Dusk settles upon the Mekong River. Ringed by distant mountains, our slow-boat glides across the quiet waters, movement rippling out towards the tree-lined banks. At a wooden window by the engine I perch, reverent, away from the bodies, the beers, the noise. Final flecks of golden light dance upon the river's murky green, and the purring motor caresses my sleepless bones, drowning out all sound.
Our first evening in Laos is spent at a hostel along the riverside, managed by a questionable scar-faced man who calls himself Marco Polo. The night holds ups and downs for my companions, matters of heart and ego, which are starting to take their toll on us. Curiously, all is solved by morning, when I wake up to what sounds suspiciously like trumpets. I step out into the hallway to investigate; Tom is already there, topless, as usual, leaning halfway over the balcony.
"Elephants," he murmurs, eyes glazed in awe, as I join him at the creaky wooden railing. "Bloody elephants, just casually having a bath in front of our hostel."
There in the mossy Mekong River, right below us, a handful of majestic baby elephants are bathing in the crisp dawn light.
I like Laos already.
My stomach has been churning, unsettled, for the past couple of days; charcoal tablets from 7-11 haven't really helped. I nibble cautiously at a plain baguette as everyone samples a more adventurous breakfast. Marco Polo stocks me up on bananas and boiled eggs for the boat ride. I'm risking nothing but solid foods, since we'll be on the river for the next 8 hours - and because our boat has only one toilet.
Although today's slowboat is smaller, much busier, it feels good to be back on the water, moving towards a destination. I adored Pai, but Luang Prabang is a whole new city, a whole new culture to discover. Surprisingly, this journey doesn't feel as hot, as muggy as yesterday, but maybe that's down to the chilly morning breeze.
I look around at various faces on the boat, of strangers-turned-familiar after spending a solid day with them. Florinda and Nieko, lovers from Berlin; Dan the Canadian, with his beer-stained Chang vest; Alex from Finland, who looks like Peter Pan, too young to be away from home. I look at Tom, Egal. Amy, I barely even knew a month ago. Since then, we've spent every single hour together.
Our wooden vessel glides past endless stretches of forest and craggy rock. The engine purrs reassuringly, incessantly, swallowing murmurs of sleepy travellers around us. Snippets of conversation are audible here and there between the water, the wind, the whirring. My stomach has been alright so far. One banana at a time.
As clouds begin to uncover the sun, a little canoe passes by, cutting through the water like a needle through silk. Inside the canoe I see a man, woman, and child sat contentedly together, holding hands, gazing quietly at the sky. And I think to myself, how wonderful.
How wonderful it is to celebrate a new dawn, on a river by the jungle, in a little red wooden canoe, with people you love most.
I watch the canoe until it disappears into the sunrise. Then, with one final glimpse at the horizon, I make my way back to my companions.
Mel left London to chase summer around the world, one country at a time. She loves the ocean, writing postcards, and solo exploration. Travel with her on Instagram.