It’s December, it’s cold, and it’s time for a sun-drenched elsewhere. So, for the ‘I’ve lost count’ time, the warmer temps of Asia are calling us out to play! Our love affair with ‘every-day-is-an-adventure-Asia’ began 25 years ago, and coincidentally this year happens to be the 25th wedding anniversary year for Christine and myself. Our plan is to round out the year marinating in the culture of the landlocked kingdom of Laos.
Immediately it becomes apparent that the usual mayhem of Asian cities is absent here in the ancient city of Luang Prabang, as this sleepy little town exudes a mellow spiritual aura in line with the multitudinous Buddhist temples dotting the landscape.
The pleasantness is remarkable for a country struggling to overcome the devastation caused when the Vietnam War violently spilled over across the border, with the U.S. dropping more than 2 million tons of bombs. The resilient Laotians now use those same bomb craters as fish ponds and as water holding tanks for irrigating their crops.
Every morning with day swallowing the night, a drum signal from century old monasteries sets in motion a river of orange-robbed, sandal-footed Buddhist monks. Carrying ornate bowls to collect their daily alms, they glide along streets silently except for the soft swish of their robes fanning out behind them. For us, this daily ritual is as romantic a scene as any in Asia.
As the little town slowly comes to life, Lao women gently sweep the roads with bamboo brooms, in an early morning mixture of the mundane and the magical. People murmur in gentle whispers and even the street mutts are well behaved. It’s as if the whole country has taken a Valium. There’s a saying in Asia: Vietnamese plant the rice, Cambodians harvest the rice, Thais sell the rice, and Laotians listen to the rice grow! From what we’ve seen, it seems to be true, as only every now and Zen does one find such a truly special place.
At Villa Sayhkam guesthouse, we snigger reading the English translation of ‘house rules’, including rule #5 which states: ‘Do not any drugs, crambling or bringing in both women and men which is not your own husband or wife into the room for making love.’ No sir-ree, I would never consider ‘crambling’ here! During breakfast in the guesthouse garden we’re serenaded by the beat of a drum and the soft chanting of monks drifting through a brilliant bougainvillea hedge separating us from the Buddhist temple next door.
Exploring either by bike or on foot, we are regularly greeted by the people’s whisper-like hello greeting of ‘Sabaidee’, and when we’re not burning off calories we’re ingesting them, as we munch our way along the cobbled streets on our Lao culinary safari. Then of course, we have to stop for the mandatory massage; a pleasant hour of being pulled, poked, prodded, and pampered to perfection.
At a silk village we observe the entire process of how the ‘Queen of Textiles’ is made; including the wriggling white larvae doing a little munching of their own in a bed of mulberry leaves. Not to be outdone by the worms shedding silk, the ‘Queen of Spend’ demonstrates her exceptional talent at shedding cash! Coming as no revelation, yours truly is the one who ends up mulishly transporting back her plethora of purchases. Luckily for me, this time she’s purchasing silk instead of stone!
Blinking myself awake at a ridiculous hour, I exit the guesthouse in the black of night in a dare-devilish, ‘Carpe Noctem’ mood. I’m on a covert mission to try and retrace my way to a bombed out monastery seen yesterday while cycling; hoping to capture a quality picture at daybreak. Warily, I stumble my way out of town to a rickety bamboo bridge. With the night still holding the upper hand, I laboriously grope my way across the bridge by braille, with the roar of the Khan River below running full, fast, and angry. This is a situation unquestionably focusing the mind and tightening the sphincter!
As the sky inches towards dawn, I’m immensely pleased to actually locate the monastery. Waiting patiently in the stillness for daylight, I’m startled by a monk who appears out of nowhere and questions my presence. The English-speaking robed one and I strike up a conversation wandering across many topics, becoming both teachers and students as we discuss our perceptions of each other’s cultures.
Suddenly a burst of orange appears, and 11 other right-shoulder-bared monks quickly gather outside the monastery. The monk I’m chatting with says to me, ‘Where you go now’? Telling him that I have no plans, his prompt reply is, ‘You come with us’. Like white on rice, I am all over this remarkable opportunity!
Quickly and silently, the twelve saffron cloaked monks and I are off, striding through the rice fields along narrow muddy paths; they carrying alms bowls, and I, my trusted camera. Tagging along behind the bare footed monks with barely enough light to see, I try to keep pace and not slip, as I don’t fancy planting my nose in the muddy water along with the abundantly sprouting rice.
