Everyone will tell you that you must head up to the temple on top of Mount Phousi for the sunset in Luang Prabang. Some of them may tell you that involves climbing a set of stairs. Few will tell you those stairs number in the thousands and are spaced along a steep incline leading to the mountain’s peak. So every tourist in town, at least once during their stay, heads up Phousi for the view at dusk. Not all of them make it.
Neither my friend Noom nor I am a weakling. And while some may consider me old, I’m still young enough to tackle pretty much anything I put my mind to. From streetside, the stairs to the top of Mount Phousi do not attempt to hide what is in store. At least at first. What you can’t see is that after that first long steep climb, you’re only a quarter of the way there. The Laotians are a kind people though, and they don’t collect the 20,0000 kip admission fee until you’ve made it to the first landing. At least those who tire out before reaching the true destination don’t get fined for wussing out.
Parents read stories to their children both to entertain them and to provide an early set of morals to live by. I think, even at a young age, our core personalities are already developed. As a child, we gravitate toward those stories that best fit our nature. One of my favorite books as a child was Curious George. But that’s a different story. Another was the fable of the little engine who could, a tale of endurance that taught the virtues of determination and perseverance. That’s a kinder reading than that it taught you to be stubborn.
That tale immediately sprang to mind as I watched an overweight, middle aged, pasty faced woman slowly climbing her way up the first flight of stairs leading to Mount Phousi’s summit. Out of shape and out of breath she could only manage about a dozen steps at a time. Then she’d have to stop, catch her breath, and rest a bit before pushing off upward once again. With each plodding step she made I could hear that little engine who could chuggling, “I think I can, I think I can.”
Sweating profusely, panting like a bitch in heat, she was the kind of person that would be easy for me to be derisive about. She had all the markings. And seemingly deserved whatever cruel comments I’d come up with. Trust me, they would have been funny. But there was determination there too, and that’s what I responded to, calling down a few words of encouragement as she neared the last few dozen steps of her climb. Or at least the first installment. Her response was a rueful shaking of her head as she smiled back up at me. And then she made a few more steps of forward progress.
Noom and I had stopped for a break at the first landing. There’s a pretty incredible view even from that low height. Neither of us was winded and needed a rest. But Noom has a need to mark his spot wherever we go in a foreign land, and with a public restroom insight, we needed to stop so he could go piss on Laos. Having already taken in the view of the quaint town below, I traded that scenic splendor in for a view of my fellow touri climbing their way up the stairs. Meanwhile, a younger couple walked by and asked if I’d already been to the top.
“We just wanted to know if it was worth the climb.”
Today’s youth is into instant gratification, The idea of having to work for reward is a foreign concept to them. Raised on television and movie previews they want to know about all the good parts before making a commitment. In my best wise old Shao Lin monk voice I said, “Sorry Grasshopper, life is not a movie trailer.”
Muttering, “Asshole,” they turned and started their climb.
Noom finished his business about the same time as the old lady made base camp. He was ready to go. She was ready to die. Thinking she was a solo traveller I waited a bit to make sure she was not only going to catch her breath, but continue breathing for the foreseeable future. It was rough going, but she got her breathing under control about the same time she was joined by a group of five other touri of slightly advanced age. Her travel mates. One of the group was her husband, the others close friends from her hometown who were travelling through SE Asia on an extended tour. None of them seemed proud of her accomplishment None seemed ready to take the obvious break she needed. Instead, the husband issued the group’s collective judgement on her capabilities. “We’re going up. If you think you can make it you can follow us and maybe we’ll see you on top.”
Ouch. Nice. With friends like that who needs pushy German tourists to ruin your day?
I continually confound my friends and acquaintances. Just when they start thinking I’m a nice guy, I do something to convince them I’m a bastard. Just when they have decided I’m a complete asshole, I make some unexpected grand gesture that qualifies for sainthood. You might as well get used to it too. In this case, it wasn’t so much about being nice as it was about spite. The old lady’s traveling group had pissed me off. I walked over, introduced myself, lied about being winded too, and offered to be her companion on the remaining trek to the top.
Noom is a bit more transparent in his motives. As gregarious as he usually is, the idea of an hour long hike to cover a twenty minute walk didn’t appeal to him. Like the bastards before him, he said a hasty ‘later’ and headed upward on his own.
