After the monastery, it was time to travel. I took the local bus from Pai to Chiang Mai, retracing my route on a very slow bus full of a mix of Western tourists, Asian tourists and local families. The middle door never closed, but hung wide open near my seat. As the bus slowly wound its way through the mountains, I became momentarily alarmed when two teen girls elected to sit on the stairs by the open door. “They could fall out onto the highway and be crushed by a truck!” I worried. “This would never be allowed in the US!” I tensed and wanted to protect them, but as I watched, I realized they were just fine. No one else seemed to notice.
This is one of the perks of living and traveling in countries with little to no regulations that must be followed. On the one hand, there’s a lot of freedom to do what you want, when you want to do it, without the government interfering in every little movement of your day. On the other hand, there are few safety and building codes, so people, vehicles and edifices sometimes pay the price. In general, I enjoy the freedom, although I still flinch when I see babies and toddlers hanging onto their parents as they ride their motorcycles through town.
I meditated on my breath (Bu Dho, Bu Dho) as I enjoyed another long bus ride to Chiang Khong, having traversed all of northern Thailand in two days. The guidebooks don’t say much about the city, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a great place to stay with a view of the Mekong river (Day Waterfront Hotel, about $20 per night) and the best restaurant of my trip so far (it’s called Jam’s Restaurant, run by Jam herself. We talked for a long while one evening after a delicious $4 dinner…I fell in love with this feisty, talented and independent woman!)
Then it was time to leave Thailand and enter Laos. Because my friend, Kate Korbel, gave me this hot tip, I took a slow boat down the Mekong for two days, ending up in Luang Prabang (thanks, Kate!!).
Laos is one of the poorest countries in Asia, and has been through unimaginable harm and misery because of the Vietnam War and its aftermath (more on this later). The Mekong River begins in Tibet, goes through China and then wends its way into Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. People have been living, fishing, farming, and washing with its waters for thousands of years. The indigenous culture here is as rich as the people are poor. Their weaving is some of the best in the world, and impressive Buddhist wats (temples) sparkled in the golden sunlight as we passed by.
Although I loved the teak boat and meeting my fellow travelers (mostly Europeans and Australians – I think I was the only American and the only person traveling alone), it was difficult as a Westerner to walk into the two villages we visited. Although the people are poor and have only 4 water spigots in the whole place (so everyone showers with clothes on and brushes their teeth in public), they grow their own food and have livestock, too. It’s clear that they have marginal medical and dental care, and the language barrier meant that we could not communicate much. They are used to having several parades of tourists taking photos of them and their chickens every day, but they are not particularly friendly nor interested in us. This is understandable, and I know many of us tourists felt hugely uncomfortable with the whole scenario.
A few boat passengers made remarks like, “They always want to sell you something. I’m so sick of it.” Yet, in my travels, I’ve seen much worse, as far as pressure to buy is concerned. I’m also full of admiration for the people I meet around the world, who have little in terms of possessions or housing, but who have other things we tourists have either forgotten or missed entirely: walking barefoot on the Earth, growing food, close family ties, a sense of communal belonging, and rich ceremonies and artwork. I only wished I could speak with them, to learn and to connect. Knowing how to speak all languages would be a lovely super-power to have!
Our Laotian guide told us that several dams are slated to be built on the Mekong. There will be some in China and a few in Laos, including one that will begin construction this year (by a Chinese company) not the stretch of river we covered on our way to Luang Prabang. It was poignant to know that the river will change mightily very soon. The guide felt that this move would help the government but not the people, who will have to give up their work during construction and then pay higher electricity fees, which they can barely afford now. Sad but true.