Approaching the first little village, several people kneel in prayer on hand-woven bamboo mats, hoping for a blessing from the monks. The robbed ones walk by the villagers collecting their alms, and then stop, standing in straight line on the dirt road. Unsure what to do with myself, my friend sees me with a blank stare akin to a pig looking at a wristwatch, and instructs me to join the line of monks. My new orange-robed friends begin chanting some sort of blessing for the people, with me uselessly lip-syncing alongside.
I sense the locals are totally bewildered at seeing an outsider with the monks, and wonder if they’ve ever witnessed anything like this before. Villagers respectfully bow with hands raised palm to palm below their chin. One lovely lady kindly offers me rice even though I do not have a bowl. Loath to hurt her feelings, I birth a smile and thank her, while depositing her rice in my pocket. Then, without a word, the monks shuffle off, with me again trailing along behind. Who’d ever of thunk; Mr. Mark – ‘The Thirteenth Monk’!
This procedure is repeated at several more stops along the route, with a few interesting encounters along the way; including an inquisitive army guy riding a kiddie’s bike who stops, wanting to know what is going on. After making the rounds and alms finished, the monks and I silently return to their monastery.
I thank my shaven-headed friend profusely for the wonderful privilege bestowed upon me. We shake hands before he and his colleagues withdraw back inside their temple; leaving me standing there, still trying to wrap my head around what just happened. Wow; this Lao morning is a whole lot of special! Hugging my secret, I hike back to our room to share my amazing encounter with Sleeping Beauty, who is still in bed.
Quite by accident this afternoon Christine and I stumble upon a captivating outdoor bar aptly called Utopia. The modest entrance opens up to an eclectic mix of militia ordinance, hammocks, water gardens, and a huge BBQ made from a bomb casing. This brilliant watering hole is a lovely place to chill and enjoy some liquid inspiration while perched on a bamboo platform suspended out over the cliffs overlooking the Khan River far below. All right then, just five more beers, and then I really must be going!
After negotiating a price for a scruffy sputtering tuk-tuk that looks as if it’s been around since Jesus was in Pampers, we bounce over wretchedly rutted roads towards the ‘Whiskey Village’. Relieved to reach the smidgen of a village, we jump out and check to see if any of our dental fillings have been jarred loose!
The village has two industries; whiskey making and weaving. Coincidentally, I too have been known to partake in a little weaving after whiskey! I digress. As well as horridly harsh ‘Cobra Whiskey’, they’re trying to flog bottles of booze ghoulishly infused with scorpions, lizards, and any other critters they’ve managed to harvest. Wisely deciding to pass on this piss, we opt for a safer option of buying a few scarves as gifts.
Today we travel out to the hill tribe villages of the Hmong and Khmu people, and la-de-da-ing through the villages, hand out toys, dolls, and dozens of pencils brought from home. We notice one lovely young girl with her baby brother in a pouch slung across her back; her dress is soiled and her face forlorn. Little girls don’t belong in frowns – little girls belong in smiles; so we present her with a Barbie doll as a gift.
Her dark eyes open owlishly with surprise when she realizes the doll is hers to keep, and her little face births a dimpled smile that lights up the entire village. These grateful little ragamuffins are absolutely lovely, and on receiving any little item, graciously offer a thankful ‘nop’ by respectfully bowing from the waist with hands clasped in prayer-mode with fingers pointing heavenward.
On our last afternoon in this enchanting country, we boat along the mighty Mekong River observing locals engaged in their daily activities along the river and its shore. With the day sliding away and a sinking crimson sun hanging like a colossal red balloon over the horizon, we pensively reminisce on the WOW of Lao; which top to bottom has qualified as one of our favorite all-time happy places in all of Asia.
In search of sand, we continue our travels through Bangkok, Phuket, and Phi Phi Island to finally reach the shores of Koh Lanta, a predominantly a Muslim Island in southern Thailand; although for the life of me, with all the islands available, I have no idea why we chose this one.
The sprawling beaches are studded with little beach cafes, and we enjoy long walks amused by little crabs fleeing sideways across the sand in evasion mode. However, our accommodation on the island is a real buzz-kill, being harassed to distraction with the menace of incessant marauding mosquitos with a real appetite for white meat! Their exasperating high pitched droning in our ears keeps invading our dreams.
Our ineffective bug spray is wearing thin, and so too is our patience. Scratching itchy welts each morning, it’s hard to focus on anything other than a prompt eradication of the bad beaked little bastards, and combined with the fact we’ve already biked all the nooks and crannies of the island, our enthusiasm has withered to the point of this now being a meaningless pilgrimage.
Our hearts are no longer in it; clearly we left them behind, in the magic of Laos.
Mark Colegrave Jan 2010