monks in mandalay u bein bridge

A Little Nostalgia… A Reason to Love Southeast Asia

In recent posts, I’ve talked about how I’m a bit lost right now in terms of knowing precisely the direction life is taking. Each time I sit to write, that single truth stands out above the rest. I’m in a transition, and those feelings and thoughts manifest in my writing; when I try to ignore them, I feel uninspired.

Instead, I’ve embraced this nostalgia, shining a light on my travels these past years through the only perspective I have: my own. I find myself mulling over what precisely Southeast Asia holds that motivated me to circle back to that region many times over, both literally and figuratively in the past four years.

Roti

Celebrations are underway as a passing tuk-tuk is pummeled with water! Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Buddha with strings at a wat on the outskirts of Chiang Rai, Thailand

When I’m in North America, I catch myself in an everyday circumstance—a coffee at Starbucks or dinner with friends—with my thoughts flying tens of thousands of miles across the world on a brief mental trip to Asia. I flit away on side-trips for several seconds before jolting to the present. And with the nature of my ongoing travels, those thoughts eventually propel me back to Asia; I have spent weeks of my life in transit waiting for the giddy relief of stepping out of the airport and breathing in the scent of warm, sticky air tinted with deep-fried food, car exhaust, and possibilities.

I visited Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia on my first year traveling around the world, and I was captivated to the cadence of life. But friends, plans, and a trip itinerary that first year pushed me into motion and I left Southeast Asia for India after just two months backpacking the region.

In subsequent years, I lived Chiang Mai for a time, and I fell in love with the city so much that when I decided to travel with my niece in 2011, my thoughts immediately circled around the community and welcome I feel when I land in Southeast Asia.

Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Golden flourishes at Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Each time I returned, the culture gave me something I needed, something I craved in my soul, if that makes any sense. There’s a simplicity to traveling in Southeast Asia—it’s easy in terms of a tourism infrastructure, communication, and other traveling friends. Over the years, the region fostered an environment that allowed me to sink into the experience as I couldn’t do in some other countries and cultures. And as I spent more time in Southeast Asia—visiting Myanmar, Malaysia, and Bali, too—I found increasingly more things to love its understated charm.

Warm smiles.

Open conversation.

A helping hand and shared snacks on endless bus rides.

All these things are mere pieces of a whole that is hard to describe, and no single aspect pulled me back to Asia.

A wai from a monk statue in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Details at a temple during one of my many wanders through the Wats in Chiang Mai.

My stories about Southeast Asia are some of the most popular on my site, and I have so much I still haven’t shared over the years: tidbits of my observations, anecdotes of funny/touching/meaningful moments, and even pervasive cultural norms that I deeply love.

And so, to the extent that I have never really talked about the region in the broad sense—the dominant Buddhist religion, the modern and ancient temples, and how food integrates into life in a way foreign to my culture back home—I began to think about the bigger picture that drives me back to Southeast Asia countless times.

Religion is one of those taboo topics for me on this site, and in my personal life if I am honest. The topic is too polarizing to discuss outside of trusted friends, so instead of pinpointing specifics, I’ll note that a motivation when I left to travel back in 2008 was to come to terms with my brother’s death, and the quandary of faith I had in the years since that happened.  I went through a tough time figuring out where I sat in my soul with religion after he died, and my personality quirks necessitated that I find more possible answers to the big questions in life. How to other cultures handle death and the afterlife?

monks at Maha Gandayon Monastery in Mandalay
Monks line up for lunch at a monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar.

Definite answers will never come, but I found new knowledge and belief systems that shifted my perspectives. Although the entire journey changed me, it’s my time in Southeast Asia—meditating and learning more about Buddhism—that opened my mind, allowing me to find peace within myself, and within the world’s disparate religions. There is a peacefulness inside holy places of every faith that I’ve come to love.

The churches of Europe.

The temples of Asia.

The mosques of the Middle East.

These places contain the energy of every person who has ever visited.

The energy in Asia healed me a place in me I didn’t think it was possible to repair.

We often have blinders on to the commonplace, to our familiar surroundings. It’s not that I couldn’t have found my way to peace back home, but more that I didn’t even know where to begin looking.

In Asia, although locals may be accustomed to temples, this wasn’t the case for me. I loved sunrise walks through the cities and towns as the initial rays of light glinted from the gilded tips of temples, washing over flame-tongued dragons flanking the entrances, and illuminating monks tidying temple grounds.

Decorative entrance to a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Dragon details guarding the entrance to a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Wat Phra Singh in at night Chiang Mai, Thailand
My favorite temple in Chiang Mai, a small one that I would pass each night on my way home.

The temples, called wats, in Chiang Mai are beautiful, and the old city has temples on every corner. In fact, temples were so pervasive that I taught Ana the layout of the city by the location of nearby wats—they are among the easiest ways to orient yourself in the city, to look at the map and find the closest wat!

And on the topic of Ana, I believe Southeast Asia was a beautiful first introduction to the world for her. I chose our destination with forethought because I knew this was my chance to open her mind at an influential time in her life.

While I surely could have done this in South America or Europe, Asia provided stark contrasts in nearly every way.

I wanted to jolt my niece out of complacency and force her to think about the givens in life that, at 11-years-old, she thought were universal to all people and cultures. The religious differences, and how that manifests in every aspect of life, was a very tangible experience for Ana—and for me in the early days of traveling too. But other aspects leap out as influential as well.

food temple thailand
Street food vendors at a local festival dish out piping hot, fresh eats.

