Thursday, 28 March 2013

...Indochina: The Little Things In Life Are Often The Most Priceless

"Greed, anger and ignorance are the basis of our afflictions" 
- The Three Poisons of Buddhism

I was back on the boat by 7am, after a quick breakfast of scrambled egg and fruit, to continue the journey down the Mekong river. There was a definite nip in the air and I sat on the boat wrapped in a blanket for the first hour or so until the sun finally peaked through the mist. The only noise was the occasional bird, the sound of water and the whir of the boat engine. It seemed quite fitting that the boat gently rocked from side to side to B. J. Thomas' "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" on my iPad. What a glorious way to spend the morning.

"...because I'm free, nothing's worrying me"

There were a few more villages dotted here and there along the river bank today than yesterday. None of which are accessible by road - the only way to and from them is by boat. We stopped at one so the boat's captain to could pick up some food supplies. The next thing I know it they are hauling this huge catfish, the size of a small child, onto the deck. Apparently they decided it was too big to eat and it is now in a bathtub in the family quarters, they're going to keep it as a pet. I never did find out what they had named it.

Many parts of this region remain mired in poverty. At around 1230pm the boat docked once more this time at the small village of Ban Tan (which translates to Village of Tan). The children raced over to greet the 'falang' (meaning French but used by Laotians to describe Caucasians with an air of respect & endearment). With help from the European Commission, the village has a school with two teachers (one being from a neighbouring village) helping the kids to speak Lao and so we had a huge bag of notepads, pens, pencils, crayons to donate to the children. None of the children speak English but it was a wonderful and humbling experience to converse with them through mime and broken Lao. They loved having their photo taken and then having you show them the wonder that is technology seen through their picture. Cue lots of giggling. I spent about an hour at the village gleaning information from Phat, a Lao tour guide.

Their nearest town, Luang Prabang, is 3 hours away by boat. Most, if not nearly all will have never been there. If anyone gets sick that's where they have to head... By boat... And if they want medical attention they have to pay for it and most cannot. They make money by panning for gold and selling produce/livestock/fish. They live in straw huts and chickens, ducks and pigs wander around the village. Beyond what they get taught in this school most of them will take their education no further and be put to work. Whilst there may be no official discrimination system in place, people in villages like this have amongst the lowest standards of living and life is a struggle. Laos, along with Cambodia, has the highest birth rate in Indochina.

Still, the villagers genuinely smiled and gratefully accepted such a simple gift. One little girl followed me around pointing to my various 'antennae' in my ears, seemingly amazed by them. When it was time to get back on the boat I ran back up the beach to her and pulled my worn-once hair tie out of my hair. Primarily with mime I explained what it was for and gave it to her to replace the tatty piece of elastic band she was using. She put both her hands together and thanked me with a bow. As she waved goodbye she was wearing it as a bracelet. Such a priceless moment.

About 25km to the north of Luang Prabang, the Pak Ou caves of Tham Ting (lower cave) and the Tham Theung (upper cave) overlook the Mekong river. I found the caves and their history to be quite fascinating. There are thousands of old Buddha statues in these caves, some in what look to be incredibly inaccessible places. Personally I thought the views combined Buddha images were stunning and it gives you a feeling of peace. For me it was worth the trip if you have the time. Note the climb up to the upper cave is via a series of fairly steep steps potentially in some intense heat & humidity. Of course I bounded up there like a gazelle. Like any good little Miss A Type would!

Just after 5pm we arrived at the dock in Luang Prabang after a wonderful two days on the mighty Mekong. An experience I will never forget!

Food For Thought:
"Cultivating a non-discriminatory mind provides the serenity for practitioners to let go of afflictions, wandering thoughts and attachments. It is difficult for us to let go due to the injustices we feel we have suffered and the grudges we thus hold. However, feeling this way only puts us at more of a disadvantage because then we suffer the consequences of our grudges. Inequalities exist in this world because of our discriminating mind." - Venerable Master Chin Kung

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