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Stories from Laos

Huay Xai, Laos

Pakbeng Slow Boat

timI was curious why the boatman from the slow boat to Pakbeng insisted on putting our bags on top of the boat during the rain, despite the fact the inside of boat was virtually empty. But I sat down on one of the long wooden benches that ran the length of the craft and quickly put that thought out of my mind.

The boatmen's shoes lay piled near the entrance of the boat, as they would in any home - this was their house, of course. Clean straw mats covered the floor and laundry hung from the walls near the captain. As I began to get comfortable, 30 other backpackers stomped into the captain's home with muddy shoes. So much for solitude, people filled every available space on the boat.

The Mekong River runs 4350 km down from the Tibetan Plateau through China, carves the border between Burma and Laos and parts of the Thai border with Laos, continues through Cambodia, and ends in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta. It was the dry season here and with the lack of rain, the river ran low and much of the jungle displayed the rich colors of fall - the reds, yellows, and oranges of home. The river still looked mighty to me as we shot through a fast moving gorge, but high above my head I could see the waterline of the wet season, where the river rocks thinned out and the trees started to grow.

Despite the occasional speedboat hammering past us and jarring me to the present, I spent the five-hour trip looking out of the boat as if it were a window to the past. There was not a factory in sight. Thatched bamboo houses conglomerated on hilltops to form occasional villages. Fishermen strained to cast weighted circular nets over the sides of their old wooden longboats, much like they have been doing since their ancestors arrived. Naked boys played on the muddy shore while their mothers washed clothes nearby. Water buffaloes sunned themselves. Rows of green vegetables sprouted from the sandy shore of the river - farmed only during the dry season when the land is not under 10 feet of water. A team of five elephants, each chained to an enormous tree trunk, pulled lumber down to the shore to an awaiting boat.

We passed a bright aqua-blue longboat travelling in our direction. Three Lao women peered outside at us from an orange-framed doorway, staring at our boat full of nappy backpackers. I stared back at them from the shady darkness of my seat. Their expressions seemed to question what life would be like as one of us, and I couldn't help but to wonder about the reverse. Our bodies were only feet apart, but our minds and cultures seemed distanced by years. top

Entering Laos

michelleYesterday, as we journeyed east on a bus toward the Thai/Laos border it was evident it was the dry season. Fields were yellow and brown and the ground parched and cracked. But we crossed over several mountain ranges and hundreds of miles to arrive in Chiang Khong, where the air was a little cooler and damper.

Last night we fell asleep to the sound of rain. This morning the air was thick with wet and gray. To cross the Laos border we caught a long boat across the Mekong River.

Laos was a country we never planned on visiting. But after meeting so many travelers who said it was their favorite country in Southeast Asia, we started to think about adding it to our itinerary. Just recently open to foreign visitors it still has the charms of a country not yet polluted with much tourism.

But our decision to visit Laos was also met with caution. The U.S. State Department warned of a recent string of bombings of tourist spots in the capital of Vientiane. Explosions have occurred in the post office, an internet cafe, restaurants and the Morning market. There were also warnings of bandits on the highways. After much thought and a call to the US embassy in Thailand we decided to go.

So it was with a little trepidation as I sat on the long boat and approached the Lao border this morning. The low gray sky and midst on the river gave our arrival an eerie, mystical feel.

Once we filled out the appropriate papers, changed some money to Laos kip and added another stamp to our passports, we headed out of town by foot to find the slow boat which would take us on a two day journey down the Mekong River. With our packs hoisted on our backs we made our way down a dirt road. Chickens and ducks ran across our path and old women ate a breakfast of noodles at small tables along the road, cackling and laughing without teeth.

As we passed a large white wall I noticed two small boys peering over at us. When our eyes met their heads popped up fully in view, and one of the boys gave us a thumbs-up sign accompanied by a smile. I accepted this as a symbol for our time in Laos - a greeting, a welcome, and a sign that everything would be okay. top

Pakbeng, Laos

Photos

timPhoto check-in. top

A beautiful morning sunrise on the Mekong River. The photo is taken from the small Laotian town of Pakbeng, a stopover on the two-day riverboat trip from Thailand to Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Orange Robe

timThe That Chomsi Stupa is a Buddhist monument perched on top of a 100 meter hill in the middle of picturesque Luang Prabang. At night the golden stupa can be seen from far away and, by day, makes an excellent place to watch the mountains, streets, and Mekong River from above.

I met 15 year old Novice Sinethana here while sitting on a flight of stairs. He approached me nervously, out of breath from the steep climb up. His skinny brown body, shaved head, and orange robes clashed with the clear blue sky as much as his timid eyes clashed with his big smile.

We exchanged hellos in Lao and he began - what turned into an hour conversation - by asking how long I'd been in Luang Prabang.

Novice Sinethana joined a nearby monastery at the young age of four, and will remain a novice until he becomes a full-fledged monk at age 20. For the last nine years he has been teaching himself English and the language of the Theravada Buddhist texts, Pali Sanskrit. He wakes everyday at 4 AM and spends his mornings studying, meditating, and while he didn't say this to me, probably going on alms rounds collecting food and attending to other needs of the monastery. He eats only twice a day, both times before noon. (I met him in the afternoon, so he pointed to his stomach and joked about being hungry.) And in the afternoon, he swims in the river like other people his age.

We only talked about simple things and, despite our dictionary consultations, he had trouble understanding my English at times. But I loved the way he kept our conversation going by sheepishly reading questions from a cheat sheet hidden in his orange shoulder bag and I admired the effort he put into learning. Most importantly, I enjoyed meeting such a kind person.