Before we traveled, Ana took a page out of my book on the food front—we have to eat each day and that’s about as far as the conversation goes. The food culture of a place didn’t much matter to me when I first left to travel either, but it was the river of flavors (to use a phrase from my friend Naomi Duguid) that opened my eyes to the subtle joys of trying and experiencing new foods. I will never be the most adventurous eater because I’m vegetarian, but in Southeast Asia, for the first time in my life I found myself excited at the adventure of wandering fresh markets, peering over open flames, and following scents to unexpected new flavors and dishes each day.

chapati stand mandalay

Food connects us if we allow it to, and meals are often a shared experience in Asia in a way that is completely foreign to us in North America. You sit, knees at your chin and crouched on small plastic chairs, with steaming, fresh plates of food. The hustle of motorbikes, families, and children all pulse nearby, and no person is off-limits for a conversation.

In this part of the world, more of life takes place on the streets than back home. I love this connection to others merely by spending time outside as a part of your daily eating experience. I wanted Ana to see for herself that things we take as truths—you maintain a bubble around you when in public in the U.S. and you do your best never to bump into the bubble those nearby—are not universal truths.

As I have noted, it’s hard to pin down exact reasons I love Asia, they shift and morph each time I revisit the country.

A year and half ago, I knew I needed more time in the region, I needed to take Ana and show her what I loved, to share the things I had learned and learn more alongside her. I was drawn back to Southeast Asia over the years, and I learned and grew as a person. Much of the perspective shifts I talked about in my recent post, How Four Years Traveling the World Changed Me, occurred from my time in Asia. Traveling there healed a place in my soul.

And yet, now it’s time to move on.

It occurred to me recently when talking to a travel friend that I am done, for now. I don’t know why I’m done, but the draw is gone. I have pangs of nostalgia for the insane honking of tuk-tuks while smells of nearby street-food pervade the air, but not so much so that I want to return, not at this juncture in my life.

Monks cross U Bein Bridge at sunset.
Monks cross U Bein Bridge at sunset near Mandalay, Myanmar.

For now, I head to Mexico, as I mentioned last month, and I hope for a new set of adventures in 2013 that continue the travel journey. I leave for Mexico in a few weeks, but yet I’m still processing thousands of photographs from my travels over the past two years. My memories of the temples, and the sounds and sights of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam that I will miss in the coming year inspired me to write today’s post, but I am eager to find new experiences and new opportunities for growth.  :)

Is there a place on your travels that you return to often, or where that calls to you in some way?

Temple luang prabang laos

A Little Photoessay… Stories of Culture & History in Luang Prabang, Laos

The pace of life in Luang Prabang, Laos is so very charming. Charming is the only one-word description I can come up with for this low-slung city with wide streets (unnatural for much of Southeast Asia), French inspired post-colonial architecture, monks clad in sunny saffron robes, and a humming buzz of relaxed tourism. I wrote earlier about the changes three years and more tourism brought upon this sweet, sleepy country set between Vietnam and Thailand, but what cannot change in the intervening years between my visits,  is the history. Laos was the first travel destination I took my niece Ana to see once we left our apartment in Chiang Mai, and beyond the elephants, the river, and the Laotians, I really wanted her to experience a relaxed week enjoying the various elements of Luang Prabang.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1024"]A slow morning on the streets of Luang Prabang, Laos Hours before the night market clogs the main tourist street in Luang Prabang, Vat Ho Pha Bang shines against the ultramarine sky and purple bougainvillea within the pristine National Museum complex. The city retains a rural and small-town feel despite it’s place in history as a royal capital in the 8th century, and an active trading hub on the Silk Road for many succeeding centuries. Now, it’s a UNESCO world heritage city, but no longer the capital of Laos, which I think is a very key reason the city has remained small despite globalism and tourism.[/caption]

[divider_flat]The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and on this trip Ana and I spent simple days watching, observing, and talking about history and how it may have shaped the town, what it might have felt like when Laotian kings walked the streets. I find myself slowing down a lot more with Ana in tow, instead of spending the evenings with a beer at the bowling alley (hugely popular with the backpackers in the city back in 2009), we found a coffee shop on the river. The shop’s well-worn cushions and knee-high, woven bamboo tables were cozy and comfortable as we sipped our tart, icy lime drinks. We people watched for a bit while the boats hummed on the river below, then wrote in our journals of the day’s sights, me encouraging Ana to draw pictures, note specific moments and feelings.

I realized as we sat there that I too rarely reflect on my travels offline and via a handwritten journal. I documented my round the world trip in a journal, but that ended somewhere along the way. Ana was quick to point out that I was a hypocrite for making her document her personal thoughts and journey when my fingers jetting over the keyboard with a clatter rather than the soft hiss of putting pen to paper. I know that I think best on paper, but I am so caught up in what I still need to do-plan-work on that I rarely step away from the computer without conscious effort.

