I climbed the winding staircase.
The afternoon humidity in Luang Prabang made each step more laborious than it otherwise might have been. The steps zigged and zagged up the face of Mount Phou Si. The stone, smooth and rounded from the movement of so many feet over so many years. In a small plastic bag at my side swung two flowers wrapped in bamboo leaf cups. Incense protruded from their center, offerings for the altar at the top of the mountain. I took care not to let the flowers bump and knock into my leg as I walked.
The trees that engulfed Phou Si’s side encroached and advanced on the staircase. Seeking to reclaim it back into the jungle. Vines hung low over the steps and roots snaked and twisted through cracks in the stone.
As I climbed higher I began to pass stations along the staircase. Nooks and crevices set up as shrines in the mountainside. Sanskrit mantras carved into stone. The Buddha reclined on a flat slab of marble. Golden idols and painted serpents flanked the narrow stone steps.
I heard voices up ahead. A low sing-song mumbling. As I ascended further, it got louder, until I matched the sound to the chanting of over a dozen monks. I tip-toed passed the Wat Tham Phou Si temple, peeking through an open door of the small building and watched as rows of monks, sitting cross-legged, chanted in unison. All of their eyes were closed, heads down as they sung. A synchronized low sound of meditative prayer.
I climbed higher still. The trees began to give way to high shrubs and ferns. Bright butterflies, with wings of impossible turquoise danced and fluttered across my path. It wasn’t long before I was at the base of the gilded stupa of Wat Chom Si, the temple that capped the summit of Mount Phou Si. I stood at the foot of the temple and wheeled around taking in the view. I could see for miles and miles, Luang Prabang the former Laotian capital sprawled out around Phou Si below me.
I looked out, the roofs of Luang Prabang dotted the valley below. Distant temples and pagodas glinted gold under the sun. The lazy Mekong River, brown and murky, snaked off, hugging the town and vanishing out into a heat hazy horizon. Distant mountains rose upwards in the distance, their faces covered in every spectrum of green, a canopy of jungle trees. Their peaks rose into the wispy traffic of passing clouds. White and grey masses that trailed and churned around the high summits as they crawled across a bright blue sky.
My eyes, glued to the panorama before me hardly noticed the movement that eventually broke my gaze. I looked over to see a score of monks standing and doing the exact same thing as me. Staring out in awe of Laos. One even had a camera about his neck. With their robes of saffron and crimson they added yet another color to the landscape behind them.
I made way for them as they spread out along the railing, quietly chatting with each other. The one with the camera noticed me and held up the bulky piece of equipment about his neck. He smiled big at me nodding towards my own camera in my hands and then out towards the scenic landscape of Laos. His gesture was endearing, his smile even more so. As if the fact that we were both carrying cameras and had come to photograph the same view made us long lost brothers.
I walked passed them smiling back and took a small tour of the mountain summit. Walking by the entrance to the temple I peaked in at an altar of golden Buddhas and rows of flowers and incense. An orange Tabby cat sat lazily off to the side, keeping its distance from the idols as if it couldn’t make heads or tails of what the building was for. As I rounded back around the sides of the pagoda I saw a rocky outcrop dotted with the tiny bamboo leaf flowers I had purchased below. I placed my two in the crevices of the rock next to the others and watched the breeze ruffle and wrinkle the pedals. My offering complete I stepped down and took a seat along the wall, waiting for sunset.
“Where are you from?”
I looked down from staring up at the temple’s high stupa to see a young boy had sat down next to me. He looked to be about fifteen or sixteen with short slick black hair and the dark complexion of someone born in Laos who spent his summer outdoors.
“I’m from the USA.” I said, “Are you from Luang Prabang?” I asked.
“Yeah, yeah.” he nodded, “My house is just over there.” he pointed out over the rail into the void. His house could have been anywhere within a hundred miles for all I could tell.
“What’s your name?” he asked without a hint of shyness. Another boy about the same age appeared at his side. He was slightly taller than his chatty friend and wore a red oversized Chicago Bulls basketball jersey.
“My name is Justin.” I introduced myself. “What’s yours?”
“Abraham.” he said with a smile, patting his chest. “This is Gabriel.” he pointed over his shoulder with his thumb at his tall friend.
Biblical names and impeccable English, I smelled the work of a missionary.
“Abraham?” I said in surprise. “Do your parents call you that?”
“No, no.” he said with a laugh as if it was obvious. “My real name is Lieu, I picked Abraham as my English name.”
“His real name is Kai.” Abraham said, pointing to his friend. With a smile Kai nodded in affirmation.
“Why did you pick Abraham?” I asked, suspicious that the missionary had a hand in helping him decide.
“I love history.” he said swinging his feet as he sat on the bench. “I really like to read about American history.” he continued. “Abraham Lincoln is my favorite to read about.”
Not expecting that answer, I was taken aback. “What about you?” I met eyes with Kai, who called himself Gabriel. He smiled and shrugged looking down at his feet.
“He’s shy.” Abraham answered for him. “He just picked it because he likes how it sounds.”
I nodded and smiled reassuring him that this reason was as good as any.
“He looks like Paul.” Gabriel said to Abraham. They both laughed.
“Who’s Paul?” I asked.
“Paul is the man who teaches at our school.” Abraham said, his eyes down watching his feet swing back and forth from under the bench. “He looks like you.” he lifted his head and eyed up my face. “He has one of those.” he reached out and brushed the hair on my face.
“A beard?” I asked, laughing inwardly. Me and Paul probably looked nothing alike in reality. He was likely just another white guy with a beard.
“Yeah, yeah a beard!” Abraham’s eyes lit up recognizing the word. “Abraham Lincoln had one too.” he added. He mimicked stroking a long beard with his hands.
I laughed in fascination that a teenager from Laos had such an affiliation with American history. A subject even many American teenagers had no interest in.
“What else do you know about Abraham Lincoln?” I probed.
“He was the best president.” he continued still swinging his feet. “He was a very strong leader.” he stopped swinging and looked at Gabriel and then at me. “He stopped the war and kept your country together you know?” He said this with stern eyes, like he had just divulged new information to me.
“I love history too.” I told him. “I studied it at university.”
“Really!” he straightened up on the bench in excitement.
As the sun sank down westward to be swallowed behind the murky Mekong I sat and chatted with the two boys. Abraham was fascinated by my knowledge of American Civil War history and I was fascinated by his fascination with it. As I descended back down the steps in the dusk I chuckled to myself as I walked. At the top of Luang Prabang, in the middle of Laos, on the peak of a small mountain I had had the most unexpected of encounters with an even more unexpected topic of conversation.
Whoever you are and wherever you are from, go outside, find a bench and have a seat. There is no telling who you will meet and what you will talk about.