Laos, 6.45pm 2nd August 2010 (The last school day)
Laos is a country that feels so similar to Nepal. The trees, the winding slopes, the bumpy roads. I am sitting along the bank of the Mekong River. A cool wind blows by.
When I first travelled up the winding slopes of Laos, my first thought was – Nepal has higher mountains, India has more beautiful rivers. What is so special about this place?
The waters of the Mekong are brown. They remind me of Chai (tea) in India, I guess it could be due to some soil run-off. Unlike the River Ganges in India, I did not find the Mekong impressive.
No one was bathing, no one was performing holy rituals. There were only boats, long blue boats. There is one in front of me now. A long blue boat, filed with sacks of rice. The woman inside is wearing a flower motif red blouse, her hair rolled into a bun. I see a flame sprouting from the end of the boat.
It is quiet, I can hear the chirping of birds, a occassional tinkling of bicycle bells in the distance.
I see two sapans by the side, anchored to long bamboo poles that have been stucked into the river bed. Next to them is a passenger boat which is empty. It sits by the side of the river. I can’t help but make comparisons. I know each country is unique on its own, but I cant help it.
It is on the 3rd last day of the trip, on the 11th day, I think I can finally understand what Laos is about. A country of potential, land, trees, a kind and gentle people.
Like all the countries I have been to, I get the feeling that the peasants are more hospitable and friendly, and more happy. Luang Prabang is clean and comfortable. It is a Unesco World Heritage site. The buildings are not more than two storeys. No big tour buses are allowed into the province, for the fear of pollution. The roads are smooth, like that of Singapore. I do not feel unsafe. There is no eve-teasing, no lecherous eyes on me. There are no cow dung piles to hop over, there are no open man-holes to look out for.
But I am sure that Luang Prabang is not a good representation of the whole of Laos. French styled restaurants, bars and guesthouses line the banks of the Mekong. The temples look fresh and well-refurbished.
Luang Prabang used to be the capital of Laos. It was home to the Prabang Buddha, and the king decided to move to Vientiane. Leaving many temples, and Buddha statues behind.
I don’t know what the common people live on. The village we went to is not the worst. I am sure there are more difficulties and suffering in other parts of Laos.
I thought of today’s Farewell ceremony, where the villages said prayers to wish us well on the rest of our journey. There were sticks with string twirled around them. After the prayers were over, the elderly people of the village took turns tying these strings around our wrists.
“You must leave them on for 3 days,” said Ninh, a local who speaks English well.
“It is for good health, good luck, and a good life.”
There are sticks of prawn crackers stuck on too. We give them to the kids.
Such ceremonies are rare, said Ninh,
“It is held rarely, perhaps during the Lao New year, or when a family member is leaving for a long time, or has returned,” he said.
“The villages will have the ceremonies in their houses.”
Today, at the community hall, with mega speakers blasting away Lao songs, it is nice to know that u have been appreciated for all the hard work, perspiration, cuts and bruises.
The sun is setting soon. Thunder booms in the distance. I must return to the guesthouse to bathe.
I look at the river for the last time, and see a clump of trees. The breeze blows, forming ripples on the water. It is a lovely scene. I wonder what it will be like to cross over the river, to the bright blue and brown houses by the river.
In the boat with the sandbags, the lady is now chatting with a man. She has put a pot to boil. They look happy as they talk, relaxing, as they watch the river flow, and the world go by.
Happiness is a choice.
A different country, a different culture, a different river, different difficulties and problems.
India has shown me.
Laos has taught me.
To open my eyes,
Especially my mind.
A mountain will always be a mountain.
It may look like others,
But it will be special,
Because of what you make of it.
(More Lao stories coming up, give me some time.)