And so, I made more of an effort to unplug, I mostly stopped blogging for a bit and since Ana and I found ourselves in Luang Prabang for several extra days, I found I still loved visiting this pretty little city. We had a beautiful guesthouse with a friendly proprietress who spoke English, so I had Ana read our Laos guidebook and pick interesting activities, then ask for advice from our guesthouse owner. And even three years later, I still love the temples, smiles, and food. The people, monks, and tourists. All these combine into a city with charm, heritage, and personality that I knew I loved, but needed a reminder to stop and enjoy.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]A steaming pot of soup for a traditional breakfast in Luang Prabang, Laos Tiny stools jut onto the sidewalks in the misty hours of dawn as locals sip a steaming soup adorned with herbs and spices before they took their tuk-tuks and mottos for a full day of work. Though western breakfast shops bracketed this tiny soup-stand with croissants and lattes, it was just as easy to hunker down with the locals, point and smile at the soup, and within minutes be happily slurping down fragrant broth and noodles.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Early morning fruit shake stands set up in Luang Prabang, Laos My breakfast was complete only after purchasing a 5,000 kip (about 60 cent) fruit shake from the corner stalls displaying colorful cups of pre-chopped mixed fruit ready blend into a condensed milk, ice, and fruit concoction that defies logic on its tastiness! Smoothies are my go-to snack in Southeast Asia, and as we had our shake blended, numerous mottos zipped up to the stand to also grab a blended beverage before zooming on their way![/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Excited hellos from the children in Luang Prabang, Laos With some poppy traditional music blaring from the truck speakers, these kids were happily clapping, singing, and shouting hello. I suspect this was a parade of sorts, or class trip perhaps, since several truck-beds passed by in the late morning with the cheery children, all of whom were giddy with excitement to wave to us as we paused and watched them gently roll down the road, the driver careful not to jolt the truck too much![/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"]This cute little girl found her mom's high heels! Luang Prabang, Laos With a freedom distinctly uncommon in the United States, this little girl independently toddled down the street on her mother’s high heels, stopping at nearby vendors, grabbing her morning snacks and hugs before heading back to the shop where her mother sold fair-trade crafts and scarves.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]An elderly man stokes and tends the breakfast fires in Luang Prabang, Laos. One of the things I love about Luang Prabang are the family compounds that also act as guesthouses. In many cases, each guesthouse is also the home for several generations of Laotians. This grandfather on my street stoked the early morning fires, cooked breakfast and minded his grandchildren while the middle generation took care of us tourists, cleaned the guest rooms, and generally ran the business; every member of the family feeling useful and needed to balance the dynamics.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]A tasty array of vegetarian street eats in Luang Prabang, Laos The night market walking street comes alive with long buffets of food. Vegetarian buffets were present even back in 2009, and for just over a dollar US we piled our bowl with a variety of flavorful vegetarian dishes. Nearby skewers of meat appeased the omnivores (including Ana), and buckets of cold drinks, snacks and treats were all sold with the quiet soft-sell and placid smiles from vendors.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Grilled fresh fish from the river in Luang Prabang, Laos Freshly grilled fish was easy to find, and while not something I eat, it fascinates me to see the fully recognizable fish skewered and prettily presented for eating. I find food in the US is often purposely packaged to disassociate itself from the animal it actually is, while  culturally in Asia, they often consume and enjoy nearly every part of the animal![/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]A morning coffee shake in Luang Prabang, Laos After just three mornings of a habitual coffee to start my day, the vendor would smile and wave as I approached. On the fourth day, he beat me to the punchline and happily parroted out my precise coffee order, remembering my explicit instructions “noooooo sugar,” which pegs me as so un-Asian since they adore adding condensed milk and sugar syrup to just about every single drink they serve.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]A tuk-tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang, Laos The calls for service from the tuk-tuk drivers pelt out into the day like a woodpecker making his home in a new tree. Every time we passed one of these shared taxis, the driver was quick to list out all the possible tourist activities for the day, and though it could have gotten annoying, I rather like the consistency of their chant, quite unchanged from the one I heard recited several years ago on the very same street corner.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Pretty close up of paper umbrellas in Luang Prabang's nightly street market, Laos. Colorful paper fans glowed from the rattan mats lining sidewalks of Luang Prabang’s night market. The bright pigments do a fantastic job of drawing the tourists closer to the variety of wares. Like bees to a brightly colored flower, my niece and I followed the magnetizing draw of crafts and conversation humming on the city’s crowded street and dug through the kitsch to find quirky coins and beads for Ana to make into bracelets.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]The sprawling city and countryside around the heart of Luang Prabang, Laos at sunset from Mount Phousi. From Mount Phousi, the highest hill in the center of Luang Prabang, Ana and I watch the sunset over the hills and rivers encircling the world heritage city center. We visited in late November, just as the region’s rainy season finished, and the reward was a landscapes so verdant it could inspire poetry in those more inclined to flowery words than myself. Low-slung streets, shining golden temples, tall palms and quiet river waters make this city an enduring riddle that seems both supremely touristy and yet unchanged throughout the past hundreds of years since construction of the first temple. The city has seen much history, but is so humble.[/caption] [divider]

I find myself oddly drawn here, and Ana asked me if I wanted to maybe live in Luang Prabang, to become an occasional expat in the city I waxed poetic about even before we arrived. I surprised her by answering “no.” No, I don’t want to live in Luang Prabang. I love the lazy sunsets enjoyed at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. I love the ability to spend several days biking around the streets, eating a crusty warm baguette (a remnant of the French influence), and visiting temples and waterfalls. The city is compelling, but no, I don’t actually want to live there, a visit every few years is enough, for now.

mekong river boats

A Little Photoessay… A Slice of Life on the Mighty Mekong

Originating high in the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong River is the life-blood of activity throughout the history of southeast Asia. Locally known as the Mae Nam Khong, the literal translation is Mother of Water River. The river runs through China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and over the centuries consistently remained an important focal point for locals, governments, and foreign countries.