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Fortunately the gods were with me on this one and the old lady turned out to be an amiable companion. If you ignore having to stop and listen to her wheeze every dozen or so stairs we managed to put behind us. At the first rest stop she made excuses for her husband. At the second, for herself. At the third, proving absence does not in fact make the heart grow fonder, she changed her tune about hubby. ‘My husband’ become ‘that bastard.’ Not an American fortunately, by the next rest stop she no longer was quite as wound up about herself and was instead ready to talk about Laos.
I mentioned that I had spoken with a woman in Bangkok who’d just returned from Luang Prabang and that she’d said there were a less imposing set of stairs at the backside of the mountain. The old lady knew of them, they were near where they were staying. Concerned my new companion would be for longer than planned, I asked her what she planned on doing about her group and getting back to their hotel if she failed to summit. She smiled, nodded her head, and replied, “I have the only key to our room.”
Regardless of a new acquaintance and gorgeous views, when your entire world is all about making it to the next step, your conversation becomes limited too. I mentioned that it would be nice to get to the top and find a cool drink of water. “Yes, my husband is probably thirsty by now,” she said. “Too bad I have all of the money.”
I was beginning to like this woman. And then laughed, realizing I too had all the money and my companion who had gone up without me would also have to wait for my arrival to quench his thirst. We only made it another three steps before having to stop again, this time not from being winded but because we were laughing too much, finding much mirth in the fact that those abandoned held all the keys. Literally.
The climb continued, we hit a rhythm. The higher we went, the more kind the architects of the stairways were. After a dozen or so steep steps there were level areas with no stairs, a perfect spot to stop and let those behind you pass. The old lady blamed her inability to scale the mountain quickly on the fact her party had spent the day on a tour of the river. They’d visited a textiles village, a village that made whiskey, and some caves. Each stop involved a long, steep set of stairs from the river up to the attraction. We’d done that trip the day before. Which is why we had waited for the next day before making the excursion to the top of Mt. Phousi. Not that you can avoid stairs any day of your visit, they pop up with a reassuring regularity everywhere in Luang Prabang.
The last course of stairs before the peak were more of a ramp, that put your head level with the feet of those in front of you. But it is a long ramp, and a rather rude tease; your destination seems so close and yet still a climb away. It took us another two rest stops to make it. The old lady’s smile when we made the top was one of accomplishment. And relief. And possibly the need for medical help. I rushed off to get her a bottle of water. And to avoid being identified as a companion in case she collapsed and died.
I found my friend Noom inside the small chapel, talking with Buddha as he is wont to do when we visit a wat, undoubtedly asking his god’s help in hurrying my climb along. The views atop Mount Phousi are beautiful. But that’s about all there is to do once you reach the summit: sit and look at the surrounding town and wait for the sun to set. Noom had checked the area out and was ready to leave. I was not quite so enamored with the idea of seeing another set of stairs that soon and went to check on the old lady’s state. Her gang had evidently seen all there was to see too, and ditched her, stranding her on top of the mountain. Climbing Mount Everest, it is a matter of survival; you leave the dead and dying to their fate. I don’t know that that is the right tack to take in a small Lao village filled with Buddhist temples. And while I didn’t consider my karma at stake, being the second party to abandon the old lady seemed unnecessarily cruel. So after a long rest, she had two strapping men to help her on her decent.
Noom had found another set of steps, a shorter route down, but not the stairs that led toward the old lady’s hotel. They did, however, lead to a small restaurant at riverside, and with seating available and protected by shady trees, we made our final rest stop, quickly ordering a round of drinks. With only the need to raise her glass qualifying as physical exertion things were looking up and the old lady turned out to be an amiable companion, telling us about the other places she and her friends had visited on their trip. That reminded her of her lost party and she laughed again. “They must be getting awfully hungry by now,” she said referencing the fact she held the group’s money.
We all had a laugh at their expense, envisioning their search for the lady they left behind. And their hotel key. And cash. The last place they’d expect to find her was sitting at this small cafe shooting shots of tequila. “Another round?” I suggested with no concern to her companions’ fate.
The old lady smiled, payback in mind, and replied, “I think I can.”