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.
I moved north from Vientiane to beautiful Luang Prabang. In recent years, the city has become known as the gateway to the eco-tourism explosion in northern Laos….trekking, biking, kayaking, etc. It is at the intersection of the Namtha and Mekong rivers and for centuries was the seat of the monarchy - before the rise of communism, and the religious capital of Laos.
Despite, their adoption of a communist government in 1975, Buddhism is an integral part of their society. This small town has no less than 15 temples and monasteries, is home to the famous Luang Prabang golden Buddha, and hundreds of monks young and old. Many Laotians still send their sons to a monastery for few few years to be educated.
Each morning the drums sound from the temples, and the barefoot monks, clad in bright orange robes, leave their homes to walk single file through the streets to receive alms of rice from the locals. Men and women kneel or sit on low stools on the edge of the road with large steaming baskets of sticky rice, placing a small handful in each monks basket as he passes by. There are no words exchanged, in fact, there is no eye contact. In this simple act of daily charity, there is unspoken respect for the life they have chosen and of course, tradition. The procession lasts for about 20 minutes on each street, and then people get back to their day, but this happens every day, every year and has for centuries.
I’m not sure why I find this comforting. Personally I’m not interested in organized religion, but in a world where religion so often comes in the form of extremism, evangelism, and unfortunately hate, it was reassuring to see this rite of daily compassion.
I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets and temples. I walked along the Mekong River, visited the national palace, and climbed a mountain (really a big hill, but that’s what they call it) to view a golden stupa and get some amazing views of the city. As I came home from dinner, I passed a monastery, just finishing their evening payers, lit up, covered in pink bougainvillea, and the orange robed monks closing the doors for the night. I have to say I did feel some of the peace they are always talking about and quietly thanked them for caring for this special place, and the work they do.
When you’re traveling alone, you don’t have the voice of a friend to come between you and the unfamiliar. So those first days on the road, on the other side of the world, can seem almost overwhelming - an assault on the senses - unknown noises, smells and sounds.
As I woke (all too early…jet lag) in Vientiane, I noticed the distinct lack of honking that is so pervasive in other southeast Asian capitals. In fact, all I heard was what sounded like an army of angry squirrels, but turned out to be some sort of small, very noisy bird. As the sun rose over the Mekong River, roosters started crowing…another unfamiliar urban sound and the revving of motorbike engines.
Vientiane is small by comparison to places like Bangkok and Hanoi. It feels sleepier, more like a big small town. This location on the Mekong has been the seat of kingdoms, but it has also been destroyed, over and over and over again, by the Siamese, Chinese, French, and Americans. The city is not old, but throughout there are remanants of its past…a stupa from the Khmer period (once covered in gold, but looted at some point), disintegrating French colonial architecture, Soviet style concrete block buildings, and a few standing temples (wats).
After a short walk through morning traffic (still no honking) I passed through the gates of a small temple complex. As soon as I entered, the street noise faded and the only people I saw were a few young monks in training, studying at a plastic table behind the main hall. Coming from a country where we no longer enter public buildings with out searches, scans and guards, I’m always amazed that these places are so open…that there exists a trust that we will treat these spaces as we should.
After a few more temple visits, I made my way to the central downtown, passing through the “backpacker” district, read cheap guest houses, man buns, batik pants and mostly European languages. I stopped for an iced coffee at what could have passed for a French cafe, eavesdropping and trying to remember my high school French.
I made my way to Vientiane’s oldest religious site, Wat Si Saket, the temple of 2000 Buddhas. Once again I was struck by how quiet it was inside…a couple dressed in traditional Laotian wedding garb for a photo shoot and few older travelers to break the silence. The exterior buildings were filled with bronze, wood, and concrete Buddhas, some damaged, but most staring implacably at the intruder.
I was beginning to wonder just where the noise and commotion of a city of 250,000 was happening, until I got to the market area. The scene was orchestrated chaos - wooden carts, motorcycles, foot traffic, and cars parked on the sidewalk. But unlike other cities, I was never harassed with the infamous “buy something Madam” instead I wandered the stalls, watched an old woman serve lunch from a shopping cart to the vendors and as I left, a few unenthusiastic tuk tuk drivers asked me if a I wanted a ride. They seemed relieved when I said no.
During the hottest part of the day, I wandered the National Museum, in a crumbling French colonial building. It was clear that in a country that has suffered many losses and struggles with wide spread poverty, preserving the national heritage was not high on the priority list (or maybe too much has been lost). Myself and four other visitors wandered room after room of faded photographs and antique weapons laying in the open and held down with wire.
At night, the street vendors came out, Laotian families sat at plastic tables, eating and drinking. The sounds of frying food and beers being opened filled the narrow streets. As I lay in my bed, I finally heard my first car horn. While traveling is so often about seeing things, the sounds we hear or don’t hear often tell us as much about the place we are in.