Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Brief Jaunt to Laos

I started the journey by bus. I left Chiang Mai later than expected because of a delay in picking another fellow traveler up. We spent the bulk of the day in a minibus driving through rural Thailand. It's a part of Thailand I don't see very often when I'm teaching, even if the majority of people in this country live away from big cities like Chiang Mai.

 However, when you cross the border into Laos, rural becomes RURAL. Laos is a much smaller country in terms of population, and it's been far more isolated economically than it's more populated southern neighbor. It's a bit surreal but for two countries so similar to each other in language and culture, Thailand and Laos are almost twenty years apart in their level of development and globalization. Laos is still in many ways a wild and wooly place much as large parts of Thailand were in the 80s. Taking the boat from the border at Chang Khong to Luang Prabang makes you very aware of this. As our boat propelled itself along through the Mekong, trees were plentiful but people and towns were not. The few communities we saw had houses made entirely of wood, something which I almost never see in Thailand where even rural communities are making houses out of concrete.

 Traveling along the river was like seeing a different world. I say that for two main reasons. First, In an age where human consumption has destroyed so many pristine forests and where Mother Nature domain has receded in the face of human expansion it was comforting to see so much untapped greenery. Granted, much of Laos is being tapped now with China investing in development and more and more deforestation occurring. We saw many large lumber barges, filled with felled logs, heading up and down the river.

 It was also a different world because of the people we did see along the river. The sinewy men working on the lumber barges, the almost nude children who waved and cheered at us as we moved along. The women who sat in the engine room at the back of the boat behind all of the foreign tourists. We saw their world, and perhaps you could say they got a glimpse of ours. But we were truly separated from them. Not just by the water, not just by the meter or so wood between our sitting area and theirs. We were separated by our place in the lottery, the one which decides which universe you will be born into. The world with suburban houses, education and health-care, and access to the latest apple products or the world of grated tin roofs, isolated towns where the nearest school and hospital can be a day or two's walk, and where you spend your days working with your hands and sweat. How strange we seemed to each other I thought as I boy waved incessantly at me.

 Among the fellow sojourners on my boat, there were great discussions and great encounters. I enjoy the company of other travelers more than I used to. The way travelers interact with one another is pretty representative of most relationships we have in life. People come together for a time and share a period of their lives together. Sometimes, bonds are formed. Other times they aren't. But we share ourselves with one another for time.

 After two days, our river-faring days came to a close. We docked, I grabbed a tuk-tuk near the shore and we spent twenty minutes or so weaving through pot-hole peppered roads to reach the edge of the Old City of Luang Prabang. The Old City is one of my favorite places. There's an elegance here that I've never felt anywhere else in the region. Old villas, a fusion of French and Southeast Asian design, dominate the wide clean boulevards. What's even more beautiful is the way these old homes reside harmoniously with the historic Buddhist temples and the small shops and homes where you can see ordinary people cleaning and drying meat and peppers or boiling rice for their daily meals. There's harmony here, a balance between East and West, urban an rural that I doubt you can find anywhere else. I know I'm idealizing it, I'm sure there are flaws with this little corner of the world but honestly I have a hard time seeing them.

 After checking into my riverside guesthouse, I had every intention of taking it easy. I had been to the city before and seen all the sights I wanted to. This time, I had come to relax, read and edit and Luang Prabang was the perfect place to do it all. I got plenty of quiet time, but I had no idea that my visit coincided with Boun Ok Phansa. This festival, celebrated throughout Laos, marks the end of Buddhist Lent and also pays respect to the rains. It's reminiscent of Thailand's Loi Krathong but has unique traditions. There were boat races for several days held on the Mekong river, a lot of Karaoke and much drinking of the national brew Beer Lao.

 The highlight of the festival though was the procession of floats through the Old City. Teams of people, representing local businesses villages and schools lined up along Luang Prabang's main street. Together they carried beautifully made floats to the river where they were released into the water. I was part of dozens of foreign and local onlookers who watched as the floats, many shaped like mythical water dragons and decorated with burning candles, were carried to a temple to be blessed. The fanfare around each float varied. Some teams walked ahead of their boat quietly, carrying paper lanterns. Others danced banging cymbals and drums as they sang and chanted. Kom Lois, paper air-balloons, littered the skies. Small floats made of banana tree and leaf filled the Mekong river. And the temples and villas were brightly decorated with candles and lanterns laid out in elegant patterns.

 I've seen a number of festivals in this part of the world. Yet I can say with some certainty this procession was by far my favorite holiday in Southeast Asia.

 After the festival my last couple of days in the city were quiet and uneventful. I finished my editing, read Khaled Hosseini's latest book  and tried my best to trudge through the last few chapters of The Brother's Karamazov. I also ate more than an advisable quantity of French pastries. Soon it was time to leave the small elegant corner of the world and try my best to get back into my Chiang Mai working mentality.

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