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Stories from Month 9

Luang Prabang, Laos

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.

Bangkok, Thailand

National Pride

timIt is early morning in Bangkok's busy central train station. We have just arrived on the night train from the border of Laos and have 11 hours to kill before the next train takes us to southern Thailand.

I am looking down from the second floor at a cavernous hub of activity - people rushing to meet trains, buying tickets, and waiting patiently. At precisely 8:00 a.m. the Thai national anthem starts barking through the PA system, and like God pressing the pause button on his omnipotent remote control, all life freezes below me - the moving stops, the talking falls silent, and those sitting stand up rigidly to attention.

I am amazed from the anthem's start to finish. When it finally ends, life resumes without missing a beat. top

The chedis of Wat Po (Wat Phra Chetupon), Bangkok's largest and oldest Buddhist temple. Aside from its size and architectural majesty, Wat Po is famous for housing the 46-meter long reclining Buddha and for being the premier school of traditional Thai massage. A lotus blossom in Thai Buddhism is thought to rise from the water skyward the way the Buddha rises from earthly suffering towards enlightenment.

Chaiya, Thailand

Buddhist Retreat

michelleIt's six in the morning and I am awake to watch the sunrise. We are on a train, heading south to Chaiya. There, we will participate in a ten-day silent meditation retreat at a Buddhist monastery. I listen to the calm rumble of the train, the sound of passengers slowly rising from their sleeping compartments and the attendants softly treading down the aisle, selling coffee and tea.

As the Thai countryside flashes by out the window, I contemplate what awaits us at our destination. I am nervous, not knowing what to expect. I have never been silent for so long. Not only will my voice be silent, but the things I usually depend on to distract me from myself will not be available either - television, radio, books, and writing. So it will just be my thoughts and me. I wonder if I will enjoy my company or drive myself crazy. I realize that in my 30 years I have rarely been alone for long periods of time. So as the train pulls into the Chaiya station I am filled with some apprehension, but mostly curiosity, of what the next ten days will offer.

It is 8 a.m. and we are some of the first participants to arrive and register at the International Dhamma Hermitage. It is part of the Suanmok Buddhist monastery but this center is set aside for foreigners. The main monastery is a couple kilometers down the road. The center grounds used to be a coconut plantation so the grounds are covered with row after row of palm trees, as well as banana, papaya and Banyan trees. I am immediately struck at the peacefulness of the place.

Before we register I am handed a list of guidelines to read and agree upon. They include: we will rise every morning at 4 a.m. and go to sleep at 9 p.m.; men and women will sleep in separate dorms and eat on different sides of the dining hall; we will only eat twice a day (first at 8 in the morning and then at 12:30 noon); when bathing, we must stay covered. Women should wear a sarong and men should wear shorts. We are asked to dress modestly, making sure our shoulders and knees are covered. We are asked to watch out for poisonous snakes, scorpions, and centipedes (especially in our beds). And of course, no talking, not writing, not reading, and no note passing.

I register and then go to explore my living quarters. A large, enclosed brick building, resembling a fort greets me. The inside of the building has a large communal courtyard with a grassy field. Rooms open into the courtyard and wells for bathing and laundry are spaced in the four corners and 3 sides. I do as I am instructed and take one wooden pillow, one mosquito net, a bamboo mat and a blanket. My room is nothing but a concrete square with a concrete bed, but it is actually much cleaner than many of the guesthouses we have been staying in on this trip.

After situating ourselves, we head back into town to do last minute errands. Upon returning we talk to a few others as they arrive. There is an excited giddiness in the air. People are nervous, curious, and wary. It feels like we are entering a grown-up summer camp.

In our final moments before the retreat starts, Tim and I sit together trying to use words we will silence in the next hour. But not much comes. Already our hearts and minds are becoming more still, preparing for solitude. We wonder what it will be like to be separated after spending 8 months constantly together.

One hundred and forty people have arrived from all over the world. We sit in a large open hall, surrounded by palm trees, sand, and three ponds. People sit on their own square cushion on the cement floor, where we will sit for the next ten days. A bell is rung. The silence begins.