Locals use the River to sustain life — food, transportation and local trade.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Sunset on the Mekong in Luang Prabang, Laos Boats are already docked in the gently swaying waters by the time the sun is setting. The boat workers must have left to find dinner because the banks of the Mekong River in Luang Prabang were nearly empty this time of day![/caption]

[divider_flat]Governments dam and re-route the river in political power struggles between the nations sharing the Mekong River’s natural resources, and international political struggles have relied on the power of the Mekong to push goods out to foreign ports for profit and trade.

There’s a lot to this powerful river and it’s with good reason the the poetic and alliterative description the Mighty Mekong fits so well.

Over the past several years, I’ve seen various parts of the Mekong River–within Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia to be exact, and below you’ll find a slice of that life I witnessed as locals use the river waters and mineral-rich banks to sustain their lives and livelihoods.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="721"]monks on mekong river Just before sunset in Luang Prabang, Laos, young monks c00l off from the afternoon heat in the river waters where the Nam Khan and Mekong intersect; their giggles and shouts echoed out over the nearby river banks.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]mekong river These children swam to a sandy island in the middle of the river for a lively game of kick ball. When the other team really got a good kick in, the losers had to dive into the river to retrieve their ball! Luang Prabang, Laos.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]boy in river A young boy was excited to see me so far from town as my niece and I walked the banks of the Mekong River near Luang Prabang, Laos. Clearly he was familiar with the camera though and hammed it up with different poses![/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Slow boats in Luang Prabang, Laos The iconic wooden slow boats dot the Mekong River all day long as tourists come and go, and locals transport their goods from one town to another. Locals use the small uncovered boats for fishing and quick trips across the river.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]slow boats Satellite dishes adorn traditional wooden slow boats (which are also used as houses for some Laotians) in an odd display of modernity as a man extricates his boat from the docks in Houay Xai, a border town with Thailand.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Several huge semi truks wait to cross over the Mekong River from Thailand into Laos at the border crossing between Chiang Khong and Houay Xai. Several huge semi trucks wait to cross over the Mekong River from Thailand into Laos at the border crossing between Chiang Khong and Houay Xai, the border towns on each side of the Mekong.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]slow boat Mekong River Our captain carefully guides the slow boat down the Mekong River, watching to avoid the huge rocks and swift current in some areas as we make down river from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang, Laos.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]huts on river laos The slow boat occasionally stopped at small smatterings of wooden and bamboo huts lining the Mekong.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]laotian boys Young boys board our slow boat at the tiny towns and sell snacks and cold drinks to the tourists on board. They come on for just two or three minutes and swarm the boat to make sure they hit every possible sale.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="721"]Child on the Mekong River, Laos A little girl with hand-woven baskets looks at me quizzically as I slowly float by her home while she prepares dinner on the banks of the Mekong River.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="721"]sunset laos Ana plays with the light from the setting sun on Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos.[/caption]

A Little Tourism … A Laid-Back Laos, and Our Shrinking World

Returning to Laos was an education on how tourism can affect a country; the difference a mere three years has made in Laos at times seemed inconsequential—unpaved roads were still riddled with jolting, bone-shaking potholes, and a slow and syllabic “sabaidee” hello generously rang into the warm afternoon air  from sweetly grinning locals standing in their shop doorways. Then, the same as now, the (often excited) ring of falang, or rather westerner, dipped and flowed into conversation as I walked through the small towns with my niece, Ana.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Monks houay xai, laos Monks all over Asia generally learn English as soon as they enter the monkhood, and throughout my time in SEA, I seek out monks in new cities because they are always eager and willing to share information, stories, and cultural history. At sunrise, these monks were no exception in Houay Xai, Laos–great English and eager smiles![/caption]

So much my return to Laos felt like a “welcome back, Shannon, we have been here waiting for your return.” I spent a month in Laos in early 2009 and fell in love with the slow days and easy smiles. Now though, that “welcome back” has a gleam of Westernization spritzed with a glitter stick over the well-traveled backpacker route through Laos. Towns where the thought of internet access was laughable when I visited in January 2009, are now littered with discreet signs proudly announcing: “we have WiFi,” “we speak English,” “book any of a gazillion different tours right here and we will hold your hand as we show you around town.”

It’s worth noting that I threw my toilet paper in the toilet…yes, right inside the toilet bowl instead of a trash can nearby. Okay, not everywhere. In fact, not even most places, but there are places with fully flushing toilets in Luang Prabang and that, my friends, is a gigantic flying leap different from the dank and dark squat toilets (and I considered those good toilets!) of just three years past.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Slow Boat in laos The Slow Boat back in 2009, complete with rickety wooden benches![/caption]

In short, the tourism path is cleaner, neater, better organized, more comfortable, more expensive, and just more than it was three years ago. And thankfully, it’s also not less Laos than I remember–throughout these new developments, the people and sentiments felt largely the same, and the political maneuvering with the rural ethic minorities is still a sad and ongoing game.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"] Cushy bus seats take the place of the wooden pews of the past on the crowded boat down the Mekong River in Laos.[/caption]

The UNESCO protections in place in Luang Prabang safeguarded the city from any sort of modern face-lift over the past few years, a protection not in place in Laos’ capital city,Vientiane, where tall cinder-block hotels and offices line the streets in a disjointed jumble and cavernous holes gap in the skyline in a wave of new, and often unfinished, construction.

