Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Living Out Lao

Once the Kingpins of Indochine, Les French, coined this phrase: "The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow."

Reading that in the Lonely Planet as we flew from Seam Reap, Cambodia to Vientiane, Laos (pronounced "vee-ehn-chee-ahn, louw"...that's right, "louw" -- rhymes with "wow"), we laughed out loud. Andy and I couldn't quite imagine any place in Asia could be so mellow.

We were wrong~> read more


Laos is unexpected -- quiet and serene, low-stress and beautiful. Traveling in Laos' Mekong river-green and gold-temple midst, you'd never know it's sandwiched between the chaotic, industrious cultures of China, Burma, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. The friendly people, who utter "sah-bah-dee" (hello) with genuine smiles, rarely follow it with a sales pitch and go about their daily lives with such gentle equanimity, lilting purpose and lack of loud voices we've wondered if we didn't end up on a parallel continent.

Buddhism is the tour-de-force that governs the national psyche and its doctrine empahsizes a cooling of human emotions which seems evident in the way people act, interact, barter, drive and go about their day. Verrrry mellow, very placid, purposeful but not passionate -- kind smiles and polite interactions that get the job done, but never tread on your sensibilities or stress level. Plus, there are monks of all ages -- from cherubic boys to grizzled grandpas, all with freshly bald heads -- on every street in their orange-peel robes walking to temple for meditation, and with that much karma on the streets, you just have to be on your best behavior. Nirvana is the name of the game for the Buddhists, and traveling here...save for the roads...is pretty damn close.

We started off in the afore-pronounced capital of Vientiane, where a colonial past collided with communism and now flirts outrageously with capitalism.

From 1893 - 1953, the French worked their imperial magic of baguettes, balconies and boulevards...along with the delicious extras of coffee roasting, ice cubes and plumbing. After the debacle of the Indochina Wars in the 1960's and 1970's, Laos was ruled by a Communist government funded by the USSR and trained in Vietnam...in everything but architecture. During this time, concrete block compounds with nary a curve or decorative detail flourished, if you can even say that, and when walking the city you see cement monstrosities with the old emblem of the hammer and sickle butting up to decaying colonial homes with painted shutters and aromatic, white-washed cafes.

I guess you could say the "rice curtain" fell over Laos during that time as it was isolated from Capitalist countries, especially the West, but never fell prey to a masochistic government like Cambodia. Instead, the Communists let the tribes of Laos, of which they're over 70, go about their daily lives of farming the rivers and jungles, grow their beloved rice, practice a government-regulated form of Buddhism and ease, ever-so-slowly, toward modernism without destroying the environment or naivetes in the process. What a concept!!!

And now, there are backpackers, NGO Land Rovers and eco-tourism agents cruising the streets trying to uncover and unleash Laos' potential. Laos gently, suspiciously opened its doors around 2000 to outside travelers and so far, so good. This potpourri of past and progress makes a landscape that's digested a bit like an item on a Lao menu: easy to swallow yet tough to say exactly what's involved. Every point of interest in Vientiane is within easy walking or biking, every activity is hassle-free and you quickly fall into synch with everyone greeting everyone with "sah-bah-dee". It's contagious! Yet, you're not sure why Laos is so laid-back and the traveling cynic in me wonders if this is indigenous or just pre-mass-tourism.

Whatever the case, just being in Laos for a few days we're immediately excited and re-energized from Cambodia. Perhaps learning to listen to the rice grow is the secret?!? I'm not sure, but in the sensory pleasure-puzzle that is Asia, Laos is a perfect fit for us.


Blogger gknaddison said...

So, where is the accent on sah-bah-dee?

4:48 PM  
Anonymous Aunt Mary said...

Aunt Mary - It sounds so peaceful /serene / beautiful. Love,

8:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The accent is on the second syllable. The greeting is actually pronounced Sah-Bye-Dee, but usually spelled Sabaidee. "Sah" is pronounced quickly, whereas "Bye" has a longer length. In Vientiane, the "Dee" is pronounced in a rising tone kind of like when you're asking a question = "Dee?"...so put it all together and say "sah-BYEEE-deeee???"

11:35 PM  

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