My time in Laos was spent loafing about the city and wandering through the countryside–down dusty roads, through villages, to waterfalls, and up mountains by motorbikes and mountain bikes. We visited Laos’ two biggest cities–Vientiane and Luang Prabang–which were not big at all. These big cities are really just a few big roads. The rest of the country lives on farms, in villages, in places that remain unchanged, unlike its rapidly progressing neighbors. It takes roughly 90 seconds to escape the street lights, the city life and the tourism. Life in Laos still moves at a somnolent speed. Everyone seems quiet, languid, slightly removed. People are lost in their own thoughts and seemingly indifferent to what is happening around them. A sharp contrast to Thailand’s hurried pace and always helpful, concerned and, at times, intrusive nature. In Laos there is no need to give praise or save face. I see a more individualistic culture. More focus on the personal journey than the collective story.
My favorite moments in Laos:
1. Standing in the middle of the Mekong at dusk. Watching the sun slip closer to the horizon and become swallowed by a slash-and-burn smoke cloud that habitually smudges the sky with charcoals. Dozens of children kick around a makeshift soccer ball and slide down the mud walls that form the river’s banks. Teenagers go for walks holding hands–girls laugh innocently and boys dunk them underwater. They are unsupervised, unafraid, and carefree. So unbelievably free. In this moment, I am envious of this magical childhood that I have never known.
The mighty Mekong is perhaps more important in Laos than any other country it passes through. The river supplies its neighbors with hydroelectric power, one of Laos’ main sources of national revenue. It connects small riverside villages and provides 2/3 of the rural population with a large selection of biodiversity for fishing. It is a major trading route that connects landlocked-Laos with four surrounding countries. It is a place where children play and families bathe, where men fish and women wash their clothes. A place where people sit and think, cows and buffaloes roam free, and monks shed their robes and behave like brothers. It is revered in the eyes of the animists who depend on it. For life, memories, meaning.
2. Peeing on the side of the road with approximately 80 Laotian strangers. Our 12-hour-long local bus ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang was a doozy. The route was mostly serpentine and entirely uphill, with only mountains and cliffs framing the road for miles on end. When it was time for a bathroom break, our driver opted to pull over to a small, grassy patch of land. The only two farangs on the bus, Ryan and I were giddy when we realized what was about to take place. The other passengers–the Lao locals–however, did not seem the least bit surprised or fazed by the imminent situation. Without hesitation, they dropped their pants to the ground, hiked up their skirts, and squatted in an orderly fashion. Men on one side, women on the other. I tried to play it cool alongside my peeing partners, but I could not contain myself. I was rejoicing in the moment and thrilled to share this experience with the locals, to be a part of a situation where basic human needs come before feelings of embarrassment or societal expectations of propriety. If ya gotta go, ya gotta go.
3. The motorbike ride to Kuang Si waterfall. Being drenched every few kilometers by buckets full of water flung at us by children celebrating the Lao New Year one day early. Driving slowly and somberly behind a funeral procession comprised of one pick-up truck carrying a coffin laden with flowers, a large, waving Lao flag, and five tough-looking young men, trailed closely by a dozen families on motorbikes. A village child of about 4 or 5 running as fast as he could alongside an old tire as it rolled down the dirt road. He kept a stick in his hand, periodically swatting at the tire to keep it upright and in momentum. Butterflies! Thousands of beautiful butterflies that flew towards us and all around us as we drove farther up the mountain. Their numbers surpassed even the mosquitos.
4. The rice experience. Spending a day with Laotian rice farmers and learning the tricks of their trade. Understanding the reasons why rice is so important in the lives of every Southeast Asian. We learned how to catch fish with homemade traps, ploughed land with an ox, planted rice, harvested rice, and threshed rice. We winnowed the rice and separated the good grains from the bad. We made rice flour, sugar cane, sticky rice, and rice water to be used as shampoo. We learned how to make sickles on an open fire and how to build thatched roofs from bamboo. For lunch, we ate a lovely spread of all rice products with chili sauce and washed it down with a jug of rice whiskey.
5. A few seconds shared with a Laotian woman on the slow boat to Thailand. A leather-faced mother with sad eyes, wrapped in a traditional Lao skirt dotted with golds and browns. The creases in her arms and face and the pinpoints on her clothes are like drops of paint creating a pointillism piece before me. After continual coinciding glances with the woman I realize that she is just as enchanted with me as I with her. We are in the back of the boat, in the engine room–the hottest, loudest, smelliest place to be– sitting with a dozen other Laos on the floor. She looks exhausted, but pensive. Remote, but compassionate. Her watery eyes melt their beholder with mystical properties, like pieces of onyx.
I often ponder the many the lives I could live, the different people I could be. As a child, I remember trying to magically transplant myself into another’s existence. From a distance, I would look out at people and chose another life. I could just as easily be that guy with the mustache, or that child with the broken leg, or that soccer mom in the minivan. I could assume their personalities and understand their thoughts, their feelings, their daily obligations, if only I tried hard enough. In the back of the boat, I stare at this woman and try to become her. I see where our lives overlap and where they are exceedingly different. Her life is easy in its simplicity, mine in the comforts afforded to me. Her life is difficult in the execution of daily labors–the physical toils of survival, bending and breaking with samsara, the necessary maintenance on the ever-turning, yet rusty, wheel of life. Mine is convoluted by the richness it lacks and the strength it does not demand–what is missed when life moves at WIFI speed, what is lost when everything is handed to you. My life is made difficult by its questions. The choices, the insecurities, the uncertainties. We are worlds apart, this woman and I. Yet when I look at her, and she looks at me, we are the same.