Saturday, September 25, 2010

Welcome to Laos!

Without a doubt the most peaceful place we visited on our trip was Luang Prabang, Laos.  This tiny town only has 26,000 people living there.  Lucky for us all, in 1989 Unesco declared the city a World Heritage site which means that from here on out the original structures, pagodas and temples are all protected and you get a sense of how life has been moving along here for a thousand years.

There's something special in the air in Luang Prabang.  There's a distinct feeling of calm and the people are all smiles.  They know that they don't have the cache of their surrounding neighbors:  they are land-locked by Thailand, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia and maybe it's because they don't seem to be competing that makes you realize they already know how special their home is.  It could also be their adherence to Theravada Buddhism (as opposed to Mahayana which is practiced mainly in the surrounding countries) that stands out.  Theravada is an earlier, and according to its followers, a less corrupted school of Buddhism which is found in East Asia and the Himalayas.  It's not uncommon to pass a saffron covered monk walking briskly around the temple doing chores, for example.

The view from the plane as you fly into Laos might be some of the most gorgeous scenery I've ever seen.  The huge mountains look like they are covered with emerald fur and the Me Kong river cuts paths through the jungle in graceful swoops.

While we were in Laos we took a full day to travel deep into the countryside where the ethnic hill tribes live.  These are some of the poorest people in Laos (and quite possibly the world) and Matt and distributed books, drawing pads, and writing implements to any groups of kids we could find.  The experience was humbling and touched us both deeply - we hope to host a fundraiser in Dubai to support programs doing more work with these children in the near future.  In the meantime I'm sure the pictures of their faces will stick with you as they did with us.

 Flying into Laos on the turbo prop.
 Our hotel by night.
Dinner at Restaurant Brasserie L'Elephant.  We try the famed 'Lao Lao' the national drink of Laos - rice whiskey.  When we asked to see the bottle it materialized from the back in a nondescript bottle and a home printer laminated label.  Hmmm.  We are pretty sure this was made in someone's bathtub.  

 Wat Xieng Thong built in 1560.  It's the most beautiful example of temple architecture in Luang Prabang, the distinguishing characteristic is the multiple roofs that sweep low to the ground.
 Inside the temple the seated Buddha awaits you.
The beautiful Tree of Life mosaic that adorns the backside of the temple.
 You're walking along at the Royal Palace museum minding your own business when a dragon jumps out and bites you!  How rude!
A collection of carved "Calling for Rain" Buddhas.
 A view from the hill over looking the city.
Recycling.  Split down the middle and used as a Cold War proxy for both American and communist forces, Laos is the most bombed country in world history.
 While I was enjoying the view this young monk came up and tentatively asked if he could practice his English with me.  He explained "I'm the second best in my class, but I know if I climb up here everyday I might meet a tourist who can help me get better."  Sure thing buddy! 
 The next morning we woke at 4:45am to catch the monks collecting their alms for the day.  Each one is offered a tiny pinch of rice from those offering.
 Some of them are so young!  Most young boys will spend a few years living as a monk while they receive schooling.
A sea of saffron.
 One of my favorites.
Picking out books to give the kiddies!  We loved this bilingual one - Bangkok Bob - he's a monkey who designs a slingshot transit system for Bangkok.  Sweet!
On our way to the rural areas.  Please tell me I am not seeing this.

 Finally giving out some presents!  She was the first one willing to "try out" the pencil.
 Showing Matt some personality...check out his concerned friend in the background.
 Running home to show off their books!  It was so gratifying to see how excited they were!

 She gave us this look the entire time we were there.  No trust at all.
 He was brave enough to claim his book but was not sure about the camera.
 They loved that they could see the picture on the digital screen right after it was taken!
She caught Matt taking her picture!
Matt bought packs of those pens that have 4 different colored inks in them.  They were a huge hit!
Everybody got something of their own to take home.
I just think that this picture that Matt took is gorgeous.
She came barreling down the road screaming "ahhhh, ahhh!" to get our attention.  We could barely see her up the hill but the telephoto helped out.
Eat your heart out Ansel Adams...


Unknown said...

Matt and Katie,
Absolutely beautiful cultural experience!!! Magnificant scenery!
You captured the expressions and faces of the children so wonderfully. Have fun and safe journey
Cathy Reilly

jimdad said...

Interesting that everyday life there seems like a fantasy trip.

Well done - It must be a great effort to distill the experience into just a few (great) words and pictures.

Mrs. Blank said...

Just wanted to say I that LOVE the fact that you bought gifts for those children. You made their year. They will read and cherish those books over and over again. Good for you! And happy anniversary!

Mrs. Blank said...

I love the fact that you bought gifts for the children. They will read those books over and over. You probably made their year. What a great way to celebrate your "paper" anniversary! Happy First!

Unknown said...

Katie & Matt,
I am so overwhelmed with all of the beautiful and artistic images and your descriptions are so well written and enjoyable to read. I learn something from you everyday! YOUR BLOG IS AMAZING !
Love, Mom