This week has been a rough one for me in more ways than one. And I’m thankful that there are so many people who love me and remind me that I’m not alone when going through a difficult time. Here’s to family, friends and an awesome hubby!
“When I little girl, I so scared,” said Ann, a Laotian I had met earlier that day and invited me in for tea.
“We living in village close to Sepon, near eastern border between Laos and Vietnam. We so poor, my family. Always not enough to eat. And every day, I look outside and bombs falling and falling. Everything burning: houses, animals, my people. One day, our village on fire so my father take us. To another village. For many days, we walking and walking.”
She paused. Then she said, “And on road, we see so many dead bodies. But my father always say to us to keep moving, must keep moving.”
Here was a woman who had seen her entire country razed to the ground and yet she thought I was brave for traveling solo in Laos. She had done the bravest thing of all: to put one foot in front of the other on a corpse-riddled road. Just to survive. To not let the most ghastly sights slow her down.
It was a secret war in Laos from 1964 to 1973 that had raged all throughout the country, occupied by the Americans and Vietnamese at the cost of thousands of innocent lives. Even though Laos was technically a neutral state, the Vietnamese stayed anyway and took over the eastern part of Laos along the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail. And for many years, the Americans dropped bombs to stop the spread of communism in and around the Ho Chi Minh trail. Not many knew about Laos and their unwanted role in it. It was forgotten, hidden in CIA files and memos that only recently came to light.
“Ann, I can’t…imagine how you must’ve felt seeing all those dead bodies.”
“Yes, what to do? Stay beside death and cry? No, you move. Always moving. Must leave war and death behind you.” She sighed, her long breath coming deep from her belly, and she set her teacup down for the last time.
She didn’t say any more about it. I prompted her to continue, but she was silent. Her face looked sadder, and I stopped my queries that seemed to pull down the corners of her mouth. I knew I had gone as far as I could with her about the war.
Instead, she leaned back in her chair and we chatted politely about my trip to Lao Pako the next day, and the upcoming journey north to Luang Prabang. We finished our talk just in time for the power to go out, as it always seemed to at the same time every night. She lit a candle, placed it in a metal holder and then gave it to me, her palms encircling my own.
“Good luck to you. I enjoy our talk,” she said, her eyes searching my face.
“Thank you. I really appreciated it and more than anything I—”
“Ssssh,” she hushed me. “No need to say. My country suffer so much during war. I lucky am alive. Live your life.”
Bowing my head out of respect, I clasped my hands together and she reciprocated. When I lifted my head, she had already crossed the room, the long back panel of her silk dress swirling behind her.
I came across this old photo and a flood of memories came back: I was arm-wrestling with a Tibetan monk at a Buddhist monastery just outside of Lhasa. What started off as a joke turned into a serious arm-wrestling match. And when I lost (even after using both arms), I had to down a cup of yak butter tea, which was a strange concoction of bitter tea with a thick film of yak butter on top. Not too tasty. But I was glad to drink it because all the monks I met were so good-natured and generous. I found the Tibetans to have a wonderful sense of humor and a positive attitude, despite the hardships they often face. Moments like these remind me of how the best parts of traveling are not so much the places we see, but the rich and heartfelt experiences we share with the locals.
As people flock to temples in Asia, some new, some old where the beautiful sculptures are still relatively intact, I like to hang around the ruins that look like…well they look like ruins. Temple columns with exposed bricks. Heads of Buddhist statues lopped off. Faint resemblance of a sculpted story of a battle chiseled on a temple wall. I enjoy marveling these ruins so that I can wonder “What was once here? How majestic had this looked back in the day?”
In the Sukothai Historical Park in Thailand, I discovered temple ruins with gigantic statues of Buddhas, Boddhisatvas and also elephants, all of which had seen their heyday back in 12th – 13th Century.
The beauty of traveling to Sukothai is being able to view a snapshot in time of this once great palace area resplendent with colorful statues and walkways. Now it’s a UNESCO heritage site for thousands of tourists every year, and it’s a quiet tourist destination that is often overlooked on the map for those in favor of Chiang Mai, Bangkok or the number of gorgeous islands in Thailand. I loved my brief time in Sukothai as I wandered around and imagined the hustle and bustle of this once great kingdom that ruled for 200 years.
“Hello! Can I practice my English with you?” she asked. I heard this high-pitched voice from across the street and when I turned around, all I saw was a small wooden shack that served as a mini grocery store in this tiny town in Bhutan. “Over here!” she waved. Her beautiful big smile greeted me and she introduced herself as Sonam, a Bhutan-born Nepalese girl whose family ran the store.
That afternoon, I met her two sisters and we chatted about boys, American movies and funny stories about their teachers. I think kids are the same all over the world.
During a drive to a nearby monastery outside of Punakha, I met this wonderful Bhutanese family who shared that they’ve never had a family picture taken of them. I took a few shots and then I mailed them copies when I returned to the U.S. The funny part was that they insisted I had to be in every picture! “You are now part of the family,” the patriarch said to me. They were so kind and hospitable, inviting me to tea and biscuits afterwards.
My driver knew a handful of English phrases including “Hello,” and “It’s time to go,” and “You may eat that.” Although his English was limited, he was always so gracious during the 12 days I was in Bhutan, and we learned to communicate by reading each other’s facial expressions and using a lot of sign language.
I loved the kids I met along the way! One time, I walked in the middle of a field to see the town stupa. Suddenly, around seven children showed up out of nowhere and we had a blast taking photos and singing songs.
I enjoyed visiting the temples in Bhutan mostly because of the people-watching.