We couldn’t find Laos! All this way from Canada, and the van drivers could not find the Thai – Lao border! After a few u-turns, a bit of paperwork, a 5-minute boat ride, we were in Laos. Lao is about people, truly delightful people who let us see into their homes and their lives. It’s about villagers learning the lost arts of weaving and animal farming. It’s about the mysterious Plain of Jars – what are those things anyway? It’s about MAG and their tireless work ensuring kids are wary of zombies that fit into the palm of your hand but are meant to maim and kill. It’s about 4000 islands in the south and chasing elusive dolphins into Cambodia. It’s about the daily dawn ritual of monks walking through their communities.
A highlight of Northern Laos on this Explore tour for me was a walk on day 3. It was described as a 3.5-hour walk but what they did not say was that we would leave at 9 and get back at 6 because we stopped a lot! They have set up a small area here as an ecotourism project: they take people into remote villages in this biodiverse area. In the meantime, they teach villagers how to weave, so they have a product to sell the tourists being brought in and how to farm with animals rather than the traditional slash and burn.
I shot about 4 rolls of film in one day, which tells you how much I enjoyed the day. We were all sunburnt and hot, so we stopped at the internet café for chocolate cake on the way back to the hotel! Always a good idea to eat dessert first – life can be uncertain! A day or so later, we took a boat from Nong Khiaw on a trip down the Nam Ou river, which joins the Mekong just above Luang Prabang. The 5 – 6 passenger boats are long narrow skiffs with the motor at the back but the driver at the front.
The river is relatively narrow, so it was straightforward to see what the people were doing along the way. You could smile and laugh with them and, of course, wave! Some people were even panning for gold, if you can believe it! Others were washing all manner of things aside from themselves. We saw tiny boys – age 4 even – paddling around in canoes all alone, parents nowhere to be seen. We noticed some very primitive small “hydro” stations where the river ran faster over the rocks. Just enough speed to generate a bit of power for their homes. Quite incredible. We saw people coming to the sandy outcrops mid-river to fill sacks full of sand to use for construction in their home area.
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It must be a very steep uphill battle for the government and NGO’s in the area to teach people to look long term when there is such an immediate need for water closer to home than the nearest well and a little electricity. Luang Prabang is the friendliest small town. At one of the main temples, they have made many local life mosaics on the sides of two of the stupas. The mosaics are made from glass and, of course, shine in the sun. The scenes that are created on these walls are just unique and so colorful. Life in Lao – people falling into a well, others praying, kids feeding a dog, cornfields, monks strolling, elephants herds walking.
I have never seen anything like it before, and it was great. It is a sluggish town and very hot here (even the main shopping is done at the night market). At dusk, most of the group climbed to the top of the hill in the center of town for a 360-degree vista of the area including the Mekong. At about 5:30 the next morning we went back to that same temple to see the people offer monks their food for the day. In Buddhism, people gain merit by giving to the monks. Many tourists now go out to see the procession, and as the Explore leader explained, it is almost more for the tourists now than for Buddha. Interestingly some street kids had set up a spot for themselves with plastic bags and bamboo bowls laid out so the monks would scoop some food out of their bowl and put it into the kids’ bowls. Circle of life. It was quite a long procession – about 12 monks altogether, and as the tourists scrambled about trying to get photos of all this giving of food, we must have looked quite the sight.
The basis of the ceremony is very human, and I like that part of it. I had seen a similar ceremony earlier in the trip and I could not help but compare. As we waited outside our family-run guest house, 3 monks came along the road. The lady next door was waiting for them: she was sitting on a mat. They circled around her, she bowed her head, they said a few words – prayers perhaps, she passed them the rice, she turned her head again, and the monks continued on by. So which is Laos? Both most certainly. The enchantment of the place is that it still retains the one-on-one element: you can feel the people here and feel their humanity. But if you think about life from their perspective, they are keen to have faring come, stay in their guesthouses, buy their wares, see their sights, use their internet cafes. Laotians are ready for all these things. But given the historical events of the last 50 years, the one right thing is their religion. So it becomes a struggle to satisfy all sides of life.
I asked what the monks do all day. They chant/pray just twice a day, and the boy monks go to school. They are taught in a school just for monks, but in small village areas, they are in a village school with all the kids. No one is allowed to touch them or play with them, though. I thought this sounded quite lonely. You may know that everyone is supposed to become a monk for a while in their life—a tough decision. As a parent, if you give your child to the monk-hood, the child will be schooled and fed for free and the family gains merit for the next life. Sounds pretty good – but as you grow older, there is no one to look after you so a bit of a downside as well.
