Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ancient Kingdoms -- Laos

This is a continuation of Ann’s description of her “Ancient Kingdoms” trip to SE Asia.  For the first entry covering Thailand, click here

We flew to Luang Prabang, capital of Laos, located on a peninsula between the Mekong and Khan rivers.  This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for more than 30 active temples and hundreds of architectural treasures.  On the plane, I sat next to a fascinating woman. She is American born, but currently a French citizen on her way to the hills of Laos to work at an Elephant Hospital treating sick animals.  Although she has never worked with elephants before, she is excited to be volunteering her time and Veterinarian skills for the next year or two.  I was extremely impressed by her story; temporarily leaving behind her male partner with whom she has lived for the past 15 years.
This is a quaint town, with many 19th century French Colonial villas as well as the more traditional Lao homes. Our Hotel, the Ang Thong, which reflects the charm of the French Colonial style, is to be our home for the next three nights. We barely have time to check in and unpack when we are off, yet again, to visit another temple (it is jokingly said that OAT means Oh no Another Temple).  This one is the Royal Temple Wat Xieng Thong.  Our mode of transportation here, rather than the ubiquitous air conditioned bus, is the Tuk Tuk.  Not easy to get into and just as hard to get out of, this is the conveyance that is allowed in Luang Prabang and we shortly all learned how to negotiate these transports without conking ourselves unconscious by slamming our heads into the steel crossbar at the top!  Then once aboard, we maneuvered our behinds across the hard seat to give room for the next passenger on these bumpy rides.  These were really meant to accommodate 6 to 8 passengers, four on either side facing one another, knees knocking into each other. Only intrepid Dr. Frank and our lovely Japanese artist, Hiroko, were in good enough shape to walk all the way into town, the rest of us definitely having to rely on the only mode of transportation left to us.  After our Temple Visit, we head to Phousi Hill which is in the center of the old town and where all the action takes place, including a night market that draws out hundreds of tourists in the evening to look over every imaginable souvenir or gift you could ever want to buy.  Here, those who wished to climbed the 328 steps to the top of this Hill for a view of Luang Prabang and the River way off in the distance did so while the rest of us were left to find a cozy sidewalk table and drink that delicious icy beer we all had grown so fond of.

The next day, Feb. 3rd, we took our Tuk Tuk to Sang Khong Village and boarded a boat for our first cruise along the amazing Mekong River past idyllic scenes of rural riverside life which took us to the Pak Ou Cave or Buddha Cave which sits among the limestone cliffs where the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers meet.  Here we climbed up rather steep steps to marvel at the more than 3,000 Buddha sculptures, some inlaid with semiprecious stones, large and small made out of every imaginable material.  Many of these Buddha images and statues have been deposited here over centuries and left undisturbed despite repeated visitors.

Once back on our ancient boat, we were served a homemade luncheon prepared by a single woman in her makeshift “kitchen” in the stern where she had the most primitive cooking apparatus. However, it was absolutely delicious, everyone marveling at the variety and taste.  On the way back to our hotel, I mentioned to Ole that I would love to have a massage and asked if he knew of a place he could recommend.  Before I knew it, a few others thought that sounded like a great idea and suddenly we had an enthusiastic group eager to join me.  We all piled into another Tuk Tuk and off we went into town where we entered a very welcoming massage parlor.  Even Ole stayed for a treatment!  We were told to remove our shoes and then each one of us had a young women bathe and dry our feet and were given lockers for our clothes and cotton robes to wear.  I went upstairs, into a very small room next to Dr. Frank, and had the most invigorating and excellent hour-long massage.  My masseuse, who actually sat on my back for part of my treatment and naturally didn’t speak a word of English, was very experienced and I left there feeling like a million bucks! That was exactly what we all needed before we met for dinner shortly afterwards.

Feb. 4 - A Day in the Life beginning with Alms Giving - Luang Prabang

We had a 5:15 wake up call for our Alms Giving day in Luang Prabang  where we hurriedly dressed  without eating breakfast and departed our hotel a half hour later.   In the dark, we were deposited in a street where child-sized chairs were lined up single file on one side of the road.  Beside each chair, we were given a small round shaped basket containing freshly cooked sticky rice as well as shown how to drape ourselves with a woven scarf over one shoulder and also removed our shoes to show respect.  We had already been carefully instructed how to view this ceremony which is part of the cultural heritage of the local Monks, where no woman may touch them and where we must maintain respectful silence during their procession.  Before they arrived and still just before the first light of dawn, we were told to hold our rice baskets near our foreheads and silently ask the Monks to pray for us when they return to the temple, to grant our own special prayers for good health and a happy and long life for our loved ones.  Then we heard several soft gongs off in the distance which signaled the beginning of their march.  As they walked past us, single file on their route through the town, we scooped out handfuls of rice with our own bare hands and placed them in as many of the Monk’s baskets as we could. There was no acknowledgement from them as they typically kept their heads and eyes looking off in the distance in almost a trance-like state.

