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 laos

apr 12
At the border, I boarded a longboat. It belonged to a family who lived on the boat. We followed the flow of the mighty Mekong River for two days, floating mellowly by hills and villages between Thailand and Laos, then leaving Thailand behind, deep into the heart of Laos. Once we moved away from Thailand, the cities along the banks disappeared. Deep colors on boats and clothing broke the brown and green of water and hills. Fishermen cast their nets, women washed clothes, children played, water buffalo grazed. Elephants carried wood down from the forest to waiting boats. Peanut crops grew on the beach. The river is the lifeblood of these people, hidden from view in mountain villages, every day is the same on the Mekong.

In Pac Beng for the night, we hiked uphill in the dirt on a walkway of woven mats. Over some doorways hung a bamboo fishtrap for good luck, and a spirit house in front of almost every house for the land god to bless this home. Although the predominant religion in this area is Theravada Buddhism, why not keep all the gods happy?

The center of lovely Luang Prabang was a peninsula surrounded by river, just a couple of pretty streets with a French feel in the architecture, lots of sidewalk cafes in this Unesco recognized site. At the night market, there were embroidered and stitched Lao crafts. At 6am, monks shuffled in single file down the main street as people dropped a small portion of sticky rice or bananas into each bowl. There seemed to be a pecking order: women with balanced baskets selling rice to give to the monks, townspeople handing out food, monks receiving the offerings, begging children hoping for an occasional morsel from the monks. At Wat Kili, Thon, a young novice, greeted me. He was living and studying at the monastery free for a few years, one way for young men to get an education. I asked about his robes, up close I could see there were many pockets. The novices wear a yellow sash, elders a saffron cape over one shoulder.

The high Kuang Si falls tumbled down into emerald pools. I swam in one of them; some more daring visitors jumped in off a high tree branch. On the way, the tuk-tuk driver ran over a dog. I can still hear his cries, another in our vehicle saw him crawl to the side of the road, maybe a broken leg or worse.

The Moon bear project protects small black bears that have been captured or orphaned. Hunted in the wild, the Chinese harvest the bears' gall bladder for medicine. The worker at the center mischievously hid their food in various places so the bears could take all day to find it all, up a tree, inside a tire, across a brook, under leaves. On the way back, bands of school children gathered at the side of the road, splashing us with water as we drove by, in celebration of the new year.

At Big Brother Mouse, a Lao NGO, students and volunteer teachers drop in for conversation. I had the pleasure to meet Lue, from a family of ten in a small village. Lue is Hmong. His father, a farmer, remarried after his mother died. His stepmother is the same age as Lue. Hmong people often marry at 14 or 15. 'They don't know anything, so they marry young and work the fields,' he explained, shaking his head with an apologetic smile. There is only a primary school in his village, so he lived with his uncle for two years in a bigger village then lived for two years with his teacher.

I took an elephant trek through forest and river riding Khompon, a 30 year old female. As we tromped through the dense green, one of the mahouts sang a low, soulful Lao song. We took them to wade at a wide bend in the river. I sat on her shoulders for the bath, the mahout behind me. It was a little scary at first, going down and up the steep, muddy banks. My bare feet were tucked behind her ears, it felt like she was caressing them, holding me close to make me feel at ease. I called out 'pai, pai' to go ahead. She bent down in the water and I splashed water on her head. On the mahout's signal, the elephants splashed us with their trunks!

The Cope Center in Vientiene provided prostheses and rehabilitation for survivors of UXO, unexploded ordnance accidents. Their museum told heartbreaking stories of children whose lives were permanently shaken by a few moments of curiosity. Wat Si Sakit, oldest of the temples, was slightly crumbling in places but still mysteriously beautiful. The temple and courtyard walls were covered with countless small arch shaped niches housing over 6,800 tiny Buddhas. A peek between wooden slats into a locked storage area revealed piles of forgotten broken Buddhas. I sat in the tranquil courtyard for some time.

At a Hmoung market in northeast Laos, squirming crickets crawled around green branches in buckets, destined to become a fried dessert dish. Found metal bomb casings appeared in yards, used for planters or water. I boated down the river to the village of Sop Young in a former B52 shell and stayed the night on a floor pad in the chief's small house in a homestay arrangement. At night there was a symphony of animal sounds - deep resonant tones of frogs, catlike cries of geckos, and too early the throaty yell of the rooster followed by a chorus of ducks quacking.

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