Laos PDR (aka Please Don’t Rush)

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Laos: Where Buddhism and Communism coexist. After claiming power in the mid-70’s upon their victory in the “American War”, the Party tried harsh control of the population, and quickly suffered intense defiance. Since then, allowing the people to practice Buddhism as they wish seems to have gone a long way in maintaining a peaceful society, even though there is no free press and much poverty. Even the leader of the revolution, Kaysone Phomvihane, was cremated in a Buddhist ritual rather than embalmed and displayed in a mausoleum like his contemporaries Mao and Ho Chi Minh.

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Northern Laos and Luang Prabang

23 December – 8 January

(jacob’s writing in olive)




Three hours into the six-hour trip, the bone-crushing bumpiness began. Sweating and packed with 14 people in a 12-person van, I managed, while maintaining an iron grip on the seat in front of me to avoid smashing my head into the ceiling, to turn my head toward my friend Lisah, to ask, “is this just going to go on for the next 3 hours?” She didn’t need to reply; I knew the answer. 3 hours later, dazed and bruised, we arrived at the dusty crossroads of Pak Mon. We stayed just long enough to get a papaya salad and transfer to yet another minivan. This, then, was Laos. No trains yet run in the country, and the roads in the north are famously as curvy as they are potholed and often blocked by water buffalo. We had just traveled from Huay Xai, on the border with Thailand, to Luang Namtha, and we were now headed toward the limestone cliffs of Nong Khiaw. Here is a photo of the Nam Tha, our bungalow is just out of site to the right:

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Householders & the monastics
in mutual dependence
both reach the true Dhamma.

– Buddha

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Pindacara, practiced since the time of the buddha, is the tradition of monks and nuns (bhikkhu) collecting food from lay people in the local village. We have seen it widely practiced in Thailand, Laos and Burma, and we’ll soon write more about our experience witnessing and participating in it while in Burma. What was special about seeing it in northern Laos was the feeling of precious ordinariness around it. In a couple of the small towns we were in, I was the only tourist out at 6:30a observing this beautiful connection between the villagers and the monks. The Lao are still mostly shy around foreigners, especially in the north (and drastically shy compared to the Burmese, we now know), and I imagined it may have been strange for them to have a white person come from far away to watch a simple everyday practice so embedded in their culture. Perhaps how I might feel if someone from rural Mongolia showed up in SF and took pictures of me buying a cup of coffee or shopping at the Apple store, activities that can seem like religious behavior amid my culture’s devotion to materialism.

The monks, mostly young boys and early teens, probably spend some of their youth as monastics as a way to gain better education and discipline. They lined up barefoot outside the monastery in order according to how long they have been in robes (usually oldest to youngest). According to their vows, after collecting and eating the noon meal, they will not eat again until breakfast the next morning. Once they are all together, the line splits in half so that each group meanders through half of the village. After the last monk in the line has collected from the few people outside a shop or home, the monks chant together. I’m not sure what they chant, but it’s likely a dedication of generosity – a very important aspect of the relationship between the lay people and bikkhu (again, more on that when we get to writing about Burma). On nearly every block, the group I witnessed collected alms and stopped to chant to the few villagers kneeling before them. I walked along in deep respect for this practice, and for the villagers, poor merchants and farmers themselves who probably live off a few dollars a day yet have such generosity of heart (and religious faith) to support this community of monks. One can look at it through a religious lens – the monks are able to continue practicing and teaching Buddhism and the lay people are gaining merit or karma by continuing their practice of generosity. Or one might see it as a secular humanist – as another culture’s way of community-supported education. In the West, we put rice in the bowl of our morality-free public education through a distant, bureaucratic tax system. In places like northern Laos and Burma, they put the rice in the bowl literally, feeding the hearts and bellies of the monks. The communities build temples and monasteries to support the monastic life, which often offers the youth better living conditions and education (including mindfulness training) than what is available at home or in government schools.

We aren’t sure how the dharma is really being taught and practiced in Laos; the inner life of the monastic community and the lay people remained hidden from us. However, it was inspiring to see the outward appearance of many practices. Our prayer is this: May dharma practice continue and grow in a way that supports movement to an equal and free society, and to liberated hearts and minds.

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On bus and van rides through the northern hills, we passed village after village of elevated straw huts where every woman in sight had a child strapped to her. Bus rides were long, but the drivers never failed to stop halfway through so we could all take a squat on the side of the road. Roadside stands sold sugarcane. There were plastic bags and dogs everywhere. With no trash collection system, the otherwise beautiful hills are blanketed in plastic trash, to a degree that made me want to weep. As my friend Sara put it: “If I had one superpower, it would be to transform all the plastic in the world into a biodegradable form.”

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The hill tribes of Laos have it rough. After opium cultivation was outlawed, they turned to slash-and-burn farming. It’s not easy to grow rice on the hills, unlike in the lowlands. Our trekking guide told us that clearing the mountains for fields (which must be done each year, since a field can only be used once every 15 years) takes lots of labor, so the children are taken out of school at a young age to work, and girls are married off young to raise more children to work in the fields (which generates more mouths to feed, leading to the need for more fields and ever more kids/labor, and on until…). Still unfamiliar with cameras, many children became scared when pointed at with them. Lots of pesticides are the norm. The villages we saw (one we walked through, uncomfortably; the others we drove past) had all dirt roads, no electricity, no running water, and kids with distended bellies – probably not from hunger, but from hookworm. I asked if there was tension between the many different tribes living and farming in the north, and our guide said that relations were good and that the government requires the tribes to learn a common language (Lao) and gives education on healthcare. I also learned that there are some organizations, such as Saffron Coffee in Luang Prabang, trying to help the situation by introducing sustainable crops that can be replanted in the same fields, like coffee, and guaranteeing purchase of the crop.