The Monks themselves, as many as 400 living in all the many small Buddhist temples and monasteries around town, young and old, arise at 5 to chant and meditate and then participate in this ancient tradition of tak bat where originally the pious villagers primarily rose early to offer their cooked rice to the local Monks to Gain Merit and Improve their Karma.  Today, this simple and beautiful ceremony where the Monks, dressed in their saffron robes and barefoot, heads shaven, walk for miles every single morning of the year accepting handfuls of rice in large baskets hung over their shoulders to feed themselves and give leftovers to the poor, have become a big tourist attraction in recent years - for better or worse.  In our case, everyone in my group treated this touching ceremony with the solemnity it deserved, although towards the end of the procession it was sad to see a few other tourists jockeying for position to take the best camera shot possible.  I have even read where this ceremony was almost discontinued because of the discourtesy shown by ignorant tourists, behaving boorishly.

When they return to their temple, they will offer their prayers to us in return for feeding them and pray to answer our own silent requests.  Their last meal was at noon on the prior day.  They only have two meals a day, breakfast & then the noon meal.  Other food is donated to the Temples on a daily basis, so rice is not the only item for them to eat. It is often difficult for the very young ones, novices, to fast all afternoon and evening until the morning meal, so it is not unknown that a banana, crackers or a chocolate might be secreted away in their bunks to tide them over.  Once several large groups walked past us and now fully in light of day, we were able to leave our seats & baskets & continue taking photos of the next wave.

The novices who wear yellow sashes tied over their saffron robes are often as young as 8 years of age and as old as 20.  Young men will often serve as novices for as little as 3 months up to 12 years, thus gaining merit for themselves and their families, leaving the crushing poverty of their homes.  Their other chores, besides receiving Alms every day, and of course praying and meditating, are to keep the temple grounds clean and to go to school.  Here is the major advantage: the chance for a young Laotian man to obtain an education as well as living in a larger city with exposure to the outside world.  Here he will be given lessons in English, Japanese and Chinese and offered the chance to choose a major subject to study if he stays on in the temple. This is often a priceless compensation for many years of personal sacrifice.  They have not been chosen for their piety or integrity. Their common bond is one of poverty. They are freeing their family of the burden of a mouth to feed, and hoping to get an education that would otherwise be denied to them as so many come from remote villages without a school altogether. Since every single Lao boy is expected to become a novice for at least three months, many of them are just doing time, and will leave the temple as soon as they are old enough to get a job. Very few of them make it through to full Monkhood, and even most monks leave the temple eventually to follow a life and career outside of the temple. One we spoke to, in fact, was taking college courses to become a Travel Guide, a career that can be very lucrative with tourism in his country growing by leaps and bounds!

Before returning to our hotel & a belated breakfast, our Lao trip leader, known simply as "Cheers", gave each of us a slip of paper with three lines on it, all written in Lao, a Lao greeting for hello, a mystery vegetable, and Lao thank you and enough local currency (the Lao kip) to buy what was on our paper. Then he wanted us - on our own - to walk into a very crowded early morning market & negotiate our way through to buy our item by asking vendors along the way.  After several attempts at questioning various sellers, I was finally directed to a woman who knew exactly what I needed.  Two onions!  I paid her and thanked her in Lao and passed my vegetable on to Cheers who was gathering all of our ingredients for lunch later that day!

We returned to our hotel for breakfast & then off to continue what OAT calls “A Day in the Life" where we drove about 45 miles away to an extremely poor village that Grand Circle has adopted, Ban Tin Keo. There the Village elder greeted us & we strolled thru his village witnessing such sweet children's faces & warm hellos and the typical 'wai' greeting by putting palms together & fingers pointing toward the nose with a slight bow.  This was a terribly impoverished area of bamboo & thatch shacks with hard dirt floors where families of 7 and more & multi generations live, sleep & cook in one room.  Dogs sleep in the road, little children play in the dirt yards and everyone has a hardscrabble life eking out a living from the crops they grow or handicrafts they make.  On our walk through this village, we passed their only water pump that was paid for and installed by Grand Circle Foundation, the Parent Company for OAT.  We then visited a school with little children of varying ages, 5 to 8, where they study together in one classroom.

Each of us had a child who presented us with a marigold lei & then took our hand to escort us to their desk.  We sang songs & heard them recite & those of us who brought school supplies or books gave them to the teacher.  They were very dear but more than a little unwashed as were their clothes, this in extreme contrast to the very poor Indian children I met who were immaculate.  Such a contrast in standards of hygiene and both 3rd world countries!

