LAOS

“One need only set foot in Laos to feel that there is something uniquely poetic in the air. The days are long and slow, and the people have a tranquil sweetness that is not found elsewhere in Indochina.” Tiziano Terzani, A fortune teller told me.

Arriving in Laos was like entering a time bubble where days run slower. Nowhere is the feeling of time more abstract than here. There are only sunrises and sunsets, wet season and dry season, breakfast and dinner. Timetables are just a rough estimate of when a bus would leave. Asking when it arrived was pointless. It arrived when it was ready to arrive. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry, everyone just enjoyed the ride, be it a bus or life itself.

A Laotian day wakes up slowly with the singing of the first cock and steadily removes a cover of thick fog to reveal mountains, villages and the horizon. It starts cool and then heats up to warm cold feet and cheeks, waters in the rivers and shadows of the mountains. There is no other rhythm than that of the nature. Nature is never in a hurry. Neither are Laotians and neither were we. We were travelling through Laos slowly and stopped for long. We spent days absorbing the beauty of nature, photographing, writing, drawing, befriending locals and travelers, walking, praying and observing. It inspired us on every corner, with every smile and kind word, in every scenery. How can one not feel inspired sitting above the clouds, looking at mountain tops and listening to the sounds of the invisible world underneath? Slowing down puts life in perspective and helps to concentrate on what matters most. Laotians always knew it, we rediscovered it.

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“Sabaidee! Sabaidee!” we heard every day. Kids would shout it from far away and giggle happily when we replied with the same degree of enthusiasm. Adults say it profoundly and slowly. They mean it. “Saibadee” is never told in haste and always with a warm smile and kind, mellow voice. Laotians noted us and wanted to make us feel welcome in their homeland. We didn’t speak their language and they didn’t speak ours. Even body language seemed to have a different alphabet here. But it didn’t matter much. Warm smile, openness and patience took us a long way and Laotians were always ready to chat, laugh and joke. What a merry, lovely and open nation are the Laotians.
Every day morning air is filled with a rich smell of firewood as people gather around the fire to warm up and cook breakfast. The elderly watch over children, mothers walk by with little babies strapped to their side in colourful fabric. Older kids walk to school dressed in spotless clean white shirts, giggling, air of pride around them. They are taking part in something special. Education. After school they head straight to the river and play, filling the air with laud squeaking and laughter, naked bums out, having the time of their lives. It’s their shower time. In the evening we would see them again in front of their homes, having dinner with families – grandparents, parents and siblings – rolling sticky rice and dipping it in jaeow. In Laos homes are open, people cook and eat on the street, meet in front of their houses, work together and look after all children, not just their own. There is no room for depression and no need for care centres for the elderly. Anti-social behaviour is non-existent and crime minimal. Anything we could learn from them?

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Although we find all Laotians equally good-natured, their life differs depending whether they live in a village or town. The latter has electricity, brick houses and shops. In villages most houses are made of bamboo and wood with straw roofs and no windows. Water is pumped from a well or carried from a stream or a river. In villages everyone has a role to play. Women prepare food, carry water and tend to children, men hunt and farm and kids look for small animals, go fishing and gather fire wood. They have little weapons and matchetas. At the age of 5 they are behaving like adults. Still innocent and playful, but with responsibilities. They learn early to be clever and self-sufficient. They invent their toys and show one another how to build arrow guns to kill rats and birds. Older children look after younger ones and carry babies on their side or back. From young age they are taught to care about one another. They spend time watching their parents prepare meals, make tools, weave and breed animals, and learn from them. Only up to the age of around 4 are they ‘allowed’ to run among chickens with a bottle on a string, later they are given tasks to do. Stepping into a village is like time travel. This is how people lived in the past everywhere in the world. In wooden houses with animals running around in the open and wearing clothes made by village weavers.

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In Laos weaving and embroidery skills are very highly regarded. A girl’s quality as good wife is assessed by her creativity in weaving. Girls and women of all ages pass the hottest hours of the day chatting merrily as their needles find their way across silk or cotton fabric. They would keep some and sell the rest. North Laos is one of the best places to buy quality handmade fabric. On one of many visits to tribe villages we came across a Yao community where we were halted by elderly ladies with black embroidered turbans on their heads. They spend their days making fabric, hats and accessories, and buying a few souvenirs from them was a delight. We couldn’t go more fair-trade than that. The best way of support for minority communities was to go directly to them and get involved in a homestay or trekking or simply by buying their handi-crafts. This way we were sure that 100% of the profit stayed with them – people who needed it most and, after all, did all the work.

