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Stories from Month 8

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Massage: Week 1

timAfter week one of Thai massage class, we have discovered that I am as limber as Michelle is stiff. My muscles feel energized and full of life, while she is walking Chiang Mai like an 80 year old woman.

It is the stretching that gets to you. The moves are so close to yoga that our instructor John (Chongkol) calls the practice of Thai massage "yoga for lazy people" and we start each day of class with an hour yoga session. After the stretching and the hour of demonstration that follows, we practice on each other for several hours and repeat the moves several times until we get it right (moves such as "the plow" handstand with legs bent behind head). All the while, Thai assistants sit beside us and point out problems with our technique.

After only one week of practice, I can see a remarkable change in my flexibility and energy. Too bad Michelle just wants to spend the weekend resting her sore muscles. top

An elephant stands watch over Wat Chiang Man, the oldest Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai - built in 1296. Reliefs carved on the outside of the Buddhist temple Wat Jet Yot. The sloping wooden roof of Wat Phan Tao in Chiang Mai, Thailand is a prime example of the northern Thai An intricate carving adorns a door in the northern Thai temple of Wat Phra Singh (1343 AD), also known as Wat Lee Chiang Phra. An intricate carving adorns a door in the northern Thai temple of Wat Phra Singh (1343 AD), also known as Wat Lee Chiang Phra. The stupa is the centerpiece of the Doi Suthep temple, which was established in 1383 and overlooks the city of Chiang Mai from an altitude of over 1600m. Statuettes of revered monks and Buddha adorn the Suan Dawk temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Wat U-Mong, Thailand

Buddhism

timThe Buddhist temple of Wat U-Mong is only a couple of kilometers outside of Chiang Mai - an easy distance on my one-gear mountain bike. I arrived with enough time to enjoy the 600-year-old temple's Buddhist library, quiet forest trails, and tall bell shaped chedi. At 3 PM, I walked down to the Chinese pagoda overlooking the picturesque lake for today's event, an informal discussion on Buddhism led by an English monk (hosted every Sunday).

He looked similar to the other Thai monks in his orange robe and sandals, but the sun glinted off his white shaved head more intensely than from his darker skinned brothers. He sat down in the lotus position and started the conversation with a few minutes of contemplative silence.

He then fielded questions that participants had about Buddhism, and continued by discussing in detail the themes that emerged in his answers. For the next two hours, 20 people participated in a conversation that was interrupted only by the splash of huge catfish from the nearby lake.


To know Southeast Asia you must learn a little about Buddhism. So what is it?

Buddha was born a wealthy prince in India 2500 years ago. Though he lacked for nothing, he felt a deep compassion for mankind's universal suffering and renounced his life of luxury to find a remedy. After many years of asceticism and meditation, he realized the teachings of Buddhism, became enlightened, and communicated the Dhamma (teachings of Buddhism) to the world.

Buddha taught that everything on earth is impermanent. In the end, flowers wilt, computers become obsolete, cars break down, bodies grow old, and spouses die. Yet we grasp on to these objects like they will last forever and suffer when they do not. Yet impermanence is their nature - they are just doing what we knew they would.

Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Suffering (or Unsatisfactoriness)
  2. The arising of suffering
  3. The cessation of suffering
  4. The path leading to the cessation of suffering
Suffering Suffering extends from every problem we face in life, from major catastrophes to minor inconveniences. Like a doctor curing a disease, Buddha asks us in the First Noble Truth to look deeply into our suffering - to ask where it hurts and discover which disease needs to be cured.

The Arising of Suffering To determine the correct medication needed to cure your disease, the doctor must understand the cause of your illness. This you must do with the Second Noble Truth. You must determine how suffering arose in you.

Buddha teaches that universal suffering is caused by the craving of sense pleasures and attachment to desire. His prescription is to recognize desire for what is and let go of it.

The Cessation of Suffering Your suffering ends with the cessation and complete extinction of your craving. Following the doctor's advice cures the patient.

The Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering To stay away from suffering, Buddha prescribes the Noble Eightfold Path

  1. Right Understanding: (Sometimes translated as Right View) Cultivating a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths.
  2. Right Thought: (Sometimes translated as Right Intention) The product of right understanding. Fostering loving kindness, compassion, and the wholesome thoughts that lead to the liberation from suffering.
  3. Right Speech: Cultivating deep listening, speaking truthfully, not speaking with a forked tongue, not speaking cruelly, and not exaggerating.
  4. Right Action: Abstinence from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct.
  5. Right Livelihood: Not earning a living by dealing in arms, slaughtering animals, killing humans, selling intoxicating substances (alcohol and drugs), selling poisons, making prophesies, or telling fortunes.
  6. Right Effort: Putting your energy towards ending suffering by nourishing the wholesome and rejecting the unwholesome.
  7. Right Mindfulness: Watching your thoughts and actions and directing them appropriately.
  8. Right Concentration: Developing concentration and control of the mind by being present to the moment.
Web Links Want to know more? Buddhanet.net has a wealth of information about Buddhism, from basic teachings to good resources. Also, I'd recommend just about any book by Thich Nhat Hahn. top

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Healing Touch

michelleYesterday, riding home from class on my bike, my pant leg got caught on a pedal. One minute I was enjoying the sun warming my face and the wind blowing through my hair; I was free, free from class, free from work, free to travel the world. The next minute I was sprawled on the gravelly earth, hugging the road as if we were long lost friends. Rising, I found only a couple cuts and bruises although it seemed the road didn't want to say good-bye. Rocks and pebbles and dirt clung to me. My left palm burned with fire. I mounted my bike and rode home much more cautiously.

Today in class, my wrist throbbed and my palm was purple. This is not good considering palms are main instruments used in giving Thai massage. The palms move up and down the body, warming and relaxing the muscles. Today I was using only one palm and Tim was getting a very weak massage.

One of the massage assistants approached me with Tiger Balm in her hand and a concerned look on her face. She spoke little English but it was clear she wanted to help. She took my hand in hers and began circling Tiger Balm around my injury with her thumbs. Soon tingling mingled with the pain. I watched in fascination as she then massaged my arm, starting at the elbow and moving toward the wrist. She worked my arm's energy lines pressing carefully with her thumbs. Then at my wrists, she stopped the blood flow with her fingers for a few seconds. She raised my hand to her ear and listened. What was she listening to? My pulse? The energy flow? She massaged my wrist one more time and then listened again. When she was satisfied, she moved up to my hand and gave me an awesome hand massage. Each finger was kneaded, pulled and stretched. She ended the show with a slight shake of my hand - to rid the area of any bad energy and hopefully to make room for quicker healing.

The pain faded quickly and within hours the purple and swelling almost disappeared. It was an amazing lesson on the body and what healing touch in the right hands can do. I am so glad I am in this class. top

Babies Home

michelleThe sound of children tumbled towards us - squeals, laughter, cries. I led the way up the stairs as five friends from massage class followed. At the top of the stairs were brown doors; not knowing what to expect beyond them, they looked large and daunting. I took a deep breathe and pushed them open.

The room was momentarily quiet as thirty-six small eyes stared at us. Then recognition lit their faces: we were visitors, coming to play. The children old enough to walk yelped in delight and ran towards us. Soon we all had children desperately tugging at our pants, wanting to be held. I picked up a lively young boy with a bowl-cut hairdo, his bangs slightly covering his eyes. All the other volunteers also had at least one, if not two, children in their arms. Victory and contentment from being held shone from their smiles. Others, still on the floor, wanting to be held, screamed from the injustice. There just weren't enough arms.

We were at the Vienping House for Babies. It's part of an orphanage serving most of Northern Thailand. This particular group of children were the one to two year-olds. In other rooms and buildings on the complex were housed the infants and older children. We had seen signs asking for volunteers to come play with the children and decided to visit after our massage class. We entered their world after a short 15 minute bus ride out of town.

