Travel Writing Competition Winner

Surprise, Surprise!

by Paola Fornari

Laos - Monks looking over the river
Monks looking over the river

I tried not to speculate where my surprise sixtieth birthday destination would be, but occasionally ideas drifted into my head.

In our three years living in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, we had travelled to most places that were a single flight away. So this would be two flights. We were leaving late at night so we would no doubt spend the night somewhere and go on the next day. It wouldn’t be far, as we only had a week. It wouldn’t be a big city – my husband knows I don’t like big cities.

We had experienced a difficult year in Dhaka, with eighty-five days of violent strikes and political turmoil, and the Rana Plaza building collapse. We were looking forward to this break.

At Dhaka airport, I blocked my ears every time an announcement was made. Only when we boarded the Thai Airways plane did it become clear we were flying to Bangkok. The possibilities were narrowing: we were definitely not going to India.


‘Great, from one war zone to another,’ I said. ‘Home from home.’ Anti-government protesters were thronging the streets of central Bangkok, hoping to stall the upcoming elections.

There was a long delay, so we only got about three hours of sleep at an airport hotel in Bangkok, before an early connecting flight. But connecting to where? I was determined to stave off the hard evidence for as long as possible. As we went through all the passport control and security procedures, I kept my eyes lowered, my earphones blaring music into my ears, and my scarf hiding my face so that the secret would not disclosed. ‘Tell them it’s my religion to keep my ears and eyes covered,’ I said.

Passport control meant this was an international flight, not one to Chiang Mai or another destination in Thailand. The possibilities were narrowing.

At last it was time to board. The plane was another Thai Airways, which didn’t reveal much. But it was a small plane. The passengers were clearly western tourists. The adventurer type, with walking boots and backpacks, not the short shorts Bali type. The announcements were all in Thai, so I was none the wiser.

Early morning
Early morning

We took off with the sun to our left…what, we were flying south? We were going to Bali, after all! But soon the aircraft veered, and the sun was on my right, towards the back.

‘We’re flying north-east,’ I said. ‘Not bad,’ my husband replied, ‘from one who claims to have no spatial orientation.’

And with our direction confirmed in my mind, I fell asleep. I awakened to a magnificent aerial view of a wide river meandering between lush hills. The word Mekong flashed through my mind, but I wasn’t entirely sure where the Mekong went. One road bisected the landscape. ‘Hey, the cars are driving on the right! French influence!’ I said.

We banked, circled, descended, then landed in the quirky little airport of Luang Prabang in Laos. ‘Delightfully slow’ is how a friend once described Luang Prabang. And that was accurate. We spent a week unwinding in the cool air, in this quirky, friendly, laid back place, strolling about, reading, and watching the world go by.

At dawn, keeping a discreet distance, we observed the monks walking barefoot in single file, collecting alms from local townspeople.

Night Market
Night Market

One morning, I ventured into Big Brother Mouse, an organisation that promotes literacy in Laos. It was housed in a low building just round the corner from our hotel. Monks and other locals come by between nine and eleven o’clock every morning to practise their English with more than willing tourists. Many monks don’t have a lifetime vocation; they join the monastic life for a few years, because they are from poor families, and this is a way to get a free education.

‘What’s the hardest thing about your life?’ I asked a teenage monk at Big Brother Mouse. ‘Getting up at four in the morning. It’s freezing!’ he answered.

And indeed, in this season, it was tempting just to stay snuggled up in bed till the mist dissipated and the sun came out. My cotton cardigan and shawl were not enough to keep me warm, so we cycled to a huge market to buy some socks and a fleece.

There were dozens of places to sample the exquisite Lao food. River grass covered in sesame seeds and fried was my favourite.

Cooking breakfast
Cooking breakfast

In the afternoon a siesta was de rigueur, followed by a bike ride; the hotels all lend out free bikes. We cycled to a weaver’s village on the far side of the Mekong, and splurged on silk shawls and scarves. ‘Sorry, no Visa,’ one salesgirl said. I was short of cash, so she took me to the nearest ATM on her motorbike, our hair flying in the wind.

I spent one entire day learning to cook Lao food, and eating it with my fellow travelling cooks. The combination of flavours – kaffir leaves, lemon grass, Thai basil, spring onions, huge ear mushrooms, and a host of other exotic ingredients – was simply delicious. And I didn’t feel bloated afterwards.

On my birthday, we took a cruise on a fishing boat in the Mekong. The boatman sang a plaintive song as the setting sun spilt orange swathes on the glassy surface of the river.

In one of Bruce Hornsby’s songs, he sings: ‘ You don’t know what you’ve got till you lose it all again.’ More true, in my opinion, would be: ‘You don’t know what you’ve lost till you find it all again…’ What we had found was freedom: freedom from the noise, traffic, pollution and tensions of Dhaka, freedom to do exactly what we wanted when we wanted.

Mekong Sunset
Mekong Sunset

As we sipped sundowners by the river each evening, our troubled host country was forgotten.

Laos is the most unusual and restful place I have visited. This was a birthday to remember and treasure for ever and ever. What a wonderful way to become a senior.

(Photographs were taken by the author and supplied after the competition had been judged.)