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Apart from culture, nature plays a big part in Laotian life. Forests give them meat, fields give them rice and rivers water. Riverbank is one of the best places to see the true face of this country. It’s a highway, laundry, aqua park and power station. With the first rays of the sun boats start to roar, people move between the villages, transport goods, visit relatives. In the afternoon when the sun starts to set kids run to the river to play, women do their laundry and men to wash motorbikes. In remote villages where regular electricity still isn’t available, people build DIY power stations on streams, that supply enough power for light bulbs and TV. I must say it was a little weird when we saw traditionally dressed people of a village in deep mountainous countryside in front of a TV screen. Strangely TV is often the first electrical appliance bought in homes new to electricity, not a fridge or a washing machine, which would surely make their lives much easier. Instead of going to the river to wash, they might at last go there to enjoy a little bit of free time, something we never saw them do.

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Laos is one of the richest ethnically places on earth. There are numerous tribes around the country, each with a different dialect, customs and clothing. The biggest and most widespread of them are Hmong, Akha, Tai Lue, Kmhmu and Katu. Unfortunately one has to be determined to travel to remote villages to find them in their traditional clothing and living the old way. More accessible villages has been influenced by modernisation and instead of lush embroidery, you’re more likely to see them wearing Converse and t-shirts with a British flag. Globalisation makes our world less and less interesting. People start looking the same. One really needs to travel off-the-beaten track to find extraordinary people. Traditional culture is still strong in tribes of Laos and hopefully it will resist against modernisation. In the rest of Laos the only trace of traditional wear are tube skirts worn by women of all ages. Every day skits are made of black cotton with colourful embroidery on the bottom and the ones for special occasions are made of beautiful silks. I was tempted to buy some fabric and have one made myself, but then common sense kicked in. After ahs and ohs of my girlfriends, it would probably land on the bottom of my waredrobe and would not see a daylight. What a waste. It was better to leave gorgeous tube skirts to gorgeous Lao girls.

Art in a Western meaning of the word is almost non-existent in Laos. It is most apparent in handi-crafts (weaving, pottery, paper making) and temples, which are meticulously carved and painted. The true art in Laos is the way of life. Gentle, lively and simple. Exactly like their music. At first it sounded to me too pop and kitsch, but after a while I started seeing it as a metaphor. After all, it reflects the character of Laotians. Lively but not harsh, soft but not boring, merry but not silly. We heard music every single day. Sometimes it came from a wedding party or a local festival, other times from homes where people ate, drunk and sang to Laotian karaoke. Sometimes we stopped to watch people dance. They danced in a group or in couples, keeping distance from one another, stepping into the rhythm of the music and dancing mostly with their hands, making elegant circular moves. They often waved at us to join them, but doing so was dangerous. The amounts of Beer Lao and lao lao (local whiskey) they poured matched the biggest drinkers in Poland.

Their laid back approach to life and gentle nature did not make them good businessmen though. At times they even seemed not to care about money at all. In restaurants and guest houses we had to go to look for a waiter or caretaker in order to pay them. Sometimes we had to wake somebody up to get noticed. Making money is definitely not the principle of life here. Perhaps it is because there are no taxes they have to pay. God spare them when the Chinese start seeing business opportunities in this small neighbouring country.

Laos is not a country of profit, but spirit. Buddhism is a way of life, a philosophy. It is common for young men to serve as monks before they start a career. Prayer, meditation and Buddhist teachings are initiation to adulthood. Education system embraces two types of school, state and Buddhist for boys. Being a monk is not a choice for life. They are welcome to leave when they please. Many in fact study Buddhism in teenage years and then leave to marry and start a family. We met an ex-monk on a bus to Luang Prabang with his pretty newly wed wife. He is now a manager, a husband and an expecting parent. If a big part of Laotian male population is made of ex-monks, no wonder the nation shares the smile of Buddha.

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According to Buddhism we live to earn merits. If you do good, you receive good. If we’re unlucky in this life, it’s because we did something bad in our previous life. If we are good honest people in this life, our next life will be a happy one. Our actions don’t count so much here and now, we will carry their baggage to the next life, be it a good or a bad baggage. Somebody dies? No worries, he will be reincarnated in a few months and will start his life anew. A baby is born and soon shows great talent in music? It means he was a musician in his previous life. When somebody does something evil, people do not wish that the same fate meets him. Bad actions will backfire in the next life, so why worry about punishment?

With nature for a teacher and Buddha as philosopher, Laos truly is not just a place, but a state of mind. After 40 days in this country, when I think of Laos, it’s not the mountains and rivers that come to my mind, but the warm hearts and merry souls of the people we have met along the way.

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