“I felt honoured to play with him, you know? I’d get goosebumps all down my arms, just listening to him play his guitar. He had a real talent, like no one I’d ever heard before, and I hoped he’d come back, you know? There’s not much to do here, and the locals don’t really take much notice.”
A waitress collects our empty glasses, momentarily interrupting his story. I smile at her and then look back to Dave, a retired teacher from Liverpool who’s settled in Laos. He’s been talking non-stop for about an hour now.
“Anyway, I got talkin’ to somebody, and I asked how he was doing. Turns out he had come back, but he was dead. He’d suffered a heart attack – drug overdose.
What a waste, you know? He was only in his twenties, and he’d played beautifully. The heroin is much purer in Laos, and he’d injected it without knowing. That was about a year ago, but it feels like yesterday.”
He looks genuinely upset, and I shape my expression to one that emits sympathy. Dave is a lonely divorcee with a strong Liverpudlian accent, who’s currently working in Luang Prabang as a TEFL tutor. I’d only asked him for directions to a museum (the UXO Lao visitor centre) but when I told him I was from Wigan, not far from Liverpool, he’d come over and sat opposite me and I’d not been able to shut him up since. Not that I wasn’t enjoying his stories – I was grateful for those – but he’d gone on for that long the museum would now be closed.
Still, I’m glad I met Dave. After travelling alone for a little while, talking to strangers doesn’t seem so unnatural a thing to do, especially when they’re from your part of the world. Granted if I wandered into a cafe in Liverpool alone tomorrow and Dave was sat at a table nearby, it’d be unlikely that we’d even notice one another, let alone share details about our lives together over noodles.
I’d walked into the modest cafe simply to catch my breath and get out of the midday sun for a while. I’d had a hell of a night and morning after losing my purse at Luang Prabang’s Night Market, but now (thanks to a little thing called ‘Western Union’ and the generosity of people back home) I felt relieved – exhausted, but relieved. Now that I had some Laotian Kip, I didn’t need to worry about not being able to pay for my stay at Manichan Guesthouse, or how I’d be able to manage for the remainder of my trip – which wouldn’t have been possible, by the way. My back-up plan had consisted of consuming one Oreo biscuit per day and selling both my soul and my camera, but – thankfully – it hadn’t had to come to that.
A Nightmare at the Night Market
“Are you Katherine?
A man is searching for you at the night market. He has your purse. He’s British too.
You’ll find it, don’t worry. He’s looking for you.”
I walked back to Luang Prabang’s Night Market with my heart in my mouth, through the darkness and clutching my bag as if it still mattered. I’d been with a group of people around my age, and was just about to order a drink at the bar when I couldn’t find my purse. Moments earlier I’d been weighing them up judgmentally – I thought they were annoying and obnoxious, and had considered calling it a night and going back to my guesthouse – but I thought I’d give them the time it took to finish my next drink to decide if they were worth neglecting my bed for. In the split second it took to realise that my purse was missing, I viewed the now laughing, drinking group as untrustworthy.
Of course, it wasn’t them, but it’s times like these when the solo traveller truly feels alone. I quickly muttered something about needing to go as I’d lost my purse, and off I went, into the night.
The night market was still busy, but while before it had felt warm and friendly, now, as I stood amongst the chaos, I could see only a conspiracy. I searched for answers in every stare and every guilty smile, and I tried to find the unknown eyes of the man who had my purse amongst the crowd. I knew he would recognise me (or my distinct hairstyle) from the photograph on my driver’s licence, but how would I spot him?
It was a horrible feeling, walking up and down that night market, hopelessly searching for something I knew I couldn’t find. As the crowd grew smaller and the air cooler, I headed back to my guesthouse and fell asleep, only to awake a few hours later at 4AM after a vivid dream. After searching online led nowhere, I cancelled my cards and plucked up the courage to call home and admit I needed some help.
My Western Union experience is one I’ll save for another post, since this is already quite lengthy. In it I’ll include ways to avoid losing your money whilst travelling abroad, and suggestions for what you can do should you find yourself in a similar situation. Until then, here are a few photographs from Luang Prabang’s Night Market. Please let me know if you enjoyed (or disliked) this post and I’ll try to do better next time.
Photographs from Luang Prabang Night Market