Translated by: Pal Capewell
Like Eni has mentioned in the previous post, the second of December is an important day in Laos, especially if it’s the 40th anniversary. The Civil War of the sixties and seventies was ended by the victory of the North Vietnamese Army over the Royal Laos Army, on December 2nd. After the change in power came the change in the country’s name, from Kingdom of Laos to the People’s Republic of Democratic Laos. Thus is the big celebration, marking the 40th anniversary of the creation of this South-East Asian country.
National, socialist flags were everywhere, the roads were busy with trucks and pick-up trucks carrying soldiers and generally everyone was in a festive mood. We were too, to finally have the day over. Why? Getting accommodation isn’t an easy task to begin with, and with the increased security measures, it was harder than ever. Is it selfish of me to put our own happiness above a whole nation’s? Probably. But you might understand how we feel once I describe the past couple of days...
It began with our departure from Vientian. Unfortunately we departed rather late, and didn’t manage to get far from the capital. We don’t necessarily like camping in the outskirts of big cities because experience suggests it’s more likely we will be approached by people with indecent agendas. Our friend Zoli once told us how he often slept in Buddhist temples during his biking trips. It was about time we began to explore the secret nature of these temples as well! Over on the other side of the road we spotted the gates of a rather large temple, and we slowly rolled in. We had no idea what was considered decent behavior and what was expected of visitors. Soon enough we realized locals weren’t very particular about it, as they entered with e-bikes, cars, motorbikes and all sorts without a worry in the world.
We were greeted by a smiling fourteen year old, who quickly searched for an English speaking monk, as we didn’t have a language in common. Lar, the twenty-two year old monk, broke out of his English class and greeted us with a big smile. He assured us that he is going to ask the master of the monastery, once his class is finished, whether we can sleep there. Till then, we made ourselves comfortable on the patio, observing and smiling back at the monks passing by. It turned dark by the time Lar returned with a positive response, allowing us to stay for the night. We pushed our bikes further in, and he offered us a meal, during which we got to talking. Turns out he attended a Buddhist college in Burma, where he learned English; it was ten years ago, at the age of twelve, when he decided to become a monk. He recollected how it took a year of convincing for his parents to accept it all. One can only be a monk apparently once he turns twenty; many people return to normal lives over the years though.
In Cambodia, we met a twenty-five year old, who fell in love with the girl in front of the monastery, decided to leave and marry the girl instead. One of my favorite portray that I made was with him, and his two month old baby.
Lar aspires to be a doctor, either in Sri Lanka or in the United States. He was only days away from a Fulbright scholarship interview during our stay. He is a very dedicated monk and has told us very fascinating stories about life in the monastery, and about a pilgrimage that he’d like to undertake barefoot, wearing just his robe. It’s probably not easy to abandon earthly possessions and everyday life... Well, not ALL things must be abandoned, but it is most certainly more strict and formal than that of Tibetan monasteries, where monks were speeding along on motorcycles and took selfies with their iPhone 6 cellphones. A Buddhist monk must follow more than 200 rules and regulations. Just to mention a few: he can’t cut a tree, can’t cook a meal, can’t handle money, can’t have his own possession. Getting lumber is one thing, but abandoning money and income altogether.... now that’s not going to be easy, contemplates Lar. He needs a computer or at least a tablet for his studies. His parents live far off in the north, he can only contact them by cellphone. These are not necessarily forbidden, it’s just him who is struggling for balance inside. During the chat the cafeteria, where they let us stay, was swamped by civilians, discussing something for at least three hours.
One of these “civilians” stepped over to Lar, in his large size and unpleasant demeanor, and instructed Lar that we shouldn’t be sleeping here - due to “security reasons”. We weren’t too thrilled to be told to leave, as we were rather exhausted, grew fond of the monastery and Lar, but it didn’t seem like these people were going to leave anytime soon. Lar, the polite and caring person he is, invited us over for breakfast the next day. Fortunately for us, it didn’t take long to find another place to sleep, just across the road. It was an old village house that had a servants room - the owner cleared out the room for us and offered it for the night. He, however, said that we must wait for the cops to arrive and confirm we can sleep here. Cops?? What did we do, we wondered... The girl translating reassured us not to worry though, it’s just a formality. Then the “cop” showed up, and we almost burst out laughing. Imagine a guy in formal attire, but barefoot, with flip-flops. He took a picture of our passports and visa, then politely wished goodnight. Here the restrictions are not very strictly enforced... We finally got comfortable and were about to fall asleep - our exhaustion was so severe even the noise outside didn’t bother us - when we heard knocking on the door. “Hello, sir? Hello, sir?” came the loud knocks and calling. Alert, I jumped out of my sleeping-bag and opened the door. A lady and a young man were standing in the door, holding fruit cocktails. They gifted us kindly, and we were to drink up. How sweet. I was about to hit the sack again, when another local showed up to bring dinner: hot noodle soup, and two bottles of water. So adorable and kind! Our next attempt at falling asleep was a successful one, with a full stomach this time. At six, a rather loud “good morning!” awoke us. After packing we opted for leaving; in the midst of his stretching, the impersonal civil guard (with a machine gun on his back) standing by, finally let go of a smile.
We had breakfast with Lar, continued our chat from yesterday, then set off to continue our journey. Having left the town behind in the dry heat, the traffic lessened and lessened, and we rode till late afternoon. Looking for a place didn’t pose a challenge that night, we slept in a monastery again where we could walk around to our gusto, use their kitchen and showers.
