Friday, January 25, 2008
Turning toward the morning
The morning fog and the chill off the water created a mood of contemplation. We were headed up river on the Mekong, and I was thinking about how each step of this trip has been a journey deeper and deeper into strange territory. From the familiarity of Sydney, to the outback and then the rain forest and the Great Barrier Reef … then to the rural world of New Zealand … then to the bustle and strangeness of Bangkok … the northern Thai feel of Chiang Mai … the time warp that is Luang Prabang … and now a journey on the Mekong into rural Laos. After today will be a denouement of sorts. This is as deep as it goes.
The three of us have hired a low slung river boat for the morning. There are high water markers on rock formations in the river, and I find it hard to imagine the sweep of this river in the rainy season. The crops are planted in this rich alluvial soil once the river has receded. I see beans and corn that look like early to mid July by MY agricultural calendar. There are bamboo fences up around some of the plots … perhaps the water buffalo are the deer of the Mekong?
There ARE rough dirt roads to these villages … many of them along the river have electricity (sad to report that TV is front and center in the Lao living room.) WE are dropped in a village said to be known for its textiles. I go off in search of a craftsman … a loom … some evidence that these lovely silks are made here. Finally in the back of the village I find a woman with a silk loom. She, however, is working on embroidery on a black background which she says will take her 2 months to complete.
This issue about where the silk comes from is hard to unravel. There is a shop called Ock Pop Tok in Luang Prabang where the owners focus on Laotian silk and return a fair price to the weavers. We bought several pieces there. But here in this village up the river I see the same sad tale of sales. Little girls who SHOULD be in school are greeting the boats with little key rings made in China. It is hard to walk past them. I found one little girl in the corner of the village Wat and I exchanged the dollar for her little key chain. Since I know that a government bureaucrat in Vientiane makes $40 dollars a month, I wonder what this “day’s pay” will mean to this little girl and her family. I would love to put a homing device on my greenback and see in whose hands it ends up. Next it is off to the cave of the Buddhas called Pak Ou. Steep concrete stairs have been built in to the side of the cliff. At the very top we see thousands of statues of the Buddha. Exactly why they are stored here is not clear … but once it started, thousands more came. There are seven poses that a Buddha figure can take. All of these are represented here in the cave. We descend the stairs and board our boat again. The swift downstream current delivers us back to Luang Prabang in no time. The journey back to the familiar has begun.