Laos 2013

Sunset on the Mekong River in Vientiane

Sunset on the Mekong River in Vientiane

Sabaidee – hello. Everyone greets me and I greet them in return. Always a smile. Happy when I greet them first.

Say “Mekong River” and I immediately think of the war in Vietnam and all the horrors that went with it. But sunset on the river was innocent.

Vientiane is the capital of Laos. We wandered in the heat past tangled wires, markets, and a school. A half-day tour took us to ancient temples.
Sunrise from our hotel in Phonesavanh

Sunrise from our hotel in Phonesavanh

Roosters woke us in Phonesavanh before dawn. Barking dogs soon joined the chorus. Fog blanketed the hill and we wore our fleeces to protect against the chilly air. I sat on our balcony and watched as the sun burnt the fog and warmed my stiff fingers. First the cell towers then the red tile roofs peeked through the mist until finally the whole valley was visible and only the faraway hills were concealed by fog.

We visited a farm where they teach village women to raise the mulberry plants to feed the silk worms and then to spin and weave silk.
I wonder how a people so badly damaged by my country could be so welcoming. And yet everyone I met in Laos had only a smile for us. The movie we saw in Phonesavanh about the “secret war” – the bombings in Laos left me numb with sorrow, outrage, and shame. We saw landscaping and tools made of the metal left over from the bombs dropped on the countryside.
The Plain of Jars has thousands of ancient jars strewn across the landscape. No one is certain what they were used for. This area was heavily bombed during the war. It saw a lot of fighting as the communists used the jars and nearby caves for protection. Note the bullet hold in the jar. We had to walk carefully along the marked paths – for bombs still litter the countryside.
Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world. Plagued by ordnance that explodes as new fields are sown, villagers still work new fields to feed a growing population, losing limbs and children and cows. And while the country is poor, I did not see starving children, beggars in the streets, homes of cardboard and corrugated metal. Everywhere was clean –the streets unlittered not pock-marked with plastic bags and bottles and trash indifferently dropped as you see in India or some places in Mexico. The markets don’t smell. We drove from Phonsavanh to Luang Prabang, passing through Hmong and Khamou villages.
Luang Prabang is nestled between the Mekong and Khan Rivers. A twenty-mile bike ride through small villages, on dusty roads took us along the river to Pak Ou Caves – ancient caves filled with thousands if Buddha images from very tiny to larger than life size. We piled ourselves and our bikes onto a boat back to the city. The water level was low, exposing tree roots. Locals take advantage of the rich soil, planting crops along the river.
We took an elephant ride into the teak forest near the Khan River and then trekked back. The elephants are domesticated, raised to harvest teak. As the forests have been cut down, there is little work for them any more. Here they have been put to work giving rides to tourists. We checked carefully to see that they were well cared for. The ride in was pleasant – we were amused to see signs naming the trees at “top-of-elephant” level. We ate in the jungle by a beautiful stream, walked back to the Tad Se Waterfall. The water was freezing but welcome after the hot walk.
Up before dawn, we watched the parade of monks going for morning alms. It was the only time we saw this in Laos – though we saw over and over in Burma.
A city tour took us to many temples and to see the sunset at Mt. Phousi. The novice monk is repainting the temple but I was amused to see the earbud.
Food at the night markt in Luang Prabang

Food at the night markt in Luang Prabang

The night market as Luang Prabang had its own energy. All the crafts – scares and clothes, wooden trinkets, and…. – seemed shiny new and exciting, colorful and unseen by us before. A small side street housed food vendors selling skewered meats and smorgasbords of salads, noodles, and rice.

The food markets are replete with fresh vegetables. The rural poor are poor. Dirt poor. But they do not starve. The chef at our hotel takes us to the market and tells us what the different foods are – greens and herbs mostly. But he introduced us also to dried mushroom chips – think potato or banana chips – dried with lime and chilies.Then we took a cooking class!

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