April 10, 2013
As you travel somewhere new, there is a certain comfort in knowing that we all share similar dreams, hopes, cares, fears. It becomes the base of a communication when a. language is not shared. But what I am now reminded of is how the differences I see before me offer other possibilities. They are possibilities from the differences that do not appear to be bound by the same constraints of the culture and history I know.
I am in central Laos, a landlocked country surrounded by Vietnam to the east, Thailand to the west, Cambodia to the south, and a bit of China and Burma (Myammar) to the north. My family has already been here for a week or two when I arrive by prop plane from Bangkok to Louang Probang and board a tuk-tuk, a three wheeled transport that has a covered flatbed open on the sides and with two opposing benches to fit the six of us aboard. We meander through the countryside and into a scene of streets full of bikes, scooters, motorbikes, other tuk-tuks, cars. And less you think this sounds chaotic, it is not. People of all ages, female and male equally, are on the predominately two-wheeled vehicles amidst walkers crossing, with no stoplights at intersections and the scene is quiet, leisurely paced, and respectful. I am immediately in awe of a scene that reminds me of Venice. On streets that are linear, the activity is so full it feels rounded.
We walk and wander down alleyways to the guesthouse they had already found and my impressions deepen as I walk through lush vegetation past little businesses and houses of simple courtyards and open doorways to living spaces that invite the public into the private and as we pass, we greet and all are full of smiles. This impression only deepens as we wander the streets and alleyways of this beautiful city. The city of Louang Probang emerges from the land into a peninsula surrounded by two rivers, the Nam Khan to the east and the broader Mekong to the west. At the northern point the two rivers converge. In the city’s center is a hillside that to reach the top through the lush vegetation is a climb from various sides of 300 stairs or so. And atop it, as I soon realize is not unusual, is a temple. I read that there are 32 temples in the city and over the next several days I will see many but certainly not all of these magnificent temples. Each one has more than the main temple building that is colorful, ornate, carved, tiled with other buildings for a drum, Buddha statues, places for the monks. And saffron, orange colored clad monks of ages from boys to men are in great number.
So maybe you are getting some idea of the differences to which I allude. We soon learn that most males for as short as a few months or maybe years, starting as early as young boys but more usually later as a teenager or a young adult are monks and the knowledge that those we encounter on the streets may have had this sort of contemplative, meditative experience may account for the gentleness we feel in the people. Whether it is on the streets, in all the houses open to our view, or at a large wedding in a school courtyard we observe one evening, we see the men, almost equally with the women, hold and care for their babies and young children. And the people in transit on bikes and scooters are, as I have said, equal in gender.
This is the hottest time of the year in Laos so we try to lay low during the middle part of the day and get up early enough to wander. As I am writing this very early we will all try to get up shortly and walk the blocks from here to see the early morning (about 6AM) procession of monks and the alms giving from attendees. We then will walk the quiet streets, finding cafes and most likely some delicious croissants, one of the legacies besides some styles of architecture of French colonialism. We have many choices of restaurants and street booths to keep us fed on fruit smoothies and distinctive and often spicy hot dishes of curry or spiced buffalo or chicken.
There are many temples to explore, a museum and stores of traditional arts and weaving. There are distinct cultures among the 132 ethnic groups in Laos, many of which have maintained a very traditional culture, lifestyle, and dress. The silk weaving is especially intricate and skilled. We wander into two fair trade stores since there is a strong need to support those traditional communities in lands that have suffered the turmoil of long wars of convoluted alliances between factions and superpowers, and additionally because these ethnic groups are under attack everywhere for the resources they have always used with limits that are coveted by others much more powerful as commodities to be fully exploited to fuel the engines of the industrial world.
But before I talk a bit about such turmoil, the natural beauty persists in lush vegetation and flower. There are broad leafed tropical trees, trees of variegated patterned leaves and brightly colored, exotically shaped flowers. There are large stands of bouganvillia, gardenia, and orchids, and in pots along streets and alleys flower bushes. The trees and large bushes provide some shade in the heat and embrace and frame the streets and the buildings, large and small.
We see butterflies maybe more than we see birds. Some are large, gliding more than flapping. Others are tiny like the swarm after swarm of white butterflies we drove through on our rented motor scooters on our way to a waterfall park. On a trip of 25 km or so, on our three motor scooters, we ambled through the farm countryside past some temples and a slow, large funeral procession, nearly colliding with a cobra chasing some chickens across the road (retrospectively very scary), getting thoroughly doused along the way by some kids who couldn’t wait for the start of the days long New Year’s celebration next week, Songkan, the Water Festival where everyone gets water thrown on them and then arriving at Kuang Si waterfall with many others on a Sunday. We wander in the forest past numerous swimming pools of opaque emerald colored waters next to successions of short rock falls. We picked several pools to swim in, including a pool that John and Daju loved with a rope swing on a tree leaning over a deep pool. At the top of the walk was a tall escarpment with cascading waterfalls. It was nothing short of a tropical paradise.
And amidst so much that is wondrous is the knowledge of the other harsher realities that intrude. This week is the 40th anniversary of the cessation of nine years of bombing in Laos by the U.S. in what is referred to as the “Secret War in Laos”. The spillover from the Vietnam War, the use of eastern Laos for a north south Ho Chi Minh trail to keep supplies for those fighting the U.S. and South VietNam, the threat that Lao supporters of North Vietnam (the Pathet Lao) was felt to be by the Lao government and monarchy, the worry of Thailand that the domino effect of Lao becoming communist would mean for them became part of a complex of justifications for U.S. forces to drop more bombs in Laos in nine years than were dropped in Germany and Japan combined in World War II. In more concrete terms this means that there was an average of a bombload of bombs dropped in Laos every 8 minutes, every 24 hours for 9 straight years. It means there remain in Laotian soil 80 million unexploded bomblets (from cluster bombs), a sum of more than tenfold for each of Laos’ 6.6 million inhabitants. It means that since the cessation of bombing 40 years ago, there have been over 20,000 deaths, maimings, and injuries from such bomblets exploding. They are often found by children. A 2 year old and several other children died in that fashion just last week.
The U.S. has taken little responsibility for helping clear the ordinance with about 1.5 million dollars on average allocated for such attempts. So Laotians often take on the task themselves. As a Laotian woman recounted last week, she is part of a team of women who without protective equipment and armed solely with metal detectors probe the countryside to unearth and attempt to safely detonate. They do it because they say that without such efforts, the rural farmers in many areas cannot safely farm and in her words, “if they cannot farm, they cannot eat.”
Before I leave Laos and the capitol, Vientiane where I have not been Tamie and I hope to get to a museum about this war and the consequences over the years. If I have time in this next busy week, I will try to write again. The New Year, a river trip north, an attempt to get to some traditional rural communities….we will see what the next week brings.”