The country has changed; and I have changed too, to be sure. Over the past few years, I often listed Laos as one of the highlights from my round the world travels. Going back this time, I realized there was more at work during that trip, and it’s this “other” that likely played a part in why I enjoyed traveling the country so much.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]laos children These two excited girls goofed off for the camera in rural Laos; their very basic English elicited shouted “hellos!”[/caption]

This time, I realized I cannot reconstruct the past, there is no way to recreate a moment from my past travels no matter how much I loved it in that moment. I backpacked Laos with Laura, a good friend from the years I lived in Los Angeles, and we did the more footloose and fancy-free activities. Back then, we struggled for an internet connection strong enough to support a quick and choppy Skype chat home, I got sicker than I have ever been in my life, and we spent days upon days on slow boats and buses as we crisscrossed the country.

I returned with Ana last month, unsure of what I would find as took that same route down the Mekong River. Not too surprisingly, the road infrastructure is still in transition (meaning they rely on dirt roads outside of the tourist route) and there were still many weary, long travel days. But, I noticed that very same glitter stick struck some of the more popular guidebook towns. Wifi. Western restaurants. Packaged experiences playing to the interest in Southeast Asia’s ethnic minorities (and some not doing so very ethically, I might add).

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"] A colorful line of bicycles for rent on the streets in Luang Prabang, Laos.[/caption]

But then, I look to the positive side of tourism…and the fact that this is, after all, still Laos. There was more wealth spread throughout the large towns (hints of that are trickling down to the smaller towns). Large-scale tourism brings money, and when it’s done well (and I’m not entirely sure that’s the case in Laos), it can positively augment the way me, as a traveler, sees and experiences a place.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Street scenes from Hongsa, Laos A woman carries home her purchases from the market in Hongsa, Laos[/caption]

There are many elements of tourism done well in Laos. Luang Prabang had a range of grassroots and local projects. Ana and I took a full day weaving class from an organization supporting cultural preservation in Laos. We learned a traditional stenciling method the monks use to decorate new temples. Fair-trade shops abound. The food is delicious, plentiful, and safe to eat (more-so as Western sanitation standards make themselves known). With tourism comes more English, and that meant asking more questions from our guides and guesthouse owners so we could understand the nuances.  And, the glitter stick version of Laos had its up side, because without it, I’m not sure Ana would have enjoyed the country nearly as much. Whereas I, as an adult, love sipping an afternoon coffee watching the boats drift down the Mekong River, she needed engagement on a different level, which we found in the various towns at the local level where just the mere hint of English being spoken meant we had enough charades and gesturing to still be fun but could get our point across.

I’m still reflecting on my return to Laos (and plan some stories and photo-essays in the coming weeks), but my conclusion is: Laos has changed, but the essence of the country, and the warmth of the Laotians leave this country in a special place in my traveling heart.

logging elephant trek laos

A Little Quandary… Ethics and the Elephants of Asia

Ana and I left the other tourists traveling on the slow boat down the Mekong River with their jaws agape when we nimbly jumped off the boat’s thin, rickety ramp onto a giant sand dune with just a small smattering of thatch-roofed houses sunk into the hillside several hundred meters beyond. The boat reached Tha Suang, a tiny blip of a town, and we were the sole tourists venturing into the more rural Sainyabuli province in Laos. Our target end-destination? Hongsa, a town I visited on my round the world trip three years ago.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Tha Suang, Laos Welcome to Tha Suang, a small and dusty town on the Mekong River in Laos.[/caption]

[divider_flat]There were so many reasons for the trip back to this small town: the friendly face of an expat guesthouse owner in Hongsa, the chance for Ana to see the slow pace of life in rural Laos, and to ride an Asian elephant. You see, while I have my doubts about the ethics of the elephant tourism industry in Southeast Asia, my 11 year-old niece was very keen on the experience. One of her dreams at the moment, is to work in animal conservation and one day reverse the gradual extinction of endangered animals. This school year, conservation has been a strong focus and we talked it over, discussed a lot of the issues about the current treatment of elephants around the world, including the elephant logging industry, and she decided she wanted an up close ride and elephant trekking experience in Laos, where they still use elephants for logging.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]feeding an elephant bananas Ana is amazed by the elephants swift removal of the banana from her hand in Hongsa, Laos.[/caption]

[divider_flat]Three years ago, I rode an elephant in Hongsa as well — there’s a lure and a romance to riding an elephant through the green jungle and living-out some elephant meets Tarzan fantasies. The quandary part of this comes down to the where . . .

After reading up on my options three years ago, I picked Hongsa because I could rent a logging elephant for the day and give him a break from long hard days of hauling trees, rather than risk over-working a tourist-camp elephant. And perhaps by convincing myself that a day eating through the jungle with me was easier than his logging duties could appease my guilt and indecision to be honest. Even looking pack, however, I think it’s a very complicated topic because I have gone so far as to tentatively endorse riding elephants in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, where that activity is among the only actions that have saved the elephant in that part of the world.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]elephant eating bamboo The elephant snacks on bamboo in Laos.[/caption]

[divider_flat]With that in mind, Ana and I ventured off the more well-worn backpacking route through Laos to the same rural town I last visited in early 2009 so she could learn more about the elephant logging industry in Laos, meet an elephant in person, and make her own decisions about elephant tourism.

