Time Well Spent


I travelled by minivan and then by boat to reach the villages of Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi and others in northern Laos. The river winds between mountains, long boats are scattered along the riverfront, and small foot paths lead uphill from the shore to the mostly unseen villages. Each has a dusty road down the center, chickens and dogs wander freely, and small kitchen gardens attached to bamboo houses. The rice fields lay outside of the village, along the mountain slopes and valleys.

The difference between a big village and small village is the number of families that reside there - 30 versus 150. Everyone is connected to someone. Children may attend school in their own village, if it is big enough, or spend the weekdays away from home and return on the weekends to help the family. Most are farmers or fisherman. Wealth is determined by the number of cows you own, or acres you farm. Families provide all of their own food and a successful farming family earns $750 per year from their surplus crops or the selling of handicrafts.

In northern Laos, there is a never ending stream of work to be done, collecting firewood, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner over an open fire, washing clothes by hand, weaving, feeding the animals, planting and tending the fields…the list goes on. But nothing seems to be done in a hurry. There is a pace and rhythm - rainy season, growing season, harvest time, making bamboo baskets time; spinning time, and time with family and neighbors.

I had only been in Laos a few days and my western brain was still running at top speed - accustomed to asking “what next?” and the never ending stream of multi-tasking and busyness that surrounds all of us. As I hiked up the rocks to summit the 100 waterfalls (another thing on my list), my guide said, “you can stop, rest, take a picture, you’re on holiday.” Point taken. I slowed my pace, looked around a little more and fell into the rhythm of the climb. I eventually got to the top and the view was that much more special.

The next day, we trekked to the Ban Naa village, a relatively prosperous village by Lao standards. One villager, Mama Khan and her husband, had begun running a guest house for backpackers - a simple bamboo bungalow without indoor plumbing. They also had a small restaurant (three tables under a bamboo roof). After my guide and I ordered our lunch, I watched an aging Mr. Khan scale a neighboring tree to gather some tamarind for the salad, then walk to the garden to harvest some vegetables for the noodles; and Mama Khan gather the pots and stoke the fire, and so it went. We sat overlooking the rice patties for about an hour while the elderly couple worked on lunch. It definitely would not qualify as fast food, but I remembered there was no where I needed to be, except where I was right at that moment.