Saving Luang Prabang


Much happens in life that is celebrated, but essentially un-noteworthy — sporting victories and Grammy wins and celebrity marriages. Likewise, there are events of quite great significance that go entirely unheralded, and often completely unknown. Such is the time that my father and I saved the town of Luang Prabang.

Known for its morning almsgiving ceremony at which visiting westerners behave, with their ubiquitous cameras and flashes, in a completely abominable fashion, Luang Prabang is the jewel of the country of Laos, a quiet, beautiful riverside town full of tidy streets of lovely wooden colonial shopfronts and houses, pretty as a dollhouse and just as flammable.

The night was calm as we strolled the streets after dinner — the air soft and warm like bathwater and the hum of insects in the trees and the noise of the occasional motor on the river as a boat passed going upstream in the dark. The trees hung over the street like a pergola and the lights glowed in the houses and all was well.

As we passed the locked, open-air gate of a lighted patio, a loud pop suddenly sounded from within, then a crackling sound, quickly growing louder. We walked over to the gate to investigate; within, a collection of electrical appliances, plugged with baroque complexity thru a series of adapters into a single outlet, sparked and, as we watched, burst suddenly into flame.

‘That looks bad,’ observed my father Steve, ever sanguine. ‘We should probably do something about that.’

‘Well yes, no shit.’ The room in which the fire now burned ever-brighter was empty, as was the street. ‘Hello?’ I called. Then louder: ‘HELLO!’ Then: ‘Fire! FIRE!!!’

I might as well have been calling bingo numbers. The plastic adapters were beginning to melt and drip in the flames. I turned and ran down the nearest side street, looking for anyone who might be able to prevent the town we’d been enjoying for the last three days from going up like a UNESCO-heritage tinderbox.

Help, in this case, was a lone man trundling a wheelbarrow thru the darkness. I ran up to him, panting. ‘Hey, hey! Fire! Over here! Fire!’ I gesticulated wildly back around the corner. He rolled his eyes and laughed — crazy foreign person! — then went back to pushing his wheelbarrow.

‘No: FIRE! FIRE!!!’ I tried to mime something burning, which if you’ve ever drawn this card in charades is harder than it might seem. He laughed again and turned away.

‘Oh for fuck’s sake.’ I grabbed him by the sleeve and dragged him down the alley to the main street. To his credit, he did not appear to take umbrage at this. Steve had even gotten a bit exercised about the growing conflagration, and was forcefully gesturing at the man to come look as I dragged him to the locked gate.

A single glance and his eyes went wide in the universal sign for OH SHIT.

‘Ah!!!! Fai mai! FAI MAI!’ he yelled, apparently the magic words in Lao that Steve and I had been missing. All around us the houses suddenly came alive like a tree of birds roused by a gunshot. ‘FAI MAI! FAI MAI!’

Neighbors spilled into the street and, as we watched, a man burst forth, unlocked the gate, and hosed down the blaze with a long blast from a handy fire extinguisher, coating the entire patio in a white powder and bringing an audible sigh of relief from the gathered crowd. Wheelbarrow man flashed us a thumbs up, then went back to pushing his wheelbarrow, the crisis averted just as suddenly as it had arisen, and we started back on down the street through the dark.

‘No one is ever going to thank us for this, you know,’ I said to Steve.

‘I know. Nightcap?’

‘Eh, why not?’

The night around us was as beautiful as ever.


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