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Schedule

timOne may ask what we do here at the Suan Mohhk Buddhist meditation retreat - how we fill our days. They keep us pretty busy, as this schedule will testify:

  • 04:00 Rise and Shine
  • 04:30 Morning Reading
  • 04:45 Sitting Meditation
  • 05:15 Karate/Tai Chi
  • 07:00 Sitting Meditation
  • 08:00 Breakfast & Chores
  • 10:00 Dhamma Talk
  • 11:00 Walking or Sitting Meditation
  • 11:30 Sitting Meditation
  • 12:00 Walking or Standing Meditation
  • 12:30 Lunch and Chores
  • 14:30 Instruction/Sitting Meditation
  • 15:30 Walking or Sitting Meditation
  • 16:15 Sitting Meditation
  • 17:00 Chanting and Loving Kindness Meditation
  • 18:00 Tea and use of hot spring
  • 19:30 Dhamma Talk
  • 20:00 Walking, Standing, or Sitting Meditation
  • 21:00 Bedtime
  • 22:00 Lights Out
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Symphony in Silence

michelleAt the beginning, keeping silent for ten days seemed like a daunting task. But after five days I am finding it easy and peaceful, even preferable. It is refreshing to be in a group of 140 people and yet there is no opportunity for cliques, no competition for attention and no insensitive statements. Usually in a large group, the louder ones dominate. But here, we are all individuals in the same boat, on the same level. It is refreshing.

So often we talk and never really listen to the words we speak. We spend much of our lives using words to impress, flatter, and convince. The silence has helped me look inside and my mind is able to reflect more deeply and listen on a deeper level.

Without words to clutter the air and mind, other sounds have emerged much louder. The sounds of nature have come alive! There is a symphony going on around us. Fish splash in the pond, birds sing melodies and leaves rustle with rhythm. Dragonflies hum, crickets fiddle tunes and frogs croak in harmony to the beat of the gecko's cry. All with the finale of a "boom!" as a coconut falls to the ground from high above.

Listening to nature, for days on end, has made my heart skip with delight. top

Dawn

michelleEvery morning at 4 a.m. a bell rings, calling us away from our dreams. Night still lingers, the moon still shines, and it will be another three hours before the sun's rays arrive.

I watch the slow change as darkness flows to color - purple to blue, green to gold. We all stand in awe and respect as the sun makes its spectacular morning appearance. There is stillness in the air as the giant orange ball floats above the pond and a midst slowly rises off the water.

It's a great way to start each day.

Nature's first hue is gold Her hardest hue to hold Her early bud's a flower But only for an hour. Then Eden sank to grief As leaf subsides to leaf, As dawn goes down to day Nothing gold can stay. By Robert Frost
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Self-Discovery

timThe journey of self-discovery is a hard one. By the end of our retreat at Suan Mohhk, our 140-member group had dwindled down to a mere 100. Forty people couldn't handle something - the silence, the solitude, the concrete beds, the message, the no smoking policy, or the infrequent mealtimes. Or just maybe, they just didn't like themselves as company.

I understand their feelings perfectly. There were many times this week where I wanted nothing more than to flee the retreat and go to the beach. But these times were mixed with happiness and determination - and that is what kept me working on my mind instead of my tan. When I look back at my journal entries, entries that range from cursing anger to unbridled joy, I can clearly view my normally stable personality vacillating between extremes.

But we didn't meditate about childhood or problems, but rather to watch our minds in action - to watch the cause and effect of our thoughts as they arose. We can compare this meditation to the passive act of watching television. If you watch enough TV you eventually begin to understand where the plot is going to lead before the show ends.

I learned you can do the same thing with your mind - if you watch it carefully enough, you can know where it is going, and if you desire, control the outcome. top

Chaiya, Thailand

The Middle Path

timWe ate just twice daily at Suan Mohhk - a bland breakfast of rice soup at 8:00 AM and coconut curry with brown rice for lunch at 12:30 PM. But that left 19.5 hours between meals with nothing more than a cup of soymilk in the evening. As someone a dietician would call a grazer, I feared growing hungry between meals and ate too much at mealtimes for the first couple of days.

