With nothing more than a knockoff North Face fanny pack and a few bottles of Beer Lao, we hopped in the tuk tuk with two random Korean guys and hit the road.
One sweltering morning in March, I woke up in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage village that survived the Vietnam War airstrikes in the Democratic Republic of Laos. After lathering our bodies thick with a Laotian chemical concoction said to be good for warding off mosquitoes, we traipsed on down to the central market where we hailed a ratty miniature pickup truck to take us to a nearby waterfall. We’d heard that the sight was decent, but alas I’d seen my fair share of interesting waterfalls. The Google images looked like artificial cascading pools that you might find at your local SeaWorld, minus the blackfish scandal. Our expectations weren’t inflated, and it remained unbeknownst to us that we would be visiting what I might argue to be the world’s most beautiful place. So, with nothing more than a knockoff North Face fanny pack and a few bottles of Beer Lao, we hopped in the tuk tuk with two random Korean guys and hit the road.
Fueled solely by shots of concentrated Thai energy drinks, our driver ripped through the small village streets and onto a long, windy road through the agricultural fields out toward the waterfall. The path was narrow to begin with, but mudslides covered portions of the road, transforming it into an impossibly slender thoroughfare. On multiple occasions, we came flying around blind curves just barely dodging oncoming delivery trucks and tour buses. With each close call we yelled out in distress as our driver laughed, showing off all five of his teeth with a smile that I shall never forget. Lacking the proper words to describe their feelings in English, the Korean guys kept repeating: “We go sky, we go heaven” pointing upwards as we would most certainly not make it to the waterfall after all.
After about forty minutes of white-knuckle switchbacks, we pulled up to the entrance of the hiking trail. We made arrangements with our driver, who we referred to as “Chief”, as we did all tuk-tuk drivers in Southeast Asia, to come back in a few hours for the ride home.
The lower pools sat laden with loads of tourists gallivanting in the surreal aqua blue water, but it remained unclear to us whether we had reached the main attraction yet; we had yet to find a waterfall eclipsing the ten foot mark. We pressed on, as previously stated, with low expectations, until we came upon a sight of cascading pools resembling a series of infinity edge pools carved naturally into the underlying rock faces.
With the desire to ditch the crowds for a bit, we wandered into the woods, following a winding footpath into the jungle. The trail became narrower and narrower until we got to a point where we were actually forging our own trail, when we started to recall the local warnings of blazing trail in a land littered with undetonated explosives. Laos as a nation was hit almost as hard as bordering Vietnam during the war as American pilots followed orders to drop any unused explosives there before returning to restock aboard the aircraft carriers in the Indian and Pacific. To this day, unexploded warheads dot the countryside, saddled in decades of overgrowth, waiting to be unexpectedly discovered. The amount of bombs that landed in Laos during this period of time is equivalent to a bomb being dropped every nine minutes for ten years straight. Therefore, those unfamiliar with local terrain are cautioned of venturing off trail. Just as we began to second-guess our actions though, we stepped out on a ledge overlooking the upper portion of Kuang Si Falls. I can only describe the sight that greeted us as the most impressive feat of natural beauty that I’ve ever personally witnessed. Small cascading pools just beneath our feet built up into a series of massive waterfalls that continued to rise higher and higher into the canopy of the surrounding jungle. Something like forty-five consecutive waterfalls extended onward and upward as far as the eye could see.
After overhearing some insider intel from a group of guys wearing neon tank tops close by, we followed a trail up the side of the first set of waterfalls and made a left past the sign that firmly stated something loosely translated to “Danger. No Entry. You Might Die” and climbed a bit further until we reached a large turquoise pool atop the lower falls and below a seemingly endless expanse of other waterfalls above us. After taking a quick dip in the water along with the dozen or so other adventurous types that decided to slide beyond the warning signs in the name of experiencing natural beauty to it’s utmost extent, we realized that we were running about an hour late for our ride back to Luang Prabang.
We had yet to pay for our round trip ride and Chief didn’t seem too pleased about the extra wait time. By this time, day was slowly turning to dusk and the setting sun filtered through the smoke in the air from the slash and burn farming practices taking place around this area. I let my mind wander freely as I watched the road snake behind us, passing through a collection of small villages en route back to our home base. My emotions and senses had reached a peak of sensational euphoria that I had never felt before. The nature surrounding me calmed my senses, allowing me to appreciate the simplicity of the experience. Maybe the Korean guy was half-right; part of my psyche had departed and gone to sky, gone to heaven, and it was dragging me along with it. That is, until one of my buddies uttered: “Man…I don’t want to go sit in an office right now”, and I reentered real life.
The day that I departed for my trip to Asia, Leonard Nimoy (Dr. Spock from Star Trek) passed away. And although I am not a particularly big Star Trek fan, his final tweet resonated with me. It read:
A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.
I feel like these so-called perfect moments that we crave cannot be something that one pursues or strives for, but rather something that comes along naturally, sometimes surprisingly, and departs us just as quickly as it originally arrived. In my mind, perfection cannot be planned, just temporarily experienced.