The wooden bell around the bull elephant’s neck thudded with a cheery ring as the mahout directed him toward the loading platform — Ana gasped when the elephant’s broad shadow blocked out the sun and dwarfed her petite figure. The elephant’s dull, grey skin was wrinkled like that of an old man celebrating his long-awaited 102nd birthday; we both tentatively patted his coarse, hairy stomach as Ana buzzed with nervous excitement, passing the bundle of bananas from hand-to-hand.

A huge bull elephant munching on trees at the Jumbo Guesthouse in Hongsa, Laos. An huge Asian elephant in Laos. Jungles, rivers and rice paddies on a rural elephant trek in Laos.

She is fascinated by these animals and carefully studied his small expressive eyes, his sneaky trunk (the bananas she she was still holding in her hand had the elephant probing her hands and pockets with enthusiasm), and the thick chain wrapped around his ankle.

I’ll spare a full description of her experience (I walked along beside the elephant), and instead point you to her post and thoughts about the elephants we met, but I will note it was a beautiful trek through what I consider one of the prettier regions in Laos (but who am I kidding, the entire country is photogenic). Deep brown waters flooded many of the rice paddies, enveloping the weak green stalks, and at points on the trek we heard the tinkling lilt of grainy music drifting out from the wooden houses on stilts.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]rice paddies in laos The rice paddies and wide open fields of rural Laos, outside of Hongsa.[/caption]

[divider_flat]And after an hour perched behind the mahout, jilting from side to side and watching the world pass by from 10 feet above the ground, we stopped for lunch and she informed me of her theory — if she stopped riding him, maybe the mahout would stop poking him with the sharp metal hook, and instead let him eat more of the bamboo and plants lining the red mud paths. She told me that though she liked the idea of riding an elephant, she now decided watching him walk around and do his “elephant” thing was better all around for the elephant and for her.

I agreed and at this point figure the day was a success — she fulfilled her dream to ride an elephant, either way we gave a logging elephant an easier day, and Ana learned for herself (instead of me prattling at length about my own beliefs) about some tough ethical dilemmas facing the elephant tourism industry in Asia.

It’s worth pointing out that the bulk of my issues with elephant tourism stem from the way elephants we domesticate elephants, but not necessarily the domestication in general. The level of cruelty needed to force elephants into submission is not like breaking a horse; it takes beatings, days of abuse, inciting pure fear in the animal, and a whole host of other actions I did not share with Ana, but are startling in their level of pure brutality.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]chain on elephants leg, Hongsa, Laos. The chain around our elephants leg, Hongsa, Laos.[/caption]

[divider_flat]You see, that’s the issue here, because the domestication of elephants is nothing new to the world; in fact, for thousands of years (well into the BC era) humanity has revered the elegance of the elephant. We used the ancient art of storytelling to weave this giant beast into the myths of gods and goddesses, into legends speaking of ultimate power and wisdom. Indian mythology is ripe with elephant imagery, each story bestowing ever the more power, grace, and awe on these animals. Images of Indra, King of the Gods, draw power from the idea of this God mastering and controlling Ayravata, his elephant steed. While Ganesha, a deity know as the “Remover of Obstacles,” has an elephant head and is arguably the most popular and recognizable of the many Hindu gods.

[caption id="attachment_7048" align="aligncenter" width="523"]Ganesha, a popular and prominent Hindu God Ganesha, a popular and prominent Hindu God[/caption]

[divider_flat]Humans have waged war with elephants for centuries, their brute strength and intimidating figures were likely the deciding factor determining the outcome of many skirmishes and battles throughout history. An issue cropping up now, though, lies within globalization, tourism, and the world’s connectivity. Our growth means massive habitat loss for the Asian elephant, more demand for their productivity in questionable trades (such as the elephant logging industry which is illegal in Thailand, but still legal in Laos, Myanmar, and other areas of Asia), abuse, and a novelty factor in tourism that has put this beautiful animal on the world’s growing list of endangered animals.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]eating elephant An elephant munches on trees and bushes outside of Hongsa, Laos.[/caption]

[divider_flat]These are the elements I see within the elephant tourism industry — a lot of gray areas. And there is so much more I haven’t mentioned; the animals often sustain skin injuries from the chairs needed to haul tourists—their curved spines cannot easily support the weight — and, they need a lot of time throughout the day to eat enough food to sustain their enormous bodies (there is often not enough time to both eat and fulfill tourism duties).

Former logging elephants will often have broken backs or  malformed legs from the dangers of the job. And it’s these very same elephants, the former logging elephants that are now forced to earn their feed by spending hours upon hours hauling tourists. Numbers are dwindling because owners often cannot afford to allow the mothers the time and light load needed to gestate for 22 months, and when they are born, the baby elephants are destined for the tourism industry as well.

A baby boy elephant and his mom A frisky two small boy elephant in Hongsa, Loas.

This is the first side of the coin, later this month Ana and I will visit the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. The Nature Park is a conservation center allowing full elephant-tourist interactions but without the riding aspect. We’ll learn more about these beautiful animals and Ana is excited to see some of the current conservationists working to preserve the Asian elephant’s place in future generations.