During the Vietnam war, there were some air bases in Thailand. If the weather was bad and “they” could not drop their bombs on the Vietnamese target, “they” dropped them off in Laos on the way back to the airfield. “They” were too worried to land with bombs on board so “they” dropped them off indiscriminately in Laos. The estimate is 90 million special cluster bombs. A cluster bomb is a shell casing with about 670 mini zombies inside. Each mini bombie fits in the palm of your hand. Inside the mini bombie, there are about 300 ball bearings. On impact, the ball bearings scatter to a range of about 30 meters. The bombs are armed somehow by the number of rotations they do in the air before impact. Some bombs did not explode when they landed because they had not rotated enough. And that is the situation Lao deals with today. Estimates here are that there are up to 30 million bombs still active. They landed anywhere and everywhere – in trees, on houses, in crowded people places – and so now they are trying to find these and set them off safely.
A British group called Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is doing this important work and doing a great job. Lao people need to be educated as these babies can tread on or picked up by curious kids etc at any time. The bombers may have been under the ground for a while, and then a heavy rain will uncover them. Curious kids might have played in that area for months, and suddenly, a bombie goes off.
It is a tough decision to decide where to do the bomb location work. According to the director, they call a meeting of all the local mayors and have a discussion. We were told that the area most in need of safe agricultural land gets slated for mine clearance first. So far, about 90% of the land cleared has been farming. As usual not enough people have been trained to do the work and more money/donations to buy newer, faster equipment would help a lot. So far in 10 years, with 12 teams of experts, after 2 months of training each, they have cleared 200,000 bombs with only 2 of their employees getting hurt.
We had the opportunity to go to a bomb site. I can tell you we were cautious to walk in someone else’s footsteps and listen to instructions! Then we watched as they detonated 2 bombs in someone’s field. From there, we went to the SOS orphanage in town and sang “Hokey Pokey” with the kids. And a fantastic Indian curry for dinner! It was finally time to head to the south of Lao so, for only the third time in the whole tour, we had a 12 hour day on the road. Our tour leader paced the day just right and we got into Pakse about 7 pm, in time for dinner at the hotel’s roof-top restaurant! A delightful way to end the day.
Another boat was our mode of transport, stopping off first at Wat Phu. Built-in the 5th century – even before Angkor Wat – as a Hindu Temple. It was converted to a Buddhist Temple in the 14th century. I learned that a “Makara” is a cross between an elephant, a fish, and a crocodile. It is always shown in profile and usually on the lintel of a Hindu Temple. The doorway under this “Makara” marks the passage from the material world to the spiritual world. Back in the boats again to meander through the 4000 islands: destination Muong Khong. 2 wonderful nights in one of the best hotels on the tour were spent overlooking the river. It’s a lazy place with the days passing in scorching heat and desultory mosquitoes. A cool drink, a walk to the temple, a cool drink, time at the internet café, a cool drink, a nap, a cool drink, dinner: you get the idea!
Our Explore tour leader had been working in Lao for about 5 months. She would take pictures of the people she met in the villages, get them printed on her days off in Bangkok, and then hand out the photos the next time she passed through. What a treat this was for the villagers as in one of two instances, someone had died, and she was able to provide a picture of the person for their loved one to treasure. In another village, early in the season, she had asked the chief what the village needed, was there something we could buy or bring to them as a way of saying “thanks” for showing us their way of life?
Turns out the villagers use slash-and-burn agriculture so they needed some new knives. She told us this story before we arrived, as she did with every group. All of us then had the chance to buy a knife which she then presented to the chief. He was great as he had a book with columns etc. and had a checkmark for everyone who had received one already and the people who still needed one. So we felt profitable by helping the village down the road by buying their knives, we gave them to this village to say thank you, the chief was able to show his people he was looking after them, and the villagers got new knives. It comes down to sharing. For the Lao, it’s instinctual, never a second thought to sharing what they have.
When the Explore leader asked us to describe Lao in one word, I chose generously. It’s a generosity of spirit I saw in everyone we met that enabled me to share in their lives for just a minute. How fortunate, how privileged, I feel looking back and remembering our laughter. It comes down to sharing. For the Lao, it’s instinctual, never a second thought to sharing what they have. When the Explore leader asked us to describe Lao in one word, I chose generously. It’s a generosity of spirit I saw in everyone we met that enabled me to share in their lives for just a minute. How fortunate, how privileged, I feel looking back and remembering our laughter.