Friday, March 24, 2006

A Buddha-full Afternoon

One hot Sunday in Laos, Andy and I hired a longtail boat to ferry us up the breezy Mekong River to a mystical-sounding cave called Pak Ou which is supposedly filled nook and cranny with golden Buddha images. Longtail boats are the cars of Asian rivers and look like an extra-long gondola from Venice, with a canopy to cover driver and passenger from blistering sun, and sport an engine seeming off an 1980 Toyota Corrolla that motors you fast and loud across the mud-brown, algae-green waters. It's not quiet, but nothing is in Southeast Asia, so you tune out the revving motor noises and instead sit at water's level and enjoy the scenic lifescape of Laos as you fast-float by the banks of the Mekong.

The Mekong is truly the lifeblood of Laos, as this Utah-sized country is ocean-less and these mighty waters are fertile ground for trade, transportation and tilling the land, and we saw humans and animals using its water in every productive, primitive way during our afternoon cruise. It was a serene, voyeuristic afternoon for us and we loved it because we quietly observed life as the Lao know it. Despite our clothes and skin, we were nearly invisible and while that is something we rarely yearn for in a purely innocent sense at home in America, it's something we've wished greatly for here. Rarely noticed, Andy and I and participated only when a friendly wave from the banks beckoned us to wave back.

Here's a glimpse of what we saw along the Mekong between Luang Prabang and Pak Ou:~> read more


- Families bathing in the brown-green water, sarongs on their bodies which are easily lifted for soapy access and dark heads glistening with shampoo.

- Women in those eponymous, woven rice paddy coolie hats, looking just like an Asian postcard, panning for gold.

- Water buffalo herds, buried neck-deep in the Mekong water, cooling off from a tough day of grazing...or maybe avoiding becoming tomorrow night's dinner.

- Electric green gardens, ripe with herbs, pumpkin, lettuces, zucchini, eggplant and watercress, growing in leafy glory right down to the river's edge.

- Shirtless men sanding longtail boats into shape to make a business on or of the river.

- Women slap, slap, slapping wet clothes against rocks to clean(?) them in the Mekong.

- Child-boy monks playing in the water, their traffic-cone orange robes startling your eyes in contrast to the earthy greens and browns.

- Vvvvvrrrrrroooooooooommmmmmmmmmmm!!! The most deafening motor-engine sound you can imagine, one that seemed totally out of place, and then believable once we got our bearings from the distraction and realized we are in Asia. A flat, surfboard-like speedboat with what could only be a truck engine flies by, rocking us in its wake. The eight passengers on the boat are all wearing lifejackets and helmets! We're puzzled and horrified, and then remember the warning about these commuter boats between Thailand and Laos in the Lonely Planet, and are horrified again by their seeming unsafe reality, and then grateful we aren't on one.

- Families that range in age from grandma to newborn, filling up a longtail boat like our own, out smiling and sailing along the river for inexpensive Sunday thrill.

- Masked-men, scuba-masked that is, on smaller boats with lawnmower engines, putting along...dropping their faces in the murky water to look first for signs of fish or algae, and then dropping their old-fashioned nets to mine the river for edible treasures.

As we sailed gently up to a white, sheer limestone wall, mottled by green vines and dark cave openings, we knew the simple beauty of our Mekong trip would now get even better. Pak Ou is a series of caves, hidden high above the river, turned into a sacred temple for secret worship during the less-than-religious Communist reign. It's filled with over 4,000 Buddha images, ranging from palm-sized statues left as offering to human-size statues that hover in golden, meditative splendor. Worshippers come and give alms to Buddha, and we joined the nearly all-Lao group, taking off our shoes and padding about the cave in socks to take in the incomprehensible number of Buddhas, kneel in respect and light incense. Scented smoke wafted around the gold, tarnished, faded, shiny and peeling Buddha images, stacked hundreds high into corners or piled onto rock ledges and we gaped about. Sometimes you heard a squeak above, and looked up to see the cave light cut by black wingspans reminiscent of a certain superhero.

Being inside of Pak Ou and surrounded by bats and Buddhas was like out of a adventure tale where Indiana Jones is your fairy godmother!!! So cool, so spiritual-magical, so unlike anything in the States...and that after our uneventful-yet-eventul in the best way trip up the Mekong. What an amazing afternoon! It was like for a few hours, we were almost Lao instead of us. This might seem strange but we're finding while traveling, to be on the inside of every day life without feeling like you're on the outside, is a rare treat that is both rewarding and comforting.


Anonymous Mommy Moore said...

So many experiences and emotions in one trip!!! Seeing the Lao people in their daily life, seeing Pak Ou, and experiencing the silence and the noise makes me hope that after one of these amazing outings, you take a day or two of "down time" just to digest everything.

3:44 AM  
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