Our relationship began on our first full day in Luang Prabang. It was our first stop on our Asia Adventure, and we had only landed the night before. Matt and I were up at 5am as a result of our jet lag, so we wandered the streets waiting for 7:00 to arrive when our hotel began serving breakfast. We immediately fell in love with the postcard views on every corner, and gawked at monks the way that you only do the first time you see one in real life. The locals were all so friendly, and even the stray dogs would cross the street to greet us. We fell in love with this city immediately.
After breakfast, we wandered a little deeper into the streets stopping to look at temples “are we allowed to just go inside?” (yes) and speaking with a local man who was so excited to practice his English, that he answered all of our questions with long responses and big smiles.
Our guards were down, way down. We have arrived in Laos without any expectations or knowledge and somehow we felt like we fit right in. The city had a very small town feel, and was ours to explore.
As the heat of the day began to show its true colours just after ten, we headed back to our hotel with the plan to hang out for a bit on our shaded balcony. Neither of us felt guilty because we had accomplished a lot since 5am, and so I wrote in the first few pages of my journal, and Matt read a book. Our hotel was in a high traffic area, and the people watching was absolutely fantastic.
A few men drove by asking “tuk tuk?” which we politely declined, until one followed up with “waterfall?” and I told him we were going tomorrow. He parked his tuk tuk, got out, and walked across the street to our balcony smiling. I would later learn his name was Kao, and we were on the verge of becoming friends.
Kao was about the same age as us, and we clicked pretty quickly. We negotiated a price and a pick up time for the following day, but Kao asked us what we were going to do that same day. We hadn’t really had any plans other than to escape the sun that was getting hotter by the minute, and Kao suggested going to a pool. My ears perked up. Within minutes, we were inside changing into our bathing suits, and hopping into the back of Kao’s tuk tuk.
We learned through Kao that when tuk tuk driver’s in Laos negotiate a price with you, that price is for the way there as well as the return trip. So on that first day he drove us to and from the pool, and kept his promise to meet us the next morning at 8am for the waterfall. On the way home from the waterfall, we stopped by his place to have a glass of bottled water. We met his wife, and his two sons. No one except Kao could speak English, but luckily for us, smiles and laughs are understood in every language. We didn’t stay long that day, and Kao took us back to our hotel.
On our third day in Laos, Matt and I had woken up early to walk around the temples while the sun was still low in the sky and I could cover my knees without overheating too much. As we left our last temple, Kao spotted us from across the street, and waved to us with that big smile of his. It is so nice to see someone you know when you are in a new place, and it was in that moment that Matt and I both recognized Kao as a friend. We chatted with him for a bit, and arranged for him to take us to another pool for that same afternoon. It was a few hours later when he was picking us up at the pool that he invited us back to his place for dinner with his family. We were both hesitant- we didn’t want to intrude, and we have seen how little the families in Laos have. Kao insisted, and we once again couldn’t say no to his big smile. As he dropped us off at our hotel, he said he would be back again at 7 to take us to his home.
We rode in the back of the tuk tuk to the other side of the city wondering where this night would take us. Kao’s wife owns a store that is run out of the front of their home, and as we walked through the store and the kids spotted us, they began cheering. It was one of the warmest welcomes I have ever received, and I was instantly comfortable. Kao poured us Beerlao, and began setting the table.
The table was set with two of each dish in the middle (so that you aren’t reaching across the table), and each person with a bowl of rice. Kao didn’t assume that we knew how to eat Lao food already, and didn’t talk down to us while he demonstrated. Instead, after the table was set, he showed us. I am so thankful for this because otherwise, Matt and I both would have piled food from the dishes in the middle of the table into our rice bowl. We learned that to eat traditional Lao food, you take a small portion from a dish, and eat it with your rice, then you take more from another dish, and so on. There was a soup in the middle of the table as well, that each person eats right from that bowl with their own spoon. The meal was so interesting to me, and was very relaxed with Kao’s family. The kids sat across from us giggling, and his wife smiled when she saw that we enjoyed the cooking.
Kao asked us questions about our life back home, and told us more about his life in Laos. He would always answer everything with “ohhh! Same same, but different!” which at the time, I thought was just something he said. It made me laugh, and when we later got to Thailand and heard the same expression more often, then saw shirts for sale with the saying on them, I had to get one. Kao’s youngest son had a light up rose that he would give to me, and I would say “khob chai!” and he would bow. We would watch as their grandma took the motorbike out, and returned with bagged juice for the kids, how grandpa played drums on the pots while the boys would dance, and how mom kept a close eye on the business and the family. Everything was same same, but different, and we felt right at home.
We thought the night would end shortly after we ate, but Kao had other plans. He took us to a dive bar with a live band around the corner where the server stands behind your table, and refills your beer glass the second it gets empty. Then, Kao took us to “the disco” where all of his friends were waiting. Drinks were flowing, the music was blasting, and everyone all around us was having a great time. We wouldn’t have seen (or known about) local nightlife if it wasn’t for this night.
Around 1230, Matt and I were drunk and exhausted. We had been awake since 5, been in the sun all day, and still had to pack for our flight the next morning. Kao begged us to “go bowling” with him, and to this day it is my biggest regret saying no. I wish we were able to find a little bit more energy to see Lao Bowling (I hear it’s a big thing!), but we just couldn’t. Kao drove us back to the hotel, and we arranged to see him again the next day at 11 to take us to the airport.
Kao returned the next morning, and laughed when he told us he didn’t get back home until 330. We got on the tuk tuk for the last time, sad to be leaving Luang Prabang, and headed to the airport. When we arrived, I gave Kao the thank you card I wrote for him and his family, and we gave him a little extra money to help them out. We all took photos by the departures gate, and as we walked inside and turned around, Kao was still standing there smiling and waving us goodbye. My bottom lip began to quiver as we waved goodbye to him for the last time, and I had to fight back tears as we checked in for our flight.
I know that going to your tuk tuk driver’s home may seem like something your parents told you not to do while abroad. To be honest, if Matt wasn’t with me, a red flag would have probably been raised, and I wouldn’t have this friendship to speak about. We lucked out with our tuk tuk driver though, and I am so thankful that we did. This was the start of our trip, and we didn’t know how we could top it. I still don’t know if I’ve described this relationship well enough for you to understand the connection we had with Kao and his family, but I don’t know if I ever properly could…
You never know what can happen when someone says “tuk tuk?”