Tat Fan, Wat Phu, Reflection, and Relaxation

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Saturday, January 14, 2006

Today is my last day in Laos so I reflect upon geckos, nagas, betel nut, plumeria, ribs, guitars, temples, hellos, and goodbyes from Adam Internet cafe in Pakse.

During the night, the geckos hang out on the walls near fluorescent lights, snatching insects as they fly by. The geckos change their coloring to fit their surroundings. A tattoo of them is considered by Lao people as a sign of an easy-going personality. I'm surprised that most Lao people don't sport gecko tatoos, but when they say "easy-going" they must really mean "easy-going."

Meanwhile, the nagas, mystical serpent creatures, live in the Mekong, where they are both feared and revered as protectors of the environment. At Mama's Home Restaurant, our waitress told us the story of the nagas and a bridge construction project across the Mekong:

"If you dream about the naga, you're not supposed to work. One falang man dreamed about the nagas, but still worked the next day, despite Lao people's warning. Rocks fell on him and he died with many Lao people too. I believe in nagas. You must be careful."

Perhaps the nagas explain why Laos is relatively undeveloped and that foreigners (falang) are mainly in charge of development projects (or then again it may be the geckos).

On the buses, sawngthaew and jumbos, elderly women chew betel nut, which makes them look like they've just been punched in the mouth as they spit out blood red chew into plastic bags. This may be another option to chewing tobacco for baseball players.

In the streets, the plumeria is flowering, despite losing its leaves for the dry season. The flowers of the Lao national tree are fragrant, but you must sink your nose deeply within the five creamy petals to smell the richness.

This was now Lu's favorite flower.

Within the Lao context of nagas, geckos, betel nut, plumerias, and more, on the next sawngthaew, Lucie and I met a group of six--Rane, Daz, Stu, Lydia, Alex, and Greg--who had been traveling together since they took the two-day bonding experience of the slow boat on the Mekong from Thailand to Luang Prabang. Stu, whose 25th birthday was on the 10th, was Lydia's brother, both from England, as was Greg. Alex, now 36 was from Holland. Rane and Daz were traveling together from the same neighborhood in Australia. All had left their jobs and other things behind them. This group now somewhat included Lu and myself as we headed towards the southern reaches of Laos.

Unlike Lu, who was heading their way and looking to meet new people, I was less interested in a big group, prefering to do my own thing and to heal my ribs, which hurt at almost every bump in the road.

Everyone has a different style of traveling; I stuck with my style, for what that's worth.

For example, one Japanese traveler who I met several times on our guesthouse patio for Lao tea had left Osaka six months ago, but had only traveled in Savanakhet, preferring to stay in one town for escape or freedom or whatever he wanted. His style of traveling was to not-travel. Perhaps he was Taoist. Our style of conversation also mainly involved not-talking, watching the wind blow the hanging flower pots, and enjoying the changing colors of sunlight on the nearby tin roof.

Still, it was Stu's birthday, so I joined in the festivities: we ate Korean barbecue, which was excellent, and toasted to Stu.

The next day in Pakse, I took the local bus to the Tat Fan waterfall, where I relaxed all day. The waterfall is the largest in Laos, plumeting several hundred feet down a sheer cliff into a pool. At the restaurant that overlooked the falls, I played guitar for what seemed like hours and ate a couple great meals. I also hiked through the forests, stretched, and meditated upon my ribs and other things. On the ride back to Pakse, old women chewed betel nut, spitting red.

Along the Mekong in the late afternoon light, I met a group of men playing petanque and drank a Beerlao with Lak, who owned an import-export business in town, until the sun set. They reminded me of playing bocci with friends back on Martha's Vineyard.

The next morning, I said goodbye to Lucie, who was heading further south then to northern Vietnam. We headed our own ways, which, like many goodbyes, felt like eating the last piece of a bar of bittersweet chocolate.

Stu joined me for the trip to Champasak, the site of the Wat Phu temple. Our guest house overlooked the Mekong River, with three uncomfortable hammocks positioned just right, except no one used them because they were uncomfortable.

Stu was going to meet the rest of the group down south, a place called the 4,000 Islands, so hurried to the temple that afternoon. I relaxed deeply at the guesthouse, then walked the dark, one-street town with Stu once he returned, talking along the way.

The next morning, I visited Wat Phu, an ancient Hindu temple overlooking the Mekong River Valley. The temple, however, was now occupied by several Buddha statues in place of the old Shiva-lingam. Archaeological excavation and the clearing of brush was still on-going as the site was just recently declared a World Heritage Site. Its character, therefore, was one of transition and contrasts: Buddhism and Hinduism, discovery and disrepair, clearing and excessive growth.

I left with the sense that this was a glimpse of what I would see at Angkor.

Now, in Adam Internet Cafe, I wait for my morning flight to Angkor Wat and reflect upon Laos, remembering the people, places, and experiences of the last three and a half weeks.

I will remember Beerlao and smiling children and bomb craters and mysterious jars and capsizing kayaks and Madame Sassypants and Mekong River fish and Lao coffee and tribal villages and waterfalls and karst peaks and temples and town markets and dusty streets and Lao soup and French baguettes and homes made of bomb scraps and Mr. Hummie and the big cave and the bowl of Lao lai and the travelers I met along the way and Lucie, my travel companion for much of the journey.

Goodbye Laos.
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Comments

carolyn
carolyn on

Next chapter
So the Cambodia chapter of your travelog has begun... can't wait for more stories! You should stop by Angelina Jolie's house! haha!
btw... when I see you on Skype, I type to you, but you never reply!

sorrel2
sorrel2 on

flowers and such
makes me miss fish and salty beer on the northeast shores of south america:-) thanks for the email (btw)...it lifted my mood. i'm ardently trying not to be negative. ironically, i just started my spring semester with a feminist latin american film class (read, angry depressed latinas). the first film was so depressing i had to look hard to find the silver lining - but i did. i did, lloyd, despite the fact that the professor told us repeatedly that the film makes her want to slit her wrists. but, i found the hope and the joy and i swear, your upbeat narratives helped.

lraleigh
lraleigh on

Re: Next chapter
I just visited Lara Croft's (Angelina Jolie) home away from home today by the way. I'll be going to Angkor Wat and other temples over the next four or five or six days, depending.

Also, I'm not avoiding you on Skype. For some reason I couldn't get anything you've typed to me?

carolyn
carolyn on

Tomb Raider
So cool that you saw Angelina Jolie's house in Cambodia! What does it look like? Did you take a picture of it?

lraleigh
lraleigh on

Re: Tomb Raider
Well, not really. I meant Lara Croft's home away from home being Angkor, where much of the footage was filmed. If I'm lucky though, maybe I'll be invited to Angelina Jolie's house in the jungle.

I entered Bayon temple before dawn this morning, alone with a pack of friendly temple dogs--very cool.

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