Crossing the mighty Mekong River from Thailand into Laos over the new Friendship Bridge 6 days ago, I was eager to meet the people and see this country about which I’d heard so much. I’d been told that the north was particularly special – both the scenery and the people – so I was very interested to experience it firsthand. That said, I knew that, more than anywhere I’ve travelled so far, I would be experiencing this place as a pure tourist. (Something I normally do everything I can to avoid!) I would only be in Laos a short time and the language was a HUGE barrier so I would have to accept being seen as what I was: a voyeur of a people and land of which I could not possibly gain an intimate understanding in a few days.
That said, my heart already breaks to imagine the suffering of these kind and peace-loving people in a war in which they played no part except as innocent bystanders, or, to use that now-acceptable but inhumane war term, collateral damage. This apparently was the country that suffered the greatest amount of air bombing and there are still large, unexploded ordinances being discovered, sometimes with devastating effects on children. This means that none of the simple but neat homes and orderly villages can be older than 40 years as the area was completely devastated by the war that finally ended in 1974. These are clearly a people who have incredible resilience but it is interesting to see just how differently the two main towns of Northern Laos – Luang Namtha and Luang Prabang – have moved forward. I certainly don’t have nearly enough understanding of the history so can only speak from a place of personal experience of the past 6 days. Nevertheless, the differences are dramatic and hard to miss.
The small town of Luang Namtha is the capital of the thickly-forested Luang Namtha province, through which runs the scenic Namtha River (creating for a foreigner numerous opportunities for confusion!). It is presently experiencing a massive amount of foreign (Chinese) investment and the development is staggering. There’s no question that this will be a completely different place within a very short time – maybe 2 years! In light of that, I was quite surprised that the locals seem strangely disinterested or disconnected from the foreigners coming in and moving around them. I wonder whether they are so numbed by the trauma of the past that they have a fear of any form of communication with foreigners. To what extent are they being exploited or are they willing to be exploited just to “improve” their quality of life? There is no question that the area is extremely poor and the percentage of population that has any education is very low. I wonder if they really have a sense of what is going on around them.
Although the people seemed very wary or reluctant, I did have some opportunities to at least try to communicate a bit. A few exchanges stand out in particular, all initiated by a smile. The first was a young girl and her mother who were selling noodles at the night market. In a very simple, honest way, with only the help of sign language, we exchanged warmth and understanding. At one point, after being ogled by a drunk, opium-drugged 60-ish Hungarian (opium is easily available and a BIG problem), he wandered away for a moment. The mother and daughter immediately indicated that this was my chance to escape from this sad case of humanity. I returned a grateful smile with my “Kapb jailailai” (thank-you very much) and made a quick exit.
The second really special experience was with this young mother in her home on a visit to a Lanten tribe village. She clearly loves her baby and sharing a few quiet moments with her mother as well was beautiful.
The third exchange was through another young girl who threw me a warm smile from afar at the fresh (day) market. Feeling encouraged, I gradually made my way to what seemed to be her family’s stall. Selling the typical Laos mix of unnameable veggies was a fairly young mother surrounded by about 5 children (one being the girl who had smiled at me) with a very young baby suckling at her fully-exposed though tiny breast. To be clear, I am in no way shocked by nudity but knowing that showing any form of it is considered highly unacceptable in this part of the world, this surprised me immensely. As my children know, I absolutely adore babies so of course, I couldn’t resist cooing with the little one for a moment. At that point, I got an extremely strange message from the now broadly smiling woman. She was either trying to suggest I take the baby in my arms for a picture OR she was suggesting I just take the baby – in either case, clearly in exchange for money. A strong sense in my gut told me that it was the latter.
Are these people so desperate to improve their lives, that the human person has no value except in a monetary way? Certainly selling her baby would have given her more to support her other children, so perhaps she was just as willing to exploit the opportunities that foreigners represent.
In any case, despite enjoying the scenery immensely, especially by moped and kayak, I was happy to leave after 3 days. To top off the experience, I had been scammed (or was it just another language-provoked misunderstanding?) by the ticket agent in Luang Namtha who assured me I had purchased an assigned seat in a sleeper bus for my 9-hour overnight bus trip to Luang Prabang. I was definitely unprepared for a seat in the second-last row on a smelly, ancient bus, full of locals, a chicken and a ride so curvy and bumpy I bounced right out of the seat somewhere from my half-sleep around 3 a.m.
As the wise “Ines”, whom I met in Fiji recommended as a rule for travel (and life!), “No judgements, no preconceived notions, no opinions. Allow, accept, receive.”
“Suspense” in Luang Namtha
Next stop (and next blog): Luang Prabang…