So many experiences, so many impressions – I sat the other night and made a 2-page list of all the things I want to write about! Ahhhh, the pleasures of list-making continue for me – I do love me some good lists!
I am currently sitting on my 2nd floor verandah (it just doesn’t feel like a lanai!) at the Khamphouy Guest House in Champasak village in southern Lao. The original guest house was just the building that houses my room, along with two others upstairs, all gigantic and simple, with creaky wooden-planked floors, fans that have just a little (and enough) umph left in them, and a paint job that has happened in it’s-forgotten-how-long-now. I’ve got windows on two sides with ancient, dusty wooden shutters, screens with plenty of holes in them and a bare light bulb covered in some more dust, hanging from a decrepit wire that’s also seen better days. My bed is hard like a rock, which is the way Lao seem to prefer their beds – it generally works for me, but the pillow of that density is a bit of stretch. The verandah, while not too wide, is plenty wide for me to sit here with the computer on my lap more than comfortably. There’s a new wing of ‘fancier’ rooms with hot water and their own bathrooms (all the rooms upstairs have a shared bath with cold water showers downstairs), but this simple abode is more than satisfying to me. In fact, I’m pretty sure I have the best room in the place – I’ve got the only verandah and from this 2nd floor perch, I’m got a sweet view of the Mighty Mekong across the narrow, also dusty street – somewhat obstructed by banana and palm trees, but it’s there and I know it! The sunrise this morning rising up over this placid river was a stunning ball of orange fire – woke me up with delight! There’ll be plenty of time for fancier digs along the way – for now, I’m more than satisfied!
Well, if the truth be told, what really woke me up was the man on a loud speaker down the road, doing the wake-up call for the village – he’s like a human alarm clock – ‘okay workers, time to get up and get to work’ is the translation I heard about later that was most likely accurate. But he doesn’t stop there – he goes on for one hour – after the wake-up call, then it’s the news/propaganda of the day broadcasted for everyone to hear. It’s the People’s Democratic Republic of Lao – it’s a communist country, but in a China-sort-of-way. Stark contrasts of poverty, with people living practically in lean-tos next to French-colonial inspired villa-looking buildings. Most are in a state of disrepair, but there are some outstanding ones – I’d like to know more about how it’s decided about who gets which ones, but there’s a limit to the kinds of conversations to be had with the local people, most of whom speak little or no English, more likely some French. And as a man in Pakse who did speak good English told me, “we can believe whatever we want, as long as we don’t criticize the government.” Some Ode to Freedom that is, eh? With that mentality prevalent and widely-accepted, I’m not about to make this topic a conversation-opener!
Champasak is a small, very simple village filled with guest houses, small restaurants and plenty of Buddhist temples. There’s a school, I’m happy to see, and a simple agrarian economy. And there is a smile on everyone’s face. It’s really true what they say about Lao – it is absolutely the Land of Smiles.
One practice I cultivate when I’m traveling (and even when I’m not) is to smile at whoever I see as I walk the street of wherever I am. In the case of Champasak, that’s pretty easy, since it’s mostly a one-land paved road with a (very) few dirt roads that traverse it. This main (only!) road goes for several kilometers and depending on the time of day, is filled with schoolchildren on bicycles (wearing bamboo, triangular hats, the kind we Westerners associate with Vietnam), plenty of motor scooters (women passengers riding side-saddle), songthiews (tuk-tuks, only larger, to transport many people – 3-wheeled variety), and tourist vans. Everyone responds to my smile with one of their own. Everyone. And here in Lao, the greeting is ‘Sabaidy’ – phonetically – Sa-Buy-Dee, in a sing-song voice with a very-high lilt and emphasis on the last syllable. Try it! So, it’s Sabaidy and a smile and that’s my ticket to connecting at least on some level with these sweet folks. They seem to be tickled when I initiate it, so of course, I do!
The big draw to tourism here are the ancient (5th century) Khmer ruins that lie about 6 miles out of town – Wat Phou – they’re certainly not on the scale of the ruins at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, most deserving of this and the largest anywhere to be found in Lao. They are what brought me to this village.
