat next to me in the close air, and asked my age. I replied with “33” to which she replied while staring at my shoulder, “Beautiful”. I think my skin, and not my age, were what were fascinating her, as she followed up our odd conversation with a request to massage me in this tiny heat closet. As my voice and hers floated up through the gap between the saunas, Eric sat wondering where this conversation would go, and whether the transvestite who had come into his little heat closet would be as fascinated with his skin. I gently rejected her advances, the memory of that awkward Thai massage from the former female convicts in Chiang Mai a little too close for comfort.
She then removed to Eric’s sauna, and out he came, meeting me in the cooler air with tea and balcony views, as we laughed together at what would become one of those memories at the forefront of our time in Laos. This was to be one of those rarest of moments for us while traveling, when the cameras are all away and you feel fully present in the moment, and memory is not a photograph but the bitter taste of tea and the intense swelling of your nostrils in the steam.
We lingered on the balcony as long as we could, but eventually began making our way back. Hair dripping and stepping slowly along the river, we were reluctant to let the day end. At the border between our foray into Laotian life, and the land replete with tourists, an open space had filled with tables of people eating food coming off of a smoking grill covered in meat. Elated with our second find, we settled into our chairs. Surrounded by Laotians dousing themselves in BeerLao, once again we seemed out of place. A waitress brought us a menu and waited as we looked it over, realizing rather quickly why there weren’t any other tourists around.
Congealed duck blood? Grilled duck? Duck soup? Blood soup? Duck intestine salad? Either this particular group of Laotians loved eating duck and nothing but duck, or this menu was the result of a duck lynching mob sharing its spoils. Either way, we ducked the food option and took up a couple of golden BeerLaos while the dampness of the sauna slowly steamed away from us. Sometimes, being the tourist isn’t so bad.
Visited Laos: July 2013
Hotel in Luang Prabang: Villa Somphong
Sauna in Luang Prabang: At the tip of the peninsula, across from the river. Can’t remember the name!
Rivers: Nam Khan & Mekong