From the school we walked, now in the blazing sun in contrast to the 55 degrees from the morning, over to a Hmong village nearby where we were invited into a one room home.  There, we had a most interesting discussion with the husband who explained his farming life now that they left the hills for their present home in this village.  This room contained a rudimentary kitchen area where food was prepared and a rear area for sleeping as well as a central area which held benches for their visitors.   Outside, we were treated to an older and very agile man playing a Hmong instrument and performing a dance as well as being offered instructions in hitting a target using a traditional Hmong cross bow, without taking off a finger in the process! Ole was very good at this and I must say all who tried it did extremely well. 

From there, we had a short walk back to the Village elders home where all of us gathered together to have a small drink of homemade whiskey (I had a sip – it was like firewater or moonshine) and enjoyed the dubious pleasure of trying a bite of fried rat.  Yes, you read that correctly, fried rat, which many said was very tasty, like chicken.  I took a pass.  Finally we saw that all of our vegetables & other ingredients we had purchased earlier at the market that morning had been washed, peeled, diced or cut up for cooking in a huge wok over an open wood fire.  Cheers called us to toss in our item, first the finely minced garlic, noodles, scallions, cilantro, my onion, and so on, 10 or 12 items, and each of us had a turn stirring everything together.  This delicious vegetable noodle dish became part of a memorable luncheon along with the ubiquitous white rice and a watercress soup along with pork steamed in a bamboo leaf and clear cellophane noodles!  Everyone raved about the feast we enjoyed in a humble man's home.

And as if we hadn’t packed enough in this day already, we walked over to a Woman's Weaving Cooperative that OAT supported.  They had brought in experienced weavers to teach the local woman how to operate the looms so they could earn money from their handicrafts.  I even sat & did a bit at the loom myself & then naturally I had to purchase one of her hand loomed items.  The charge was five dollars for a hand woven scarf. This represented 2-3 days work.
Now back in my room, collapsing but having a cup of hot tea & working up the courage to begin the packing process all over again as we have a short flight to the capital of Laos, Vientiane, tomorrow.  Ole is escorting a group of us at 6:00 this evening back into town to have a look at the night market & have dinner on our own.  If I didn't think I'd be hungry later (impossible to imagine after the lunch we had), I'd stay in the hotel tonight.  But no restaurant here, only breakfast!  And how could I possibly miss a meal, I ask you?   So that concludes “A Day in the Life” and one very eventful day in mine!

Feb. 5th began with a short flight to Vientiane, the Capital of Laos in the afternoon and an orientation walk to the fountain square and the Mekong River.  How about a beer and appetizer before dinner?  Fine with all of us, but who knew it was going to be Grasshopper, deep fried with Kaffir Lime Leaves?  This was greatly enjoyed by those adventurous enough to try it. 

The following day, Feb. 6th, we visited Haw Phra Keo, where the Emerald Buddha was once on display, and Wat Sisaket, the only temple which survived the Siamese War.  Here we drove past the beautiful Victory Gate, stopping for a very typical Lao lunch beginning with a soup that was out of this world.  I could have made it my main meal, containing tofu, vegetables like cabbage & celery and seaweed & mushrooms in a clear based broth.  Everyone raved about it. After lunch & of course a very large Beerlao shared as always with Margaret, we drove to the COPE Center (COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise). Founded in 1997, it was established for education & fundraising to help find & destroy all the thousands upon thousands of bombs the US dropped over 1/3 of the countryside in Laos which were never detonated & still main & kill hundreds every year, mostly farmers innocently tending their lands. These were bombs dropped indiscriminately along the borders with Vietnam to simply get rid of the payload as trying to return to base with heavy armaments aboard was very dangerous! 

Each of us felt devastated after watching a twenty minute documentary showing what actually happened to a Lao farmer simply lighting a fire to cook a meal for his family when suddenly the heat detonated a long hidden bomb into a fiery explosion.  He was blinded & so seriously burned over the rest of his body that he is no longer able to work to support his wife & children.  He and his wife describe what kind of life they are left with since he can’t see to even properly care for their two babies. Tragically it is the poor & guiltless Lao farmer who has been the unlucky recipient of our war efforts in Vietnam!  I asked Ole how the Lao can stand to see so many US citizens touring around their impoverished country & not feel hatred toward us.  He said simply, they are Buddhists.  And they know it was aggression from our government and not us.  What an ironic distinction.

Later that evening, a small group of us were invited to Kevin & Anne's room for a glass of wine.  They had chilled some & want to share it before we fly out to Phnom Penh in the morning. Dinner is on our own tonight, but a group of us are going to try a French Restaurant in the bustling square about a ten minute walk from the hotel.  As it turned out, twelve of the group all converged at once and sitting down to a long table, we ordered Pizza!

So off to pack again!!   We have an 8:00 wake up, luggage out at 9:00; on the bus at 9:30.  I never saw such a punctual group of people in my life.  We are now leaving Laos in the morning and flying to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia for another dose of painful reality smacking us all in the head.