For the next couple of hours we played with the children. They flowed from one volunteer to the next, eating up our attention. I stood, now with a small girl in my arms, and surveyed the room. It was clean and orderly but sterile, reminding me of a hospital. The floor was hard tile and there was no furniture, only a couple mats. Toys were scattered around the floor- plastic cups, beanie babies, tin bracelets, toy cars and miniature plastic kitchenware. Children sat and played with them, as staff and volunteers watched and played too.

As I watched to scene before me, I contemplated on what circumstances brought these children here. Why were the parents unable to care for their children? I looked at the small faces and wondered, knowing there could be a myriad of reasons: poverty, death, prison, abuse, illness.

My thoughts drifted to the children's mothers. I couldn't imagine the pain and sacrifice the mothers had to endure to give these little ones up. I know if I had a child and then had to give it up, a large part of my heart would die. Even thinking about it made me shudder.

We played with the children and poured out as much love and affection as we could in a short amount of time. The cynic in me wondered if it even mattered; with so little time, did it actually make a difference? I had to believe, even if it was for my own sake, that the answer was yes. That every hug, every kind word, and every laugh helped the children grow and feel more welcome in this world.

When it was time for them to eat dinner and the staff politely signaled it was time to leave, we all reluctantly said good-bye. Once outside the brown doors, I turned and looked through their glass windows. A small boy was still waving and blowing kisses at us, bidding us a warm farewell.

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Graduation

michelleToday we graduated from Thai massage class! I wouldn't say we are experts at this ancient art form, but after 60 hours of in-class practice, we have a solid foundation. And we have diplomas to prove it!

To our friends and family interested in testing our new skills in Thai massage: start groveling now!

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The Power of Touch

michelleI brought Tim along on my return trip to the orphanage. The children piled on top of him, clambering for attention. He handled it really well!

Cher, a friend from our massage class, was also there. She is from Maryland and we have enjoyed hanging out with someone from so close to home. As a professional massage therapist, she was in Chiang Mai to take several massage classes.

It was Sunday, a day most of the staff at the orphanage takes off, so the volunteers were extra busy with the little ones. We took them outside to play and brought them in for a bowl of rice porridge around lunchtime. Most of the children could feed themselves and we helped the ones that couldn't.

After lunch, we set up a conveyor belt-like system to give the children baths. A volunteer would strip a child of their clothes and then pass him/her to another adult at a large sink. There the children were soaped up and rinsed off and then handed to another adult to be dried. Each child was then passed to a counter to be dressed in clean clothes. It was very efficient and in no time all 18 children were ready for their afternoon nap.

One little girl though stopped the flurry of activity in its tracks. She had been very quiet and still on her mat and no one had really paid much attention to her. Sometimes, unfortunately, it is the loud children who get the attention while the quiet ones are overlooked. But when we undressed her for her bath we were shocked at how skinny she was. Her body was frightfully thin and frail. One volunteer, who had been coming for three months, was outraged the little girl had deteriorated so badly. She informed us the girl had arrived a month ago, healthy and plump. Now she was just a shadow.

It was obvious she was suffering from emotional trauma from the sudden separation from her mother/parents. The staff, with so many children to look after, was not able to give her the attention she needed. In her grief, she was withdrawing รป not eating or interacting. She needed more than what the staff could give.

Cher asked for some olive oil and then, using her massage therapist background, began to give the baby a massage. For the next 20 minutes I watched her hands slide up and down, stroking and touching. Cher explained how essential touches is to human survival and that at an early age if infants do not receive enough tactile stimulation, they can literally whither and die. It's called the 'failure to thrive' syndrome. Children can have their basic necessities like food and shelter met, but without touch they will not survive.

As Cher's hands massaged, her mouth also worked, showering the girl with soft whispers of love. Slowly the baby's whole being transformed. Her body went from a tight angry ball to a relaxed comforted child. Her facial muscles loosened and a smile emerged.

The other children were all lying on their mats falling asleep but the child whimpered and cried when Cher went to lie the little girl down. She was not ready for the touch to stop. So Cher sat and rocked her until sleep arrived.