Through other travelers I greatly respect, they have told me this park is one of the best spots for ethical elephant tourism in Thailand, so Ana and I will report back with more information soon.

Rice Paddy in Hongsa, Laos

A Little Trial … Travel Versus, Well, Travel

Hats off to the traveling parents out there, the homeschooling, road-schooling, traveling adults with children in tow because man, it’s harder than I first imagined. My niece and I are a month into our trip and the pace of life has changed significantly for both of us. As a serial solo traveler, this past month plus was so much harder than syncing travel rhythms with another adult; instead I plan and plot out our days around school-time, downtime, fun-time, educational time…

So many “times” to figure out each day!

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]rice paddy laos Rice paddies and thatched houses outside in the rural parts outside of Hongsa, Laos.[/caption]

Our first month in Thailand was the trial run, and for the past ten days Ana and I have shouldered our small backpacks and we traded easy days spent in our Chiang Mai apartment for the dusty roads, slow-flowing rivers, and long travel days in Laos. The rusty waters of the Mekong River were our constant companion as we journeyed into the quiet center of Laos, stopping in sleepy villages and remote towns until we made it to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, at which point we plopped down for several days to enjoy this riverside city that offers a slice of ambling locals, quite streets, and a peek at a modern-day Laos echoing strongly with hints of the country’s hilltribe culture, post-colonial influences, and a “baw pen nyang,” or rather “no worries,” pace of life.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Mekong River, Laos The banks of the Mekong River and surrounding hills on the slow boat down to Pak Beng.[/caption]

And throughout these past ten days we navigated the even more difficult trails of actually traveling. That first month in Thailand was a baby-step into travel; we have a small but comfortable apartment, a television (though very few English channels thankfully), and a routine with old friends, new friends, and familiar restaurants. The kiddo is happy in Chiang Mai, she quickly acclimated to the nuances of westernized Thai culture suffusing Chiang Mai and made some assumptions about Asia in general from these first glimpses.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Hongsa, Laos Definitely not raised in the country, these cows and the pretty hills of the Sainyabuli province in Laos captivated Ana’s attention, especially when the dog ran into the fray and started herding them![/caption]

And then our visas expired and the real adventure started. I warned her, Laos is not like Thailand. It’s slower and less Westernized; the country comes across in waves of rural towns, poverty, unexpected smiles and happiness, few healthcare options, less English, and endlessly long travel days on uncomfortable transportation plodding down sometimes unpaved roads riddled with potholes and stray animals.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Tourist slow boat on the Mekong River A long wooden slow boat, filled with old bus seats for the long trip down the Mekong River in Laos.[/caption]

She has taken it all like a champ even though those first days generated dozens of thoughtful questions, plaintive complaints about the transportation, and surprisingly perceptive observations about the new things we’ve seen and done over the past ten days.

On my end, the entire process of traveling with Ana is so much more time-consuming than I once imagined. And this is not an “oh woe is me, let’s pity Shannon,” but rather an observation that kids are hard work on the road! I am still working as we travel, which forces me to be more effective each day than in the past—between my job, writing posts, photo-editing, and actually schooling Ana, it’s been a lot of work and I am endlessly glad I initially decided to use Chiang Mai as a base, it was a good call on my part.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]mekong at sunrise A hazy and cool morning on the Mekong as we board the boat in Pak Beng on our way to Luang Prabang, Laos.[/caption]

Ana and I have just five more days left in Laos before we return to Chiang Mai, and boy, do we need a rest! This two-week trip into Laos was essentially a visa-run so we can stay in Thailand for several months now and it proved to me all of my long-held beliefs about slow travel are even more true with children—slowing down and spending several days (or a week) in each place is far more effective for not only learning about everything we are seeing and doing, but stopping for the week here in Luang Prabang (instead of our plan to cram everything into two days) has saved Ana’s sanity and my own!

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]fruit shake luang prabang laos Ana enjoys the routine of daily street-side fruit shakes in Luang Prabang, Laos.[/caption]

All of that said, Laos is just as special as I remember and I’ve found a bit of inspiration that was missing these past few weeks (i.e. why the blog has been so sporadically updated). I hope all of my US friends had a wonderful long weekend over Thanksgiving (Ana and I ruthlessly hunted down a slice of pumpkin pie here in Luang Prabang on Thanksgiving and enjoyed every morsel of it), I anticipate penning more Laos stories on our epic 10 hour bus ride down to Vientiane tonight :)

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]sunset mekong river The sun slowly sets with a tangerine sunset over the Mekong River in Laos.[/caption]
glass of milk in laos

A Little Travel Memory … Please Sir, I Want Some More

As is the norm in North America and Europe, I drink milk.  In fact, my dad is the poster parent for the National Dairy Council because I drank at least two glasses a day well into my twenties.

Then I went to Southeast Asia.

And stopped drinking milk. Outside of Western countries, dairy consumption often drops down to almost nil – anything that needs milk will have either powdered milk mixed just minutes before served to you or soy milk as a normal substitute. For the first few months in Southeast Asia I suffered acute milk cravings.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="491"]A Shot of Milk in Luang Prabang, Laos A Shot of Milk in Luang Prabang, Laos[/caption]

So when I saw a menu in Luang Prabang, Laos with the phrase “glass of milk” on the menu I did a happy dance in my head.

And then they served me a thimble full of milk. Okay, fine, it was a shot glass.

