14 November 2009

Asia Journey Part III: Laos - 1

Total population of Laos is roughly 7 million, fairly equally spread across this tiny land-locked country. Compare this to 9 million in Hong Kong. 80 million in Thailand. 100 million in Vietnam. A country still largely agrarian. The most bombed country during the VN war because the Viet Cong hid there. Laos never in its entire history went to war, despite numerous occupations. A peaceful people. Reserved. Kind. I fell in love with Laos, almost from the first moment I looked across the bank of the Mekong River from Thailand to the misty hillsides there. A small boat carries us across from Thailand to Laos, a distance less than the expanse of the Brooklyn Bridge. Visas are issued. Currency exchanged. In Lao Kip I am suddenly a millionaire, in cash!
We remove our shoes when we step onto the barge that will take us down the river, as this boat is the home of a family, who will escort and feed us on our journey. Floating down the river for a day and a half, there is surprisingly little traffic. Fishermen in coves, an occasional motor boat speeding those in a hurry to get to a city. Tiny primitive villages perched on the hills. Natural terraces of limestone, caves carved into tall rock. The captain of our long wooden vessel navigates with great familiarity around every one of the many rock outcroppings, avoiding too shallow waters. He sits tall in his seat, his prowess clear, the family watching proudly when they are not in the back preparing a feast. Sisters, roughly 3 and 4 play with each other all day, inventing games, laughing loudly, silent only when they fall into their nap on their mother or grandmother’s lap. Tiny beautiful children, the elder is playful with our tour leader who permits himself to be chased him around the boat to squeals of delight. These children have no guile. They have no toys I can see except a couple of skimpy dolls. No television or video games, not here on the boat where they spend so much time. They invent play. They enjoy each other and others. They are a reminder of another time when the imagination was sufficient.
Miles and miles of river pass with hardly a town or village seen, no development. Trees, hills, tiny natural beaches. An occasional oxen. The area is remote and largely pristine. Rock formations are lined with the striations of sediment, perhaps volcanic, as if the ancient wrinkles of a civilization. Large billowy clouds soften an increasingly hot sun. A small statue of Buddha is perched just to the right of the navigator, keeping us on course and in the moment. This journey is like an extended meditation. I can’t imagine a river in the US that hasn’t been marked by industry; then again, I never floated down the Mississippi. One of my comrades remarks that in the western world, at least one spa resort would have been built here by now.
This trip is a good respite from the active sightseeing we’ve completed in Thailand, and all the more soothing for the gentle waves lapping in our wake. Lunch, a six course meal each day, is hot and hearty and largely vegetarian. On the second day, we slow down near the shore to purchase a fresh fish hooked on a rope in the water off a family row-boat. While we cannot understand what they say, it is clear they are negotiating, and the women take the lead on this. They prepare the fish in the back of the boat, in tiny quarters, and serve it freshly fried with ginger and garlic to accompany vegetable soups, noodle and vegetable stir fry’s and of course, the obligatory bowl of rice. None of the family eats until we have completed our meal and they hope that we eat most of what we are served [which is nearly impossible] so as to be assured they have done well.
First, we overnight in Pak Beng, a village of no more than 1/3 miles, with a charming guest house on a hill. The town consists of one single street flanked by stalls, restaurants, a few guest houses and an organic market replete with buffalo hooves. At a family owned restaurant, where the owner proudly tells me that his English teacher is from LA [and he is one of the few Lao I will meet who speaks decent English] we drink shots of Lao-Lao, a rice whiskey. The tradition requires an expression of gratitude with each gulp. Our tour guide expressed thanks for fresh water. A fellow traveler for a safe journey. I express thanks for good health.
In the very early morning, a cacophony of music marks the nearly rising sun – roosters, birds, geckoes and barking dogs. There is no electricity in the village, only generators, so the lights come on at dusk and stay on only until 10 pm, and then again early mornings for the little bit of hot water and such. Food is cooked largely over wood fired grills, and large kettles of water are always boiling to steam rice. We visit a small monastery where two monks are in residence plus three novices. They walk down the street from one end to the other twice a day – at 6 AM and again at 6PM - calling residents to prayer. Houses along the street are largely one story shacks, with one large room divided in part by tatami mats. And even in these primitive surroundings, as darkness falls, families gather together and sit on the floor to watch TV [from Thailand.] However, our local guide, Wan, takes great pride in Lao culture as differentiated from Thai – these countries so often intertwined over centuries at last apart. Thailand is a democracy, Laos socialist {PDR]. We stop once to climb into a cave filled with thousands of small Buddhas and once to visit a remote hilltop village where the families living there have not yet been visited by westerners and they watch us carefully, without fear or hesitation but with definite curiosity, especially the beautiful teenage girls who are giggly over Rob our young stud on the trip. One of the village dogs has given birth to puppies that scamper over our feet, among pigs, cats and chickens, and the essential rooster who surely will announce the day. I’m told the children take boats to a school down river, and that the girls marry very young.