But Buddhism teaches moderation and mindfulness: moderation to eat just what is needed to live a healthy life and mindfulness to enjoy each bite of food fully. Over the 10-day course their lessons sank in - I took less food and enjoyed what I ate more. I experimented until I knew how much food I needed to keep me satisfied and found out that I needed far less than what I was used to eating. And by the end of the retreat, despite deliciously rich coconut curries and 23 hours a day of inactivity, I've lost 5-10 pounds and I feel wonderful. top

Wat Suan Mokkh meditates during sunrise. This Thai Buddhist temple runs ten day silent meditation retreats in English for foreigners." >The abbot of <a href=Wat Suan Mokkh meditates during sunrise. This Thai Buddhist temple runs ten day silent meditation retreats in English for foreigners." />

Ko Samui, Thailand

Return to Civilization

michelleWe made it! After ten days of silence, deep reflection, early mornings and being separated from each other, the retreat was over. Who ever knew meditation could be so hard?

As we stood outside the retreat center along a highway waiting for a bus, cars and trucks zoomed by. The world was brighter, louder, and busier than I remembered. Now we were headed to Ko Samui, an island not far away, to relax on its beautiful beaches.

From the minute Tim and I were reunited our mouths gushed with words. I was astonished at what different experiences we had. For the one-hour bus ride, two hour ferry ride, 45-minute taxi ride, and then late into the night, we talked. We shared our experiences, thoughts, ideas, and observations. We talked philosophy, religion, spirituality, and the meaning of life. We agreed that, although the retreat was difficult at times, the insights we gained were very valuable.

Ko Samui is one of Thailand's most popular beach resorts. I can understand why with its turquoise water, fine sand beaches, fancy hotels and restaurants. We will spend the next couple of days here soaking in the sun's rays, swimming, writing, and reading. top

Ko Samui, Thailand

Next Stop

timWe weighed our two options carefully: either an overnight train followed by 24 hours of travel on some of the worst roads in the world, or a quick 75-minute hop on a regional airline. We chose the easy way from southern Thailand to Cambodia and booked a direct flight from the resort island of Ko Samui to Phnom Penh.

But in coming to Ko Samui to catch our flight, we traded in our usual crowd of backpackers for retirees on package tours and Europeans on holiday. Let's just say, we feel a little out of our element and look forward to being back with the other disenfranchised travel riffraff รป which we will be sure to find in Phnom Penh. top

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Genocide Horrors

michelleThe images made my eyes physically hurt. Tim and I toured the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. The 3-story buildings, surrounded by thick walls and barbed wire, were once a children's school. But in 1976 the Khmer Rouge regime converted it into a prison called Security Office 21 (S-21). Used for interrogating and torturing those the KR deemed as opposition, over 17,000 people passed through the prison before being exterminated at the famous Killing Fields outside of town.

The museum grounds were peaceful as birds sang in plumeria trees and sunshine reflected off playground equipment sitting in a grassy area. Yet there was a disturbing quiet in the air. Disturbing because I knew in this place so many lives were silenced and that the present quiet seemed only to scream the past horrors.

Toul Sleng faceTouring the museum was a sad and sobering experience. On exhibit were rooms used for torture and classrooms converted into cells to house the prisoners. The Khmer Rouge took pictures of every person who entered S-21 and the museum displayed their black and white portraits row after row and room after room. Haunting faces of men, women, and children lined the walls, their eyes telling stories of pain, defiance, terror, or resignation to their fate. Tourists walked around the displays numbly, trying to comprehend how and why fellow humans could be so cruel to one another.

It was a sobering experience and a vivid reminder of the atrocities that had occurred not too long ago here in Cambodia.

