Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Your illegally downloaded Laos smile isn’t fooling anyone.

“All over Southeast Asia there are American men who never go home. We simply can’t. Because when we look into the eyes of your people, we see something, call it what you like. Soul? The human mind before fragmentation? Something sacred we farang habitually amputate like tonsils because we don’t understand its function? Maybe its your damned Buddhism. But we see something. Now tell me this, Detective. When you look into the eyes of farang, what do you see?”

-Tom Burdett, Bangkok Tattoo

Your illegally downloaded Laos smile isn’t fooling anyone.

The country of Laos (the ‘s’ is silent) has a landmass similar in size to Vietnam, yet a citizenry equal that claimed by the city of Saigon. The nation’s grand ambition is to escape its status as one of the world’s twenty poorest countries by 2020; a nation can dream.

You wouldn’t know of the grand goal once within. There doesn’t seem to be ambition of any sort. There’s poverty, but it’s not the desperate Cambodia kind, even though the country is supposedly the most impoverished in the region. It’s more of a we-live-off-the-land-anyway kind of poverty. A you-worry-about-money-while-we-concern-ourselves-with-Buddha’s-Eight-fold-Path sort of poor. A poverty that makes you wonder if the Laos people, with their languid smiles, with their indolent grins, are laughing at you and all the kip (Laos currency) in your pocket, knowing any joy the paper brings is impermanent, is dukkha, is just fueling your ‘thirst’, your craving for more experience, your greed for sense-pleasures. The Laos people know all that kip in your pocket, it’s pain, it’s suffering, and it doesn’t really exist anyway.

I’m confused.

Better leave the Buddhism for the ordained. I just want to see the pretty temples and dragon carvings and the silly looking men wearing the tangerine robes humming and banging on drums all day. Talk about enlightened, I grew out of that stuff shortly after growing out of diapers. Yes, it’s been at least three years.

From observation one might conclude that the Laos people spend the majority of the day idly lying about even when ‘on the job.’ One might also conclude the majority are pleasant, patiently good-natured, and radiate a tranquil joy. One of the New-Age might comment on Laos chakras being incredibly soft and excessive, a morning mist to the typical tightly constricted bolt of American energy. New-Aged, old-aged, any-aged, what you’ll notice is Laos people, they sure smile and laugh a lot. Not split-second stiff upper lip smiles, like when you say ‘good morning’ to your wife, but big beautiful grins that could melt Osama’s heart. Even if it was buried in the cold, cold sea pursuant to some Muslim tradition when it should have been sent to Texas for the Bush family barbeque.

You mean to tell me these ambition-less Rambo extras are rewarded with sublime states while us nose-to-the-grindstone Caucasoids can barely contort are facial muscles into feigned grins for the clerk while purchasing the morning cup a’ Joe? Now that, that right there, is funny, I don’t care who you are.

Now that you know the Laos are Buddhist and beam, you should also be aware that the country was bombed to oblivion in Vietnam’s ‘Secret War.’ It’s okay. The damage, it was dukkha, as impermanent as you are as you change from one moment to the next, your cells dying and replenishing every second, your cells as fleeting as your thoughts. The forest erases all, and rather quickly, but the stubborn UXO--unexploded ordinance--must be arhats, sitting in rumination so long they allude transformation. They’re not leaving. They’re not going anywhere.

Between 1964 and ‘73 the United States conducted over 580,000 flight missions, about one every eight minutes, over Laos, declared a neutral nation, dropping two million tons of bombs to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Thirty percent, or 78 million bombs, failed to detonate. The country is littered with UXO. While The British Mines Advisory Group has engaged in clearance work since 1994 only a small percentage have been removed. At the current rate completion will take well over 100 years.

In Vientiane, Laos’s sleepy capital, one can visit COPE, an organization dedicated to supporting the more than 12,000 people that have fallen prey to UXO and survived, many of them children. The Vietnam War, the war that keeps on giving.

Not privy to the moment, I am without opinion as to war time decisions, but was taught, shortly after growing out of diapers--yes, it’s been over three years--that when one litters one should clean up after oneself. Or get a Brit to volunteer to finish the task within the next 150 years.

Despite UXO Laos is outdoor recreation bliss, greener than a room full of leprechauns with rivers and waterfalls around every turn. This statement is quite staggering when you realize what the bag is for. It’s plastic, it could hold a liter of milk and a box of Oreo cookies, and it’s given to you as you get on the bus. 230 kilometers separate Vang Vieng, Laos from Luang Prabang, about 140 miles, yet due to the route’s serpentine nature up mountains and down what’s billed as the ‘express’ bus takes seven hours to complete the journey. During which a liter of milk and a box worth of Oreo cookies bids my stomach adieu, takes the esophagus express to my tonsils and visits the bag given to me when the bus’s engine started. Another destination reached, more sense-(un)pleasures experienced, and still I ’thirst’ for more.

If you just lost a liter of milk you’d be parched too.

Keep drifting.

Pha That Luang, in Vientiane, containing a piece of Buddha's breastbone.

Biking outside Vang Vieng.

Inside Luang Prabang's Wat Xieng Thong funeral chapel.

Outside Luang Prabang, on the bike ride to the Kuang Si Waterfalls.

At Kuang Si waterfalls, 35 km away from luang Prabang.

View from my room over the river in Vang Vieng.

Wat at the Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang.

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