Asia | South East Asia | Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) – The Quest for Honey
We sat on our porch and watched as the ochre currents flowed by. Had we finally found it ? Was this the place that had caused our sedentary feet to wander ? Was it harmony we were after, or simply a night sky pleasantly free of artificial light ? In fact, just what is it that causes us to roam the globe ? What are we looking for ?
If it was tranquility and being surrounded by a culture that lives WITH the Earth, in a way that has remained unchanged for millenia we were now successful. We bathed in the day’s last rays as the sky began to slip into shades of violet. Our world was perfect and everyone in it seemed to have all that they needed. There were fishermen mending their nets under the palms, children splashing by the shore, laughter and the snaking fragrance of home fires preparing for dinner. The water buffaloes and cows were being gently herded back to their crude stables, while ducks, chickens and pigs ambled about the earthen footpaths, pecking, snorting and presumably trying to keep a low profile as the final ingredients for the evening meals were being gathered.
Darkness seeped in around the island and in the light of an oil lamp we picked through the brief, handwritten menu. Duck curry with coconut milk stood head and shoulders above the other options and our request was happily taken to the kitchen, from where a muffled QUACK was soon to be heard.
We reflected on the day and where it had brought us. We had left Stung Treng that morning on a small canoe equipped with a 4 cylinder motor that sent us careening madly across the Mekong towards Laos. Our last impressions of Cambodia were clouded by the fear of imminent death; just one log or branch, of which the swollen river had many, would have meant a very wet and rough start to the day, at the very least. All we had on our side was the fact that we weren’t fully awake yet and the danger was diffuse in our early morning fog.
Border formalities were comical as we were asked to make a few illegal donations to the personal well-being of the immigration officers. Cambodia was easy enough, I politely refused and was politely deported, but Laos proved to be more stubborn.
“5 dollars each to enter the county”
“But sir, we have visas and this is now an officialy recognized, international border”
“no, border is closed for foreigners, 5 dollars”
“Hmmm, well could I have a receipt please ?”
“Oh but we could write it on a plain piece of paper, this way we can ask in Vientiane about these ‘official’ border crossing fees”
“but sir, without a receipt what is to keep me from thinking that this money isn’t going into your pocket ?”
“no receipt” he said as he played with the rubber stamp that could render my visa completely useless with just a touch.
“ok, how about I write the receipt and you just sign your name to it”
Patience was running thin on the the other side of the desk but he nodded and once I was done he gave me a name; a Lao equivalent to ‘John Smith’. This clearly wasn’t going to work, but at that point I could see that he was thinking the same thing. 30 minutes passed and several officers were called over to assess the situation. Neither side was budging but as the rubber stamp made a dangerously low swoop over my passport I made a quick breakfast of my principles and handed over the unnecassary bribe. 1-0, Laos took the lead.
12 hours later, over the remnants of a delightful curry, the morning’s trials were worth little more than a smile. It seemed a small price to pay to be able to experience the serenity that we were now enjoying.
(If this were a film there would now be a pleasant, but ominous, tune in the background informing the avid watcher that the scene was soon to be taking another direction. And it did.)
It was about 9:00 pm. when it started and I didn’t trust my ears at first. It was music, LOUD music accompanied by a horrible voice and it was eminating from the island across the river. They have electricity ? And a horrible taste in music ? And it has made it’s way across the river to crash our sunblimely serene evening in this extraordinary slice of paradise ? Yes. It was, of all god-forsaken things, a karaoke bar. Apparently someone on the island had bought himself a new moped and this ground-shaking news was enough to send the island into a rice-whisky frenzy that didn’t show signs of letting up until 2:30 am. 2-0 for Laos at the end of the first inning.
The next day I was assured that that was a rare occasion indeed and not to fear as tonight would be quiet. It was (do you hear that ominous music again ?) until 5:37 in the morning when a different strain of music lept across the river and began rapping against my forehead in a flurry of syrupy sweet vocals and whining strings. It wasn’t the karaoke bar this time around but the monastery next door. Indeed, another rare occasion; a Buddhist holiday that was celibrated with blown speakers buzzing and humming at full blast for 3 hours.
At exactly 9:00 am. the islands reverted back to its peaceful self and for this we were most grateful. We spent the day wandering about, taking in the sun and the surroundings. The center of the island was a lush carpet of rice paddies that held the most alluring shade of green I’ve yet to behold. A wide path led through the middle of the verdant sea and as we strolled along towards the northern tip of the island, I was struck with a most pleasant sensation; the soft grass, the seductive green, palms lining the fringes, the faint sound of laughter, curious young monks sitting before a small temple, and the sky, yes it may have been the sky that finally triggered it, it was immense and golden in the fading light, slanted columns of cumulus pushed the horizons beyond their frontiers, touching oceans…and stars, and there we were, on a small island, surrounded by the relentless flow of one of the world’s mightiest rivers; poetry in motion, silent but brisk, wasting neither time nor words from the Roof Of The World to the South China Sea. The beauty was overwhelming, too much to behold, we breathed it, strolled across it, swam in it…we were walking in honey and all I could do was dance, My arms swung wildly, caressing the beauty that I couldn’t hold. I spun and jumped, twirled and sang. It was one of those seldom moments where the beauty of the world became tangible, a viscous and fluid substance that entered our pores, it was a part of us, or we of it, the elixir of life, religions have been built upon but a drop and here it dripped from the heavens and seeped out from the paddies.
And moments like these are worth a nine inning shut-out or a thousand days of sweat and toil. Yes, this is what causes sedentary feet to wander. It is not a place that a bought ticket will bring you, but if you look, you might just find that it surrounds you now…and everyday.