Greetings all from the heart of Laos! I’m writing from Vang Vieng, sort of a Gimmelwald of Laos… in other words the Laotian version of the Swiss Alps. I walk out of my hotel room onto a balcony that faces the most ethereal, exotic scene! Mountains in the shape of fingers and hands and what not jet up towards the sky, covered by foliage, and below lie palm trees, the village, and the river.
Laos is the 10th poorest country in the world. Until recently they had one phone line going in and out of the country. This communist country has also been known in the recent past for keeping a close eye on all tourists and their whereabouts. There are just a few paved roads, potholes, dilapidated cars, lots of food, and many tuk-tuks for travel.
Laos is also a war-torn country. During the Vietnam War, the United States spent more money bombing Laos to cut off the flow of goods on the Ho Chi Min trail for nine years than it spent on World War II. Despite Laos’ painful past, the country is surprisingly serene and the people are amazingly friendly and gentle.
The physicality of traveling here has been intense. We took a bus from Vientiane to this remote spot where we are now. As all three of us are laid back travelers we caught the bus with seconds to spare and found ourselves sitting on little plastic stools in the bus aisle, with traveling Laotians crammed on either side of us, and pouring out the windows. Our luggage stood on top of the bus. We bumped along on this brain-rattling, gut jarring ride for four hours. When we rolled through dusty villages, the natives charged our bus, forcing fried bats on a stick through the windows. The bats were complete with head, fangs, wings, and fur. I do bugs, but I don’t do bats.
I must admit I have a fixation with bathrooms over here. Perhaps because the western bathroom reflects all that we hold dear. We take them for granted and enter them in comfortable privacy and solitude to relieve and clean ourselves according to the sanitary standards we hold so close to our hearts. I am compelled to describe our hotel bathroom. It is 2 feet by 2 feet and holds a sink, toilet and shower. When the sink is turned on, the water pours down and through the sink onto one’s feet (interesting Laotian concept, I suppose). When the shower is turned on it floods the bathroom. Perhaps the Laotians enjoy multi-tasking for only in this bathroom is it possible to take a shit, wash one’s teeth, and shower all at the same time.
Today we spent the entire day kayaking down the river. We visited villages, held monkeys, explored caves, and swam. I have since learned that monkeys are wise little creatures. The six month old imp that I held refused to trust me until he grabbed my sunglasses and tossed them to the other side of the village. Clearly he had to see my eyes before he could sit in my lap. Then he tried to undress me, but I put my foot down at this.
Rowing down the river was serenely beautiful – we saw Laotian life from dawn till dusk. Women from the hill tribes stood in the waters with a stick in hand fishing. Others waded in, stooped over searching in the waters for something or other, their heads protected by their ‘teepee’ hats. Little children in the buff scampered around the edges of the water. Children no older than ten years carried their little siblings on their backs, wrapped in a blanket. By evening we rowed into town during the golden hour. Women, men and children were performing their evening water rituals, cleaning themselves under the golden sun. All was calm. The day was over, and I was tired!
The adventure continues, full throttle ahead! Today we rented motorbikes and traversed the Laotian outback, through remote villages, across rivers, up mountains and into caves. On this trip I have been fine eating water bugs, falling into bathroom holes, riding busses crammed nose-to-nose with people, but there is one thing that threatened my sense of well-being: caving. Once again the naturalness of life here in the tropics crept up and I found myself knee deep in water in a pitch black cave slowly creeping along, avoiding jagged rocks covered by water, escalating vertical mud walls, crawling for what seemed like miles through tunnels that barely fit me- slowly, one hand in the mud, pulling my stomach and feet along, and trying to avoid the numerous spiders, with their jewel eyes, gleaming against the walls. These spiders are the size of my hands. I felt like I was smuggling myself through an underground tunnel into China.
Once removed from the confines of the cave, our motorbikes landed us in a village where all hundred children crowded around us. They gathered around in bare feet, some without clothes, clutching their long sticks of sugar cane. When Jim took a picture with his digital camera their eyes widened at the picture in front of them. Quite a novelty! They gasped, laughed, and practically smothered Jim in their enthusiasm. Each of us took the children for a ride on our bikes. Two little boys fought each other to ride on the back of my bike, so they both hopped on and with my newly acquired skills we zoomed down the rode.
Through every village we traversed, children bombarded us asking for pens. If I had only known I would have brought a Costco sized package of them to meet their yearning for an education.
I know some of you have asked “Why, why, why?” How can I eat bugs? How can I sleep on beds that are like marble slabs? How can I maintain humor when I am constantly sweaty and grimy? How can I thrive in the conditions I have described? You cannot avoid life here. That is the marvel! While at home we try to valiantly recreate life, here you live life. Life is everywhere… in the air I breathe, in the breath that cools my arm at night while the rest of me sweats, in the coconut juice I eagerly slurp as it dribbles down my face, in the daily lives of the people I observe. Life is everywhere. I feel it. I feel my body in a way I never have.
At home, we have lost a bit of life. We work tirelessly to create fragrances that stimulate our senses to buy certain products. We create new dyes to put in our foods so that they look more authentic. We buy lotions and makeup like they are going out of style, to recreate a period in life that we cling to, valiantly trying never to lose. We buy processed foods that are easy to cook. We do yoga to ground ourselves. Here there is no time or need for such things, because life is purposeful. Lao villagers wake up in the morning and do as they have always done. With more of the finer things in life, the more we work to recreate life.
Here people have a sense of time that is lost to the westerner. It takes time to wash the clothes in the urn, to travel to the next town on a rickety bus, and to care for the pigs. In that time, is a grounding sense of self utterly foreign to westerners who drive in their AC cars, chatting on the cell phone, on their way to the mall.
Within this explanation is the reason why I seek out and explore remote Laotian villages.