It’s taken me far too long to learn this lesson, but I think it’s finally sinking in… If I want to escape from the crowds, the chaos, the loud, bustling, maddening tourists that are everywhere in Asia – I need to make my own path. Sometimes, literally.
I started my Laos trip in Pakse – in the far southern region where fewer tourists step off the plane. And I was immediately smitten with the quiet beauty of this country. Staying in a sleepy, one-cobbled-street town on the banks of the gently flowing Mekong, I ate freshly-caught grilled fish by the riverside one night and was whisked down dirt roads on the back of a motorbike to a local market by my hotel’s kind proprietor the next morning. And my local guide Pieng drove me around his home town – perched on his motorbike navigating deeply rutted roads as I gripped the side of my sidecar. Remote temples, frangipani trees bursting with fragrant, yellow blossoms, kind-eyed elderly women tying prayer bracelets around my wrist – gazing into my eyes and wishing me a peaceful life…this is the Asia I had been looking for.
My arrival in Luang Probang only solidified my love of this country. I awoke before dawn (thanks in part to an overly eager rooster next door) and wandered the streets – seemingly alone. I was the only person roaming a local temple – gazing upon countless statues of solemn, proud women draped in amber hues. I climbed the local “mountain” far before the hoards descended – finding myself atop the hill to enjoy the expansive view with nary a soul in sight.
And then … I got perhaps a little over-confident. Thinking I would escape the crowds once again – I awoke yesterday morning at 5:15am … wandering up the street to what I expected to be a quiet morning spent on the sidewalk – watching the local monks receive alms. Not so fast. As soon as I turned the corner an old woman scampered up to me – shoving a plastic plate of wrapped cookies and a bamboo basket of sticky rice in my face. “Monks!” she exclaimed. I kindly shook my head and wandered over to a bamboo mat – ready to perch on one of the handy stools set out. “No!” she exclaimed. “Money!!” Apparently I had to buy her goods and pay her for the pleasure of squatting on the side of the road.
So I hurried back to my hotel room, grabbed my wallet, found my lady and handed over my Kip – taking the baskets of food and squatting down amidst the masses of loud, camera-toting Chinese tourists. Grumbling inside and shaking my head at the spectacle. And yet – I was part of it. I was the hypocritical tourist. And as the barefoot monks traipsed by – shrouded in bright orange and bowing as they received the crackling plastic-covered packets of cookies and small pinches of barely-warm sticky rice – I tried to remain present as I bowed my head and proferred my purchased goods. But really … I felt like a fraud.
And perhaps this souring mood of mine colored the rest of the day. Because I could just not escape. My van pulled up to gather me for my trip to the Kuang Si Waterfalls – and then we picked up a loud Australian family … And then somehow the driver crammed another Korean family of five into the van. I was left sitting on top of the gear shift as we hurtled up and down the narrow mountain roads.
Once we arrived at the waterfalls – chaos descended. I could barely see through the hoards of roaming tourists and decided to put my head down and march past them to get to the top … but was waylaid by people mulling around the cages of bears we had to walk through in order to continue up the path. I could not look. I finally made it to the top – past selfie-snapping girls and shirtless white dudes flexing their muscles as they posed for pictures on top of waterfalls they were not supposed to be posing on top of. Madness. And yet – once again – hypocrisy. Because I was part of it (even though I did not flash a peace sign at my own iPhone as I snapped my pictures).
On the ride back down the mountain – the elderly Korean grandfather smashed next to me in the front seat and I had a nice chat as the driver continued to elbow my side as he shifted the van’s gears. We both commented on the Che Guevera bumper sticker on the pickup in front of us. And I found myself smiling as he exclaimed “Oh America!” upon learning where I was from. But then he talked about his visit to the elephant farm – excitedly sharing how they got the elephants to move left and then right upon command (me thinking about the painful prodding that likely precipitated this “learned” behavior). And then the driver farted – casually cracking his window for too brief a moment. And really … I just had to laugh.
So this morning – when the roosters started crowing at 5am – I reflected on yesterday. And, it being the New Year, I knew I wanted to do things differently. To start afresh. So I set off to walk the streets on my own before the sun rose. And when the sky started to lighten, I found a small, quieter side street and perched on the curb by myself across from a small grouping of children. And I focused on these kids – rather than the milling people who started to appear in anticipation of the monks’ arrival.
And I was treated to a sight of a young boy playing fondly with a friendly dog. And another boy wearing a Santa hat waiting patiently for the monks to pass by. You see – these were kids from the remote villages who leave their homes at 4:30am every morning to travel to town to receive extra food from the monks. And they sit quietly, bowing in prayer as their bags are filled with plastic-wrapped cookies and extra handfuls of sticky rice. And after the monks pass they gleefully compare their goods. And then they disappear, like the monks, around the corner. And peace descends once again. And I take a bit of it with me as I travel down the road.