A shot glass of ice cold deliciousness. While I was sad to have so little, my traveling companion Laura and I embraced the humor of the situation and this newly discovered cultural quirk while I downed my thimble of milk and we called it a day.

Since then, I’ve learned some of the history and reasoning behind the utter lack of milk and dairy. It baffled me at first to see cows roaming the hillsides and yet no milk and cheese culture.  Lactose intolerance, though, is rampant in Asia. Consider this, Europeans ,on the whole, show as little as 5 percent of lactose intolerance while that number ratchets up to 90 percent in some Asian regions.

My dairy induced longing on my round the world ended when I set foot on the Indian sub-continent and fell in love with curd. There, like the US, a mere thimble full of milk is scarcely enough.

Any secret cravings when you’re outside the US?

Pak Ou Caves Buddha Statues

A Little Reflection… Finding the Retired Buddhas at Laos’ Pak Ou Caves

Travel experiences begin to blend and morph under the constant stress of “newness” when you’re on a long-term trip. When I traveled around the world for a year, even though my pace was slower than some, I went to fast to process all the moments and sites. Laos was one of my favorite countries to visit both then and now, and it’s only in the years since I first visited that I am fully processing the moments and memories.

When I first visited, I was on a whirlwind of visiting everything from the famed waters of the Nam Song river in Vang Vieng to the stunning turquoise pools at the Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang. At the time, I found the Pak Ou Caves underwhelming. Compared to the high adventure of other day trips, I was happy to have spent the day doing something interesting, but I thought that it was skippable in the long run. I even wrote that phrase “skippable.” Ouch! That’s a harsh assessment, but it was my honest opinion. In the craziness of traveling and constantly moving locales, the Pak Ou caves weren’t “Holy cannoli, that rocks my world.” In the years since, however, I find myself coming back to those caves—and the things I learned.

Buddha Images
Buddha images of every shape, size, and style line the Pak Ou caves near Luang Prabang, Laos.

Laos’ Pak Ou caves sit above the Mekong River as just a dark blip in the rock as we approached by boat. The position of the caves allows indirect light to enter as it bounces off of the river’s muddy brown waters.

There are two main caves, both embedded into the limestone cliff. The lower cave is reachable from a staircase that ascends from the riverbank, while the second caves is higher, the entrance is surrounded by trees. Once we disembarked, no one had to tell us to use hushed voices as we ventured into the small, dark recess in the rock. As we entered, our gazes caressed hundreds of Buddha statues. Buddhas in every position, every era of life, and every size line the cave walls. More than 6,000 Buddha statues and images fill the caves. Damp earth assaults the nostrils, even the brush of bodies as tourists enter and leave doesn’t stir the air.

And yet, there are the statutes. Each tiny Buddha was perched with loving care into the cave’s crevices and natural shelves.

Discovreing the Buddhas of Pak Ou Caves in Laos

Devotional energy reverberates through the caves. Recent additions glisten in the muted light, while the cobwebs cover the oldest statues. Some of these have sat in the Pak Ou caves for hundreds of years. Nearby villagers, and pilgrims from all over the world, use this cave as a place to retire damaged and old Buddha statues. Local Laotians deposit the Buddha statues in the cave instead of tossing them, a practice that speaks to their devotion and commitment. These caves provided an answer to the question I had never before thought to ask: Where do retired Buddha statues live?

Which then begs a related question that I hadn’t considered: What happens to the many statues of a Crucified Jesus that rest in every Catholic church? Surely you can’t simply toss those either.

Quick Travel Tips: Visiting the Pak Ou Caves

Where: Less than two hours from Luang Prabang, Laos; about 25 kilometers upriver. Also accessible by tuk tuk.

How to Get to Pak Ou Caves: Boats leave every morning (early) from Luang Prabang’s main dock and make a two hour scenic ride down the Mekong River. Join a tourist boat, or charter your own. Tuk tuks take an hour to reach the nearest town, which is just across the river from the caves. You’ll then have to hire a boat to ferry you across. Tours also run from Luang Prabang and they will arrange the boat and guide—but trust me, it’s fairly simple to arrange for yourself.

How Much: About 20,000 kip to enter the caves. Joining a shared boat is about 65,000 kip per person, or you can charter a boat for 300,000 kip. The tuk-tuk is a bit cheaper since the journey is shorter, with bargaining you are looking at about 200,000 kip minimum. Note that prices can often rise even within six months of past travelers having visited.

Insider Travel Tip:  Consider the tuk-tuk ride if you have already taken—or if you plan to take—the two-day slow boat between Luang Prabang and the Thai border. While the Mekong is beautiful, the ride is redundant if you’re already spending days watching the life that happens along the banks of the Mekong. The boat will also stop at a few villages where you can sample whiskey and enjoy a bit of shopping.

Guidebook: I used the Lonely Planet guides during my time in Southeast Asia and they are my go-to. While the guesthouses they recommend are usually overrun, the Laos guide offers a good bit of history, as well as the nitty gritties on transport around the region.

Accommodation: Agoda is the best booking site in Southeast Asia and I use it to research and book guesthouses if I am in town for just a few days. Otherwise, I love Airbnb and it has some truly gorgeous properties in the region.

Backpacking Southeast Asia

A guide to everything I learned from years backpacking Southeast Asia—consider this the ultimate beginners guide for anyone traveling through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia!