Laos is home to much that is beautiful and much that is quaint, but my favorite thing about visiting new countries is seeing how people live. Local guides insist that visitors see things that are unusual or impressive, but the best part is often getting there.
We spent a day on the Mekong River, for instance, so we could visit the Pak Ou Caves, a couple of relatively small natural caverns in the side of a cliff facing the river. Hundreds of years ago, the caves became de facto temples as local people installed Buddha images there – a few at first, then more and more. Our guide told us that the lower caves housed more than 2,500 images, and the upper caves another 1,500.
Some of the images are large, placed on shelves built into the rock, and would clearly have required a cooperative effort, but most of them are small, brought by individuals hoping that some special need would be met, or that they’d have good luck in general. I confess that I soon grew tired of the parade of dusty images in their various postures, stacked together or becoming one with the rock as limestone laced water has dripped on them for hundreds of years.
Susan, however, took an entirely different approach. As we walked through the dark caves studded with Buddhas, she tried to imagine the people who had brought them there over the past several hundred years, what their lives were like, and what they were praying for or hoping to achieve. I saw moldy statues gathering dust: she saw the hearts of the people. Obviously, she had the better vision.
Riding a longboat to the caves was a most pleasant experience. The boat was old but well kept, with a big V-8 engine chugging in a back room, adjoining a small space where the boat’s owner and his family lived. We sat on seats scavenged from an old bus, bolted to wooden slats and arranged on either side of the boat. Two narrow platforms in the front had foam mattresses for napping. A small toilet in the back brought a surprise: the water for flushing was muddy and obviously came straight from the river below. I suspect the effluent went right back to the river, too.
Along the way we enjoyed watching people along the river’s edge. Some live there, in boats also used to ferry passengers or freight up and down the river. Some folks were fishing, some gathering young bamboo shoots, others bringing food to monks in a riverside temple. While having lunch in a restaurant on stilts at the junction of the Mekong and the Ou Rivers (and hoping the fish we were eating didn’t come from either one), we watched a small adventure-based group bring kayaks to shore and mount elephants for a trek in the surrounding forest.
We also watched a boy who couldn’t have been more than 10 catching small fish on the dock, which he put into a two-liter plastic bottle with a slit in the side. Afterward, he paddled his long canoe across the Ou to check nets on the other shore – with no parents in sight. Where we live, children that age often aren’t allowed to wait for the school bus without parental protection, much less spend a day fishing in the river.
Later that day we visited small villages not far from Luang Prabang where we watched women make decorative paper (used in paper lanterns and a variety of other ways) from the bark of a mulberry tree. After being stripped from the tree, the inner lining of the bark is boiled for some time, then pounded with the heavy section of a tree trunk mounted on a foot-driven seesaw-like lever. After it’s sufficiently pounded, the softened pulp is mixed with water, then spread on a submerged screen, lifted out to set, and stacked for drying.
A more intriguing stop was at a place nicknamed “Whiskey Village” because a number of locals specialize in making rice “wine” that’s brewed in a still and emerges as 50 percent alcohol. The process is similar to making moonshine, except the mash is made from sticky rice instead of corn. After fermenting in large pots for a number of days, the mash is put into an old drum with a wood fire beneath. Instead of copper tubing, a deep concave lid on the top holds water that is constantly replaced to keep it cool. As the mash boils, the vapors condense on the under-side of the cooler lid and drip into a funnel connected to a pipe that carries it through a pipe and through a ragged cloth filter into bottles or pots.
A fair portion of the liquor is put into bottles containing snakes or scorpions caught in the surrounding forest, supposedly in the belief that it will make the drinker more powerful. I can testify that the taste is nasty, with or without the snake.
Both villages we visited were also home to women who weave cloth from home-raised and homespun cotton or silk spun from silkworms raised on mulberry leaves. The yarn is died using various natural agents, including tree bark, indigo, and a variety of plants or crushed minerals. When Susan bought a colorful piece suitable for a shawl or table runner, we could have bargained to get it for less, but knowing it took the lady three days to weave (after spinning the yarn!), we didn’t have the heart to ask for a discount from the five dollar asking price.
Another day had us driving north of the city to visit the Kuangsi Waterfalls, which cascade down the mountainside to flow through scenic pools advertised as turquoise in color, where people enjoy swimming. Evidently, that happens mainly in the dry season. It rained at some point every day we were there, and the streams feeding the waterfall had grown muddy, so the “turquoise” pools were a murky beige. It was raining the day we visited, so the dirt path on the way to the falls was a bit treacherous. On the plus side, that meant there was more water coming down, and the falls, which descended in several stages down the verdant forest mountainside, were impressive indeed.
But again, the falls weren’t the highlight. On the way up and back, we persuaded the guide to stop so we could watch people at work planting rice in small paddies. The guide (named “Pon”) said that when tourist business is slow he still travels two hours north to help his father work the rice fields. Once his father had 10 water buffalo that he used to plow the flooded plots and then smooth them with a sort of drag harrow. It took him two months, Pon said – but then he sold the water buffalo to buy a motorized tiller with paddle wheels, which allowed him to get the paddies ready in only two weeks.
Farmers prepare for planting by scattering rice thickly in a seed bed to grow for several weeks, then transplanting the seedlings in the flooded paddies by hand. In Laos, most farmers are able to grow two crops each year. Getting out of the van, tiptoeing along the muddy terraces, and smelling the rich earth was a treat in itself.
Lunch brought its own kind of treat. We ate at a roadside café where chicken, fish, and skewers or pork were cooked over a wood-fired grill out front. The chicken was delicious, as was the sticky rice and a dish of well-seasoned morning glory greens.
Back in town, as noted in a previous blog, we enjoyed visiting the market and hanging out with the lovely people of Laos, learning to appreciate their world while being even more grateful for our own.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.