Toul Sleng faces
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Wild East

timOur guesthouse is in the middle of Phnom Penh, yet it sits on a dirt road so rutted and rocky that motorcycles can only weave past us at a slow crawl. And even at their slow pace, they churn up red dust clouds that permanently hover between the high security walls that line our street.

Phnom Penh is a living version of America's wild west. Except here, moto drivers are the new cowboys. They've traded in horses for Honda motorcycles, cowboy hats for baseball caps, and cattle for passengers, but their spirit is the same - harsh lives of long hours and hard work. Like horses in front of watering troughs, their motorcycles congregate outside of restaurants, on street corners, and near markets, patiently waiting for the next fare.

Like the wild west, there is a feeling of lawlessness in Phnom Penh that is both freeing and oppressive. It is a place where traffic never stops - the vehicles move into the intersections and right of way is determined by size and speed. It is a place where the low police salary of $20 a month forces every lawmaker to take bribes, so that a man with money can pay his way out of any small trouble with ease. It is a place where limbless land mine victims beg in the dirt street next to a corrupt official's new model Mercedes sedan. It is a place where "happy" pizzas from Happy Herbs Pizza are topped with a special ingredient that is illegal to posses in most countries, and where people can fire machine guns, throw grenades, visit huge brothel areas, and sing all night in the wild west equivalent of a saloon - the karaoke bar.

A sign on our guesthouse wall warns us not walk around after dark or with valuables. In this wild west, it is hard to see what trouble lurks around the next dark corner.

This atmosphere thrives today thanks to 30 years of Cambodian troubles - the American bombings during the Vietnam war, the Khmer Rouge genocide of 1-3 million Cambodian people, the Vietnamese occupation, the years of Cambodia civil war, and the current corrupt government. But now that peace has arrived, foreign aid and investment is slowly helping Cambodia enter the modern world. During our stay in Phnom Penh, we drove on a new US financed highway and heard much excitement about a new Japanese financed highway. We passed several new clothing factories that promise to offer new jobs, and conversely, met a newly arrived labor union organizer who helps these garment workers receive fair wages. Medical care in Cambodia is terrible - 1 in 5 children die before the age of 5 and life expectancy is a meager 51.6 years, but foreign funded hospitals are now beginning to offer free medical care to the needy.

The city is full of western expatriates teaching English, working for aid organizations, and setting up new business ventures. It is an exciting time to be here. top

Bazooka

timThe little boy in me laughed in giddy anticipation as we arrived to the shooting range. I'd heard it was actually possible there to shoot a rocket-propelled grenade and I obviously couldn't let such an opportunity pass me by.

"So how was it?" I asked a 20-something Brit as he was leaving. He replied, "The machine gun was brilliant, but I'd give the grenades a miss." This was definitely going to be fun.

We sat on plastic chairs around a folding table and took a look at the "menu". Thirty rounds with an AK-47: $30. Thirty rounds with an M-16: $30. One grenade: $20. (Could I get that to go? Maybe that would be a bad idea!) One hundred rounds with a tommy gun (think gangsters): $70. Various pistols and other weapons were also listed, but no rocket launcher. How disappointing! I was sure there was a juicy story behind the discontinuation of the rocket launcher option. Perhaps someone launched one at a car or fired it backwards. I asked three Cambodians and received three different stories - and none of the stories were all that exciting. One said the shells were too expensive and loud, one suggested that they didn't have enough room, and the last just said, "not possible." I wondered if it had anything to do with the go-kart track on the other side of the firing range or our close proximity to the airport. But for whatever reason, my plan was thwarted.

Tim with AK-47I ordered the AK-47 and received one Russian-made rifle with folding stock and a clip full of ammo. But then I was told I'd have to fire it in semi-automatic mode. So many rules here in Cambodia - I might as well be home! If I wanted to fire a machine gun I'd have to shell out $70, and that price was much too high for a few seconds of craziness. So I fired my 30 rounds at a target 50 meters away. I'm no Rambo, but I still hit the target 27 out of 30 times and even scored a dead on bulls-eye. The Cambodian who added up my score seemed impressed - apparently I scored really well for a tourist. top