After nearly four months in Laos, then less than three months at home in California, I’ve just arrived back in Vientiane – and am navigating an interesting sensation where my surroundings are both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. This trip isn’t filled with the same novelty of my last one, when everything around me was new. But after hopscotching on to Laos after a vacation in the Philippines, coming back feels decidedly surreal, like it hasn’t quite sunk in yet that I’m here. Much is like I remember, some is not.
Part of the change is that I’m experiencing Laos in a new season. My previous trips have been in late summer and fall, and now it’s winter. It’s odd to feel like I could use another layer of clothing or a blanket on the bed – although the temperature flipflops from hot to cold from day to day. I’ve missed the legitimately cold weather of January, and I’ve heard people refer to February as spring, since April brings the scorching feeling of summer. I’ll get to feel it for myself, since I’m planning to stay until mid April to experience Lao New Year. There’s a haziness in the air, and the color looks bleached out of the sky along the horizon – could be that the lack of rain means there’s nothing to wash the city smog away.
In perhaps the biggest change, I was stunned to see the water level of the Mekong River so low. People were walking and playing soccer on wide expanses of sand that I remember being covered with water, and fishing platforms stand high and dry among clumps of exposed vegetation. I felt like it would be nearly possible to walk across to Thailand. It is the dry season, after all – although my coworker thinks that the river is lower now than it used to be, due to dams and water diversions upstream. There are other changes, too: work at the construction site next door to my office grinds on, relentlessly grating and rumbling, as a massive concrete structure rises. Neighborhood puppies have grown into shaggy dogs, some trees have lost their leaves, while others bloom with bright orange flowers I’ve never seen before.
But other things are familiar and the same – the restaurants, the night market, the aerobics class by the river. It’s comforting that I’ve built up a handful of go-to places and favorite spots. I hope these will help me get back into my routine, while I’ll open myself up to new experiences and learning in this latest season.