From barely existing roads to Buddhist temples

Tuesday, January 22, 2002

Editor's note: Ann Ostendorf of Cape Girardeau is taking a year to travel through England, Pakistan and Asia. This is one in a series of articles she is writing about her journey.

Last week: People in Laos had a way of finding fun in everything they did.

By Ann Ostendorf ~ Special to the Southeast Missourian

I found Laotian women of the hill tribes so interesting I decided to visit some of their villages. I paired up with a friend, got instructions from our guest house owner, and we set off on rickety old bicycles. Because the road was neither paved, dirt, nor gravel, an hour by bike proved painful.

When the "road" ended, we parked our bikes and continued on foot. The forest path climbed through lush, green hills with the thick jungle underbrush often threatening to envelope the path. We eventually stumbled across a old wooden entryway with carved charms hanging from it.

This was a spirit gate. It meant we were nearing a village. Because the religion of the hill tribes is a combination of ancestor worship, animism and spirit worship, spirit gates are erected on paths just outside villages to keep unwelcome forest spirits from entering. No one is allowed to touch or walk through the gates, so we passed discreetly around it into the village.

I was instantly struck at the simplicity of their lifestyle. Everything in their life was made from what the forest around them offered. The wooden houses were platforms built on stilts with palm leaves woven for walls and grass for roofs. Underneath, the dirt was packed firm from years of toil and play. Dishes, furniture and clothes has all been made by hand.

Not wanting to intrude too long, we bought some fruit from a child as we were leaving and headed back into the forest.

A fence of children

As we neared the next village, our progress was halted by a man barring our way using his children as a fence. We knew outsiders were not allowed into villages during certain festivals and days of mourning. We had been told to look for a cross-hatched wooden symbol tacked to trees by the paths to show if we were forbidden to enter. Not seeing one, we assumed we were welcome. Since this obviously didn't seem to be the case, we turned back. Wanting to continue along to other villages, we decided to leave the trail, skirt around the village and return to our path on the other side of the hill.

This might sound like a reasonable proposition until it is put into practice in a dense forest. Our off-road adventure brought some steep ascents and slippery descents. We would start following a worn trail only to end up crawling through spaces made by wild pigs. I kept thinking how Laos is still home to elephants, leopards, jackals, bears and tigers, even though it's rare to see one of these. Each time we thought we made it around the village and climbed to where the path should be, the beating drums and shouting children told us differently. The forest was so dense we could only see a few yards in front of us. Afraid we might be taken for evil spirits if our presence was detected, we quickly retreated. We walked further along only to have similar attempts thwarted in the same way. Would this village never end?

When we finally emerged onto the path scratched and muddied from the jungle, I looked up to see the crisscrossed symbol that meant "keep out" fastened to a tree. Already nervous from the claustrophobic jungle full of drums, imaginary animals and unwelcoming villagers, we quickly headed back to the bikes.

Another mode of travel

After a painful trip back to town, I decided I'd had enough of the roads here and would try traveling by boat. With a few other foreigners, I rented a long wooden canoe-like boat, equipped with two boatmen, and began the two-day journey down the Pak Tha River.

I found boat travel preferable to the roads despite the occasional spray from the rapids. The ride was smooth and slow enough to take in the scenery. We passed villages and saw herds of naked children tumbling on the sandy bank during what was probably bath time. Women made the most of the afternoon sun, bathing in their full-length wraparounds and washing their hair in the river. At the sound of the boat, everyone stopped their respective dirtying and cleaning to wave.

We stayed the night on the floor of the boatman's house and hit the river early the next morning. Around noon we pulled up next to a fisherman who sold our boatman a 3-foot-long fish. We stopped soon after for some tasty fish soup prepared fresh on the bank of the river. I opted not to try the raw fish paste served with sticky rice, a staple of the Laotian diet.

Sticky rice is something I could write pages about. I wish I knew how to make it. It's just like regular rice, only a hundred times better. It clumps together and is, well, sticky. It is served with almost every meal in a little woven basket. You pull out a clump, roll it into a ball, dip it in sauce and chew and chew and chew.

Another common Laotian dish is laap. It is meat or fish minced and cooked with onions, chili, mint and coriander and is especially delicious when stuck to a ball of sticky rice.

One of the best parts of eating in Laos is the abundance of sauces on all tables. Chili paste, dried chili, pickled chili, as well as shrimp sauce and squid sauce are just asking to be mixed into a culinary concoction of your own creation. Plates of leafy green vegetables and herbs are brought for your dipping pleasure.

Popular fare

Two more popular Laotian foods were imported by the French in colonial times and have been adopted in splendid ways. French baguettes can be found in every town just asking to be made into sandwiches. The other treat of Laos cuisine is the strong, black coffee. You can't imagine what a sandwich lover and coffee drinker suffers traveling for three months in China where they only drink green tea and no form of bread can be found. You may have discovered the true reason I love Laos so much.

It isn't just the food that the French left in Laos. Our boat travel concluded the day after the fish soup with a six-hour speedboat ride down the Mekong River into Luangphrabang. This town is known for its well-preserved French colonial architecture and its spectacular Buddhist temples, or wats, as they are known in Laos. Because of this, the town has recently been named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town is small and quiet and a great place to explore Laotian Buddhist culture. I spent a few days strolling around town stopping for coffee or to do a little souvenir shopping in between visits to wats.

The temple grounds are open for anyone to visit, and each one consists of a few temples, a drum tower, monks' quarters and classrooms. The temples are brilliantly painted in gold and red that burned in the tropical sun. Some of the more ornate ones are covered in glass mosaics depicting scenes from the holy texts. They shone brightly both inside and out with an ornate, bejeweled appearance.

'Beautiful Laos woman'

The best part about visiting the temples is the orange-robed monks wandering around the grounds. Most boys in Laos become monks for at least a month, if not longer. Some stay in the monastery for their entire lives. But despite the religious training they were receiving, they were still teen-agers and could be seen doing typical teen-age things all over town. Play fighting between the older ones and games among the younger ones were common. I even caught a few smoking clandestine cigarettes behind bushes.

Since some of the monks are learning English, they often stop foreigners to have conversations. Once when I was wearing a Laos-style skirt a flirtatious -- or possibly sarcastic -- young monk referred to me as "beautiful Laos woman," at which his friends laughed heartily.

I read somewhere that one of the reasons the Laotian attitude is so good-natured and easygoing is because of the long history of Buddhism here and the importance this religion has to the Laotian people. Based on the number of monks and the number of wats in the country, obviously Buddhism has had a great influence.

What is most amazing, though, is that their way of seeing the world has remained constant despite the massive destruction and displacement of people the country experienced in the 1960s and '70s. While no one in Laos appears rich in worldly goods, they seem to measure wealth by a different standard. Laotians have remained proud of their culture and are certainly glad they have been given a life in such a great place. Who can blame them? Laos is a wonderful place to visit and, according to some, an even better place to live.

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