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It took a few days of passing through dusty northern towns and villages before I put my finger on something more subtle that was missing. Living on the road for so long, one thing I like to do is look around and think, if I lived in [insert town name], where would I buy the things that I take for granted, or would I have to make them or go without? For example, women seemed to be wearing bras, but it was rare that I ever saw a place to buy them. Hair elastics, shoes that aren’t flip-flops, and, heart-breakingly, books were also nowhere to be found. It was the lack of books that hit me the hardest. I learned that there actually aren’t many books published in the Lao language, and many village children have never even seen one. It’s actually possible to sponsor the distribution or publication of a book in Lao (through, for example, Big Brother Mouse).

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When we made it to breathtaking Nong Khiaw, though, the sense of desperation lifted. Here life revolved around the river, the Nam Ou, framed by towering green mountains. Colorful but narrow wooden boats (“longboats”, not unlike stretched-out motorized canoes) plowed the river, taking tourists to smaller villages upstream and toward the old French colonial city of Luang Prabang downstream. Laos only really started opening up in the late 90s, and Nong Khiaw is one town that is making a transition from subsistence farming to tourism. Though there is a government agency in Laos deditcated to the development of culturally and ecologically repsonsible tourism, as it goes in Laos, they get very little done. But once Lonely Planet mentioned Nong Khiaw the first time, it’s fate was written.

At first, Laos had seemed very much like a less well-off province of Thailand (and indeed many vacationing Thais treat it as such): many places accepted Thai money and people understood when I spoke Thai words, but I quickly learned that Laos has distinct advantages, especially when it comes to food. The Vietnamese and French influences were everywhere, from banh mi-type sandwiches (baguettes!) to wine to bakeries (chocolate!). Vegetarian dishes were readily available, even in random restaurants in the small dusty towns, and the ubiquitous local dish “jeow” immediately captured my heart – it’s basically spicy salsa, made with cilantro, eggplant, or other veggies, and in a pinch I could add it to rice for a simple meal, anywhere! Despite the relative lack of coconut-milk based curries, I came to love the food in Laos and couldn’t believe how easy it was to be vegetarian there. However, it really was important to not be in a hurry, as usually there was only one person cooking in their personal kitchen (many guesthouses are converted homes the family still lives in), and dishes came out one at a time, incredibly slowly (culturally, everyone shares everything, and so plates never arrive together). Interestingly, my old impatient and busy self adapted to this slow style with ease. Traveling had been good for me.

Lao kitchen, waiting for food, dining, bathroom door:

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It wasn’t just the food that was good, though: as the Danish owner of a riverside retreat in Nong Khiaw told us, “Laos is a good place to drink wine.” I had not tried any wine (and only encountered box wine) since leaving California months earlier, but in Laos there were real bottles of Chilean, Argentinian, Australian, and even French wines. It felt a little uncomfortable to be drinking wine in a beautiful riverside lodge after the dusty bus rides through struggling villages, but this paled in comparison to the even more extreme contrast I was about to find in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang, the old northern capitol of Laos. After weeks of being cold in northern Thailand and Laos and wearing the same pair of pants and my lone wool shirt both all day and all night, we headed downriver in hopes of warmer weather and some more modern amenities (being so cold, living mostly outdoors and with no insulation, no heat and no hot water wore me down).

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After 4 hours by boat and by van (Jacob wrote about our journey and the dam construction we witnessed in an earlier post), suddenly we were on a sidewalk (whoa, a sidewalk?!) in what appeared to be France. Oh, Luang Prabang, I had no idea! I felt dazed being in such an adorable, French-speaking, croissant-eating, clean, modern town. Situated at the confluence of the Nam Khan and the Mekong rivers, Luang Prabang is surrounded on 3 sides by river, and thus river walks, fancy riverside cafes, and even a loungey hippie-ish outdoor yoga studio that was also a bar and restaurant. It also had Wats (Buddhists temples) like I had never seen – sparkling and decorated with brightly colored tiles in intricate patterns.

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As much as I loved it, I was also sad…here was a beautiful city built by colonialists and now preserved by UNESCO for tourists, basically. I thought it must seem like a whole other country to the people up north. However resolutely modern and cutely French the city is, though, Laos culture cannot be suppressed entirely and pops up wherever it can – such as at the market on the edge of town where women washed their clothes and their babies right in the stores among the wares for sale.

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To our overwhelming delight, and totally unplanned (we couldn’t have planned it if we tried!) were joined for New Year’s in Luang Prabang by two of our dearest friends from the San Francisco area, Sean and Sara. The whole city got into celebrating, with a giant 2014 sign, blinky lights everywhere, a relaxing of the usual city-wide midnight curfew, and tons of candle-lit paper lanterns floating up into the night sky, each carrying a wish and intention for the new year. The hippie yoga spot even built a straw man and burned it – a “burning man” party. I never thought I’d be so lucky to leave to travel the world and have my dearly loved friends come find me in a city whose name I had never even spoken. We found an abandoned bridge and sat together, away from the parties, to watch the lanterns float into the sky as the new year began. Jacob and I both felt refreshed and renewed, and also sadness and longing. Life is rich when those who know us well are close, and as much as we love traveling, there is a depth of relating and ease of familiarity that we miss.

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After the new year, we rented a house outside of town for a week with our friends and traveling companions Matt and Lisah and rested before going our separate ways, the end of an era of weeks of traveling together. Luckily they taught us Magic the Gathering before we parted and then sweetly gifted us our very own decks. The game continues…

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