We land in Luang Prabang, a charming small city bounded by two rivers, and surrounded by rural areas. The French influence here is still evident, although not as much as in the capital Ventiane, which will be our last stop in this lovely country.In Luang Prabang,as in many places throughout SE Asia, they believe the spirits of the past reside in the earth. Thus, no one individual may own the land outright and one must always acknowledge those who came before when they settle. They build a spirit house, like an ornate mailbox or birdhouse on a post, so that the spirits have a place to live and keep the peace. They are beautiful sculptures [you’ll see a few in the photos] and I find them enchanting. Someone should do a book about this [Byron please take note] as each is different and all beautiful. During festival seasons or on special occasions, they place flowers on the spirit house and on the one morning it rained while here, someone had perched an umbrella on top for protection from the elements. Note – The Photo above is a spirit house store in Thailand.
This city has a warm and bright aura. At the night market, no one hawks their wares or asserts themselves more than slightly at passers by – they perch at the back of their mats, covered with colorful goods, and smile, hoping for your attention. Farmers sell their produce off the back of small trucks, piled high with potatoes, onions, dragonfruit and such. Curfew is midnight here. As there is no word for no, the word “bo” pronounced with emphasis means not, and is recommended for use to say no to drugs, which of course exist everywhere.
We travel to a gorgeous waterfall where natural swimming pools are formed at several levels, pale aqua in color and not too cold. This place is a lesson in peace – people of all colors and faces line up to jump on the rope hanging off a high branch and into the deepest of the pools. They cheer each other on. Lao’s do not wear bathing suits – they swim in t-shirts and shorts – and women must always cover shoulders and knees. Many western visitors are unaware [or disregard] this cultural modesty and wear bikinis, but there seems no offense. Everyone is young, enjoying a Sunday in a magical spot.
City sounds here are largely motors, like the soundtrack to an old film. A few cars, motorized Tuk-tuk’s, motor bikes/mopeds, small trucks turned into taxi’s,
all old-fashioned hand-cranked sort of motors. Rarely do you hear loud music or loud voices. It is the quiet of restraint. Through the night, silence, until the rooster crows. What I imagine small towns across America once sounded like. Perhaps some still do.
In what is my favorite guest house on the trip, a fully equipped western bathroom
with a toilet that produces a sort of sonic boom every time I flush, as if an airplane is taking off! One day, walking the perimeter, I find myself terribly overheated. I can not make it to a restaurant, so stop at a nearby market for nuts and juice and more water, and OMG, a cup of ice-cream in a freezer there. Maybe the best ice-cream I’ve every had!
Flowers are constant. Everywhere, large clusters of flowers. Trumpet vines, frangipani, hibiscus, orchids. Lantana grows wild along the road. Many unusual blooms in odd shapes. Lots of purple, although I haven’t seen any hummingbirds.
We travel in a van across the mountain to Veng Vieng, a village with dirt roads that has become a way station for backpackers. Like an old American western town, lined with storefront grocers and bars. People are poor here, likely uneducated, although there is a-big new school at the end of the town. However, when I purchase some water and whip out my canvas tote to carry back with me, the clerk smiles broadly and says “Very Good – plastic bad.” They are educated enough to be kind to the earth. Perhaps one of the positives of a tourist based economy, learning the new norms of a larger world.
However, nowhere in SE Asia have I seen recycling bins. Thousands, likely millions of plastic water bottles and soda cans fill garbage bags to overflowing and who knows where they go. Hateful to think of garbage dumps or landfills in these otherwise pristine surrounds, yet cities, even this small way-station attract more and more visitors. Seems to me recycling companies could provide a small local incentive to locals to save plastics and tins for pick-up, employ locals to make those pick-ups and establish recycling centers, selling the by-product for the many other uses these days. A new industry that might help the economy and the earth.
Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of this place and even harder to place in perspective of my own western life. How do we reconcile poverty here with the riches of our lives? How will these people come into a more modern world, beyond internet cafĂ©’s and CNN? Seems to me, South East Asia is encapsulated to a sleepy elder world while its more aggressive neighbors, China and Korea, take the lead.
At dinner at Mama Lao’s cafe we have the most amazing sticky rice pudding with mango – cooked in coconut milk and cream, it is divine. I have the recipe.
On to Ventiane in a separate blog. SE Asia makes me more loquacious than usual!
Note: If you haven't yet enjoyed the photos from the trip, see the link in previous blog entries. Enjoy.

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