The hand is an amazing conveyer of information. There is power in touch. Power to convey love รป to hold, to stroke, to nurture. Watching Cher work was a testament to the power of loving touch.

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Happy New Year!

bothJust like everywhere else in the world, welcoming in a new year in Chiang Mai brings much celebration. Last night people dressed in their best to dine, party-goers sat in bars wearing festive hats swaying to the live band music. White lights hung from trees and bridges illuminating the city. We had a nice dinner with friends by a river and then stopped at a food stall, eating banana pancakes for dessert.

At midnight, fireworks exploded in the sky sending streams of color cascading towards us. In the distance, miniature hot air balloons made of paper glowed orange in the sky. We watched them float peacefully upwards until they disappeared into the stars.

As champagne bottles popped and people celebrated around us, we couldn't help but marvel over our last year. A year ago we didn't even know we'd be traveling. Now, 12 months later, we've been to ten countries, swam in four oceans and three seas. We've hiked in jungles, on mountains, along volcano rims, and through caves. We have ridden in buses, tuk-tuks, songtaews, cyclos, motorbikes and cars for thousands of miles. We have seen mangroves, marshes, rain forests, and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. And the journey isn't even half over! 2001 is sure to bring equal, if not more, adventures our way.

To our family and friends who love and support us from home and to the new friends we've made along the way...

Happy New Year!

With love, Michelle and Tim top

Thai Cooking Class

michelleFood in Southeast Asia is delicious. Our stomachs have grown large as evidence to this fact. Picture the Chinese Buddha with his round robust tummy happily protruding and his smile of contentment. This is what we are starting to resemble. Often Tim and I pat each other's stomachs and call each other "our little Buddha." We have consumed countless fruit shakes, banana pancakes, and bowls of noodle soup.

Thai food in particular has captured our heart and stomachs. It is a wonderful mixture of sweet and sour, hot and salty flavors. We have feasted on Tom Yum soup, Phad Thai noodles, green curry, and coconut curry. Upon returning home we want to continue eating Thai cuisine so we took a cooking class at the Sompet Thai Cookery School.

The school was a few miles outside of Chiang Mai nestled in a garden by a river. It was an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the city. Our teacher, Mrs. Busara, was a spunky Thai woman overflowing with energy. She gave us a tour of the garden while throwing interesting food facts our way. We walked among cumin, mint, leeks, turmeric, ginger, garlic, chives, lemon grass, basil, eggplant, peppers, and mushrooms.

After the garden tour, we set to work and the next couple hours were a whirlwind of cooking activity - chopping, slicing, cutting, pounding, stirring. We made green curry paste, Phad Thai, fish cake, coconut milk soup with chicken, hot and sour prawn soup, and dipping sauces. Each student had their own work area and stove to cook. When all the food was ready, we settled down to enjoy a beautiful feast. Yum! top

An elephant stands watch over Wat Chiang Man, the oldest Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai - built in 1296. Reliefs carved on the outside of the Buddhist temple Wat Jet Yot. The sloping wooden roof of Wat Phan Tao in Chiang Mai, Thailand is a prime example of the northern Thai An intricate carving adorns a door in the northern Thai temple of Wat Phra Singh (1343 AD), also known as Wat Lee Chiang Phra. An intricate carving adorns a door in the northern Thai temple of Wat Phra Singh (1343 AD), also known as Wat Lee Chiang Phra. The stupa is the centerpiece of the Doi Suthep temple, which was established in 1383 and overlooks the city of Chiang Mai from an altitude of over 1600m. Statuettes of revered monks and Buddha adorn the Suan Dawk temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Pai, Thailand

Relaxing Pai

michelleThe sight of two small boys floating down the river, clutching bamboo poles to help them float, greets us. The current quickly carries them out of view. It has late afternoon and we just arrived in Pai, a small laid-back town near the north border of Thailand, close to Burma.

Our room, a bamboo thatched bungalow, sits atop wooden