I arrived yesterday, found my guest house and took a simple stroll through the village getting my bearings. What I already love about this trip are the many miles I walk every single day. I love it, this walking; and when I tire, then I stop, rest, have a snack or a meal, take a nap, read, or get a massage! I am creating and finding a pace and rhythm that feels easy and still has plenty of forward motion. But I am not merely on holiday, here to tick off the sites, take photos and move on to the next destination. My purpose is so far a field from that. And I couldn’t be more pleased that this is so!
Anyway, I took a bus and a very small, narrow boat to get here, crossing the Mekong and getting just a sip of this mighty river I am eager to spend so much more time on. I was on the boat with a couple from Germany. From Berlin. Of course, I told them I had lived in Cologne and was quite familiar with a small village just south of Berlin, Belzig, a former East German town that boasts absolutely no tourist attraction. They were confounded with my familiarity with Belzig, until I mentioned the ZEGG community, which is there and where I’ve spent many months. It’s also where Rainer and I met. Of course, serendipity being what it is, the woman had just recently visited ZEGG for a singing workshop with Hagara, a woman I met while there myself, a woman who leads circle singing there, which I happily (although back in those years, very, very quietly) took part in. We enjoyed that ZEGG connection and the craziness of the reminder of how small this world of ours is. I then just happened to look down at the man’s wrist and on his watch, he had a small compass attached to the watchband, the kind I’ve only ever seen on one other person’s watch – Rainer’s. I looked closer – it was the exact same compass. Now the wistfulness set in and I let it – thinking of him, our meeting at ZEGG, how important that place and its values and visions were to us and how far, far away I am from him and from that life together. And how even in the wistfulness, it was all more than fine. And a minute later, the present moment demanded my attention as the boat was nearing the sandy shores of Champasak and I was climbing my way out of it. Today is a new day and here I am, opening up in sweet surrender!
I had an exquisite massage yesterday at the Champasak Spa – another 2-hour one, on the floor, from a man who basically performed a yoga class on my body. The setting was sublime – beige, pale yellow and saffron-colored pieces of long, sheer fabric decorated the beautiful wooden building from ceiling to floor. The massages are all done on the floor here (in a similar way to traditional Hawaiian Lomi Lomi) with several mattresses in one room separated by curtains. I was the only one there. And no nakedness here – I was given simple cotton pants and a top to put on after a warm shower – the two hours brought me to a state of such relaxation and stretching in my body, that I really did feel like I just took a yoga class. Then I was brought to a huge, open air, exquisitely-carved, wooden verandah overlooking the Mekong, directed to a chaise lounge and served hot tea and bananas. Again, I was alone. It was dusk and there was something about the light and the sun going down and my altered state that created an otherworldly, ethereal quality to the setting that I can hardly describe in words, but that I can still feel in my body as I’m writing this. All for a pittance – $12 and that’s considered high by Lao standards. But it’s working just fine for me. I shall return again this afternoon!
I spent the morning at the ruins – after my already-mentioned wake up call, I found my way to a songthiew that delivered me there as soon as they opened. It’s quite a climb to the top and I’m grateful to say I’m feeling my legs getting stronger every day. There were no other tourists when I arrived, only the local people, especially women, gathered to sell flower arrangements they make to sell as offerings at the temple. The temple is Hindu and in honor of Shiva, so it was all about lingams – lingams, lingams everywhere in holy reverence to Shiva and some reference and honor to Shakti as well. I offered my prayers, thanked the universe for the lingams of the world and climbed my way back down before the rest of the tourists arrived! If there’s a finer morning than this, I don’t know what it is! I felt blessed to be there in the morning’s soft light and the peaceful silence and coolness before the day’s heat arrived.
So now I sit on my verandah with plenty to say and plenty to write. I’ve hardly ticked many items off from my list, but there will be another day and another time for that. I’m off to the Internet Café so I can post this and say hello to my world on the other side of the planet! Yes, it’s been different here without internet right where I’m staying – I was getting too used to staying connected anyway and now, it’s not like it was.
That’s the thing about being out here – every moment can be different. And I’m determined to stay present to as much of it as I can, grateful, ever-grateful, for each chance I have to experience yet another moment of wonder and awe that I am out here in such a foreign land, and yet feeling so at home, so peaceful and so easy.
Lao has been an excellent choice as my introduction on this trip – I’ve already been warned by other travelers (more on them, along with so much more, later) that it will be different in Cambodia and Vietnam … but for now, I’m in low gear in Lao and I love it!