The following days we were on route S13, heading eastward. Then, with a sharp right turn we began following the Mekong River, southward. We asked for a place to stay next to a doctor’s office, but we were to go to the local “leader” to ask for permission. Rather rudely, without even looking at us, he just burped “no!”. At the end somehow we were allowed to stay, but a number of civil guards were to stand by while we slept. They spent the entire night laughing and being loud, to a bare three meters from us. We made steady progress each day, despite the 35 degree heat. Lack of sleep and sleep quality further deprived us of energy, but we pressed on. This part is much flatter than the north, which aided us somewhat. The main road kept changing between following the Mekong and crossing large grasslands.
We met much nicer people here than in the north. They smile, wave and warmly welcome us. Children, of course, ran towards us screaming “sabaydi” (hello), here too. Some kids threw a proper fit, like Beatles fans at the sight of Ringo Start. Here the standard of living is higher, but still far behind Thailand, and especially Malaysia.
Thakek is a little town filled with French colonial buildings, by the Mekong riverside. With its little European style main square, and cozy passages, it quickly lurked its way into our hearts. After a delicious typical Laos coffee (which they serve with a tad of condensed milk), we headed for the limestone caves. Eastward from the city, one must take a turn from route 12 towards the caves. We began with the Elephant Cave, where Buddha statues, altars stood next to numerous dripstone monuments. This is where we met Frans and Carolina, Dutch travelers on a kite-surf trip spiced up with some biking. The plan for them is to ride from Phnom Penh to Luang Prabang, from where they don’t yet know how, but plan to go to Vietnam as the winds are really good there this time of the year. We had a rather long chat (after we climbed bamboo ladders for thirty minutes behind the village, which was super exhausting but the view at the top was worth it), then they left to go back to the city and we made ourselves comfortable under half-roof next to the ticket office. We washed ourselves in the river, then when darkness fell upon us we drew back into our tents away from the mosquitos, and wrote in our journals. Not long after a man appeared, who inspected whether we belong to the guerrilla army. Upon seeing us, he left with a smile but started calling someone on his phone. I didn’t have much time to get back to writing though, as the man returned, accompanied by two other men with flashlights. The older man asked for a chat in his limited English, and requested to see our passports. He explained that it’s December 2nd, and it is their job to protect the village. We didn’t really understand protect from who, but soon enough they said that protection includes us too. We didn’t resist, no point to argue or to suggest they are overreacting. They “invited” us to the town house for the night; this wasn’t much of an invitation but an implied our way or, literally, the highway. This is how we ended up sleeping in a proper building with heating and running water. Having discovered animal “markings” on the bedsheets though, we decided to sleep on our own mats on the ground. I woke up to Eni’s screaming “Oh dear Lord there is a mouse on my belly!!!” to which I almost got a heart attack. We moved one room outward and spent the rest of the night, to our knowledge, without any mice.
In the morning we departed early to be at the Buddha Cave on time. Leaving the main road, one must ride for about 9km on the red dirtroad. On our way we bumped into a scorpio who was rather upset and resistant to our attempts at trying to lead it back off the road, to avoid someone riding over it.
This cave was discovered in 2004, when a local bat selling merchant (bat meat is a local delicacy) was trying to capture bats. He climbed up 15 meter high to a cave, where a few hundred carved Buddhist statues were discovered. First the merchant couldn’t believe his eyes and didn’t want to tell anyone. Then, grouped up with multiple men, they returned and established that there is nothing wrong with the gentleman’s sanity. They built a set of stairs, made the 10-15sqm cave visitable for spectators. At the rear, a passage starts, leading the visitor further back to admire dripstone formations. Unfortunately photo and video recording were both prohibited. If you pass by this town, you must check it out!
Having returned to the city, we couldn’t resist and had another round of coffee at the same spot with the old lady, at the riverside. We kept going southward, on a less busy road (though roads in Laos generally have light traffic), crossing quaint villages. We often crossed paths with groups of children either going to or coming back from school, who kindly waved at us. Boys in dark, long pants and white shirts, and girls in long, simple but pretty skirts and white blouses travel often as much as an hour to school. Lucky ones go on bikes, wealthier ones are taken on motorbikes. For the evening, we asked for accommodation in a cute little monastery again, by the Mekong riverside. We still had half an hour till dusk, so we sat by and watched the kids playing soccer, especially a novice in orange clothes. From then on, we had no problem asking for a place to stay - not that monks were not hospitable, they were except one time. The sunset was simply breathtaking above the Mekong, while fishermen returned home after a long day. We began preparations to go to sleep. Shower is the same in every monastery: a huge bucket, where from you continually pour the cold water on yourself with a small bowl. A lot of animals have a very active nightlife there. Locusts, mosquitos (unfortunately), night butterflies all attempt to get to light in a craze. The ticking sound of geckos, and the music of crickets, cicadas turn tropical nights into a loud party. At six in the evening it’s already coal dark, though the Sun only disappears at half past five or a quarter to six. It’s almost as if the Sun just falls under the horizon. The Moon also waxes and wanes differently than back home. Here the difference happens from top to bottom, making it look like a gondola, watching us sleep with a wide grin across his face.
The next morning we met Filip and Maron in front of a small store. Filip flew to Bangkok from Portugal, and plans to bike back home. Maron is young French teacher from France, whose plan is to tour the South-East Asian countries on a motorbike. We had a ninety minute long chat sipping cold sodas, which felt absolutely the best at that point. The boys gave us a fantastic idea for a program... but you can only read about that in our next post.
Picture: Filip on the left, Maron in the middle