The next time I come back, I hope that Sinethana will be able to have an English conversation with me about some abstract facet of Buddhist thought. I have a feeling that, for him, it won't be a problem. top

Laughter

timIt is late afternoon by the Mekong River. The setting sun descends behind a tooth shaped mountain and spreads a crisp warm glow down to the dark earth of the riverside. With each of my steps, the soil releases an earthy sigh - the clean smell of dirt spirals together the pungent odor of plasticky trash fires and gasoline from nearby longboats - the perfume of the third world.

Scraps of white debris polka-dot the brown landscape. The dots clash with the lines of sudsy white runoff that trail down from the road above and carve deep polluted ravines in the soft ground.

A sunned brown child scampers past me with thudding footprints and an infectious white toothy smile, his homemade kite chasing closely behind him in a zigzag effort to take flight. He screams merrily - as if the extra breath might take the kite higher. For a brief moment I'm sucked into his world and share in the joy of a boy at play. He runs off to join his friends and in a chorus of happy laughter, the hard edge of their makeshift playground suddenly softens to the warm colors of sunset. top

Laos Photos

timThe Mekong River and the people of Laos.

Children fly kites from on top of an old wreck:

A boat at sunset:

A hilltribe woman in the market sells crafts:

Kids sit in an old car waiting for their father:

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Damaged wooden carved Buddhas and other statues lie stacked in the back of Luang Prabang's Wat Xieg Thong, Laos. Damaged wooden carved Buddhas and other statues lie stacked in the back of Luang Prabang's Wat Xieg Thong, Laos. Two long-eared fuzzy dogs in the doorway. The picture says it all. Distinctive looking riverboats tethered to the Mekong riverbank outside of Luang Prabang, Laos. Novice Buddhist monk, Sinethana, sits on a wall at a highly visited area of Luang Prabang, striking up conversations in English with the tourists to meet new people and improve his language skills. An old woman in Luang Prabang, Laos, relaxes in a chair. Intricate gold leaf and red paint doors at one of Luang Prabang's well known monasteries, Wat Xieng Thong. A riverboat on the Mekong River, Laos. Children fly a kite from the top of an old wrecked boat along the shore of the Mekong River. Longboats on the shore of the Mekong riverbank in Luang Prabang, Laos. Three Laotian children look curiously out the window of their parents' pickup truck in Luang Prabang, Laos. Children play in the Mekong River.

Vang Vieng, Laos

Wheels

timI live in the city, so I love the convenience of the sporty small car. The smaller the better. In fact, my dream car used to be my neighbor's Cooper Mini - a tiny British toy that should have been used in a circus act with 15 trapped clowns waiting to spill out from its tiny doors. It is so small I could perpendicular park it on a street full of parallel-parked cars.

But travel has opened my eyes to a whole new classification of small vehicles with style. What Senator's head wouldn't turn as I blasted past Washington DC's U.S. Capitol building in a three wheeled colorful Thai tuk-tuk? The thunderous noise of its small propane engine, the noise that gives the tuk-tuk its onomatopoeia'd name, would rattle every window in the Senate office buildings. I'd be on the single front seat laughing, with one hand on the boomerang shaped steering wheel and the other perversely tucked between my two front legs on the strangely positioned gearshift lever.

But the tuk-tuk would be just the beginning of my collection. As the Vietnamese and Thai, I'd need a 110 cc Honda Dream motor scooter that pushes a two-wheeled cart with bench seats. Or maybe one each of the two Laotian versions, the first that pulls a two-seater rickshaw and the second that sweeps its passengers along to the side. The envy of the town!

Finally, I'd round out my collection with bicycles like the Vietnamese cyclo, a one-seat pedal powered rickshaw on which the driver sits behind the passenger and steers by pushing the passenger's seat. Why should I bike through D.C. just for exercise when I can make money at the same time? Of course, I'd have to modify the seat to accommodate fat American behinds, but that shouldn't be too difficult. If the tourists got too heavy, I'd just head down Pennsylvania Avenue selling cut flowers and bread from overflowing woven baskets suspended off my back wheel. I've got it all figured out. top

Vang Vieng Life

michelleSlow. Steady. Peaceful. These are my impressions of the Mekong River and equally of the country of Laos. Most of our two weeks here has been spent floating on top of the river, walking on its banks, or watching people work and play in its water.

Laos has the smallest population density in Southeast Asia and it is evident in the quiet streets, lack of development and laid-back atmosphere. The small town of Vang Vieng is no exception. A couple hours north of Vientiane (Laos' capitol), life here is as slow as the river which flows through it.

While in Vang Vieng we explored hill tribe villages, balanced over thin bridges (made of two bamboo poles tied together), and walked four kilometers deep into a cave to swim in its pools by candlelight. In the late afternoon we sat lazily in black inner tubes as the river carried us downstream. Water buffalo watched us with indifference, submerging their heads underwater when the flies became too bothersome. Children played, women bathed, and men fished. We enjoyed soaking in the simple, quiet life of the people here. top

Images of Laos

michelleSome pictures from Laos...

Monks looks out a window at a temple:

A baby in a hilltribe village doesn't want to take his bath:

Buddha statues at a wat:

A sunset over the Mekong River:

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Vientiane, Laos

Photos

timPhoto check-in. top

An up-close look at a carved lotus blossom decorating Pha That Luang (the Great Sacred Stupa), the most important monument in Laos. This Buddhist monument is considered a national  treasure and is depicted on the 5000 kip Laotian currency. An up-close look at the carved lotus blossoms decorating Pha That L uang (the Great Sacred Stupa), the most important monument in Laos. This Buddhist monument is considered a national treasure and is depicted on the 5000 kip Laotian currency.