So…how do you meet locals? Well, on my first trip to Laos, I took a very touristy excursion to ride elephants in the jungle outside of Luang Prabang and met Phan at the facility. In visiting with him, I discovered that he was also a “TSA” employee for the Laotian government at the airport. We ran into him again on our way out of the country. Phan and I became Facebook friends and kept up with one another for several months. I discovered that he was teaching English to the novices at a small temple in Luang Prabang and he invited me to come visit him and hang out at the temple next time I was in Laos! Well! That’s all I needed to get me out of the house…
He became a good friend and taught me about how they practiced Buddhism there. I was able to talk with the monks, chant with them (at 4:30 in the morning!), follow them as they gathered alms, ate with them and basically got to see what their days were like.
The monks all fought for the chance to practice their English with me and as I tried to learn to say a few phrases in Laotian, they laughed hysterically at me.
After spending a few days at the temple, Phan said we would go visit his family’s village about 50 km from Luang Prabang. So I packed a backpack and hopped on the back of his scooter and off we went into the mountains. THIS was an adventure! No one except Phan spoke any English! Here are the accommodations I was to find myself in for two days.
And again…as in Siem Reap…the people have so little, but are so generous. Everyone in this little village was thrilled to see Phan and were anxious to hear who the hell this tall, skinny white man was. After I was explained and introduced, I was family as well.
That night, there was a feast and a blessing ceremony for me. Much Lao Lao was consumed…local moonshine that tasted as if it had aged about an hour and a half! Those who know me can just imagine what that did to me. Since I was the honored guest, I received the best part of the meal to begin with…. a chicken head and the feet. Luckily, lots of vegetables and broth followed. Oh..and…no matter what you hear, rat does NOT taste like chicken!
The next morning, Phan announced that we were headed up into the mountains for some “trekking”.
Our little group was Phan, his brother and sister (who insisted on carrying my backpack and gear) and me. Quite a troupe!
This was definitely off the beaten path of the tourist industry. It was wonderful! We went through villages that didn’t even speak Laotian, but a dialect that even Phan struggled with. Beautiful kids and simple, hard lives led…but all we met welcomed us. One woman insisted we share some soup she had made. A group of “partying” men in a dark room invited us in for a drink of god knows what! I faked drinking through the straw they gave me and gestured and winced at how strong the drink was…much to their delight. We had a great time and they were REALLY drunk by the time we left.
And then the children we met…
We trekked our way back to Phan’s village for one more night before heading back to the city. There was one person who I had not yet met and wanted to: his grandmother who happened to be the oldest person in the village. 97! Just think of what she has seen and has been through. She was a little shy, but warmed up quickly and visited with me (through Phan) for quite a while. Her family and mine had so little in common and yet everything at the same time. It was an amazing encounter for both of us, I think.
Who could have known that this adventure, having started with meeting a young man on an elephant excursion, would have come to this. When I travel, sure, I see all the “postcard” sights, but then I start to wander. I am enriched and challenged, thrilled and distraught by what I see and experience. There is a commonality across the cultures that I am now understanding in my soul. Not because I have read about it or have seen it on Netflix or heard about it in some lecture hall…I have been gifted with the experience. Heartfelt thanks to Phan. And to the rest of you? Get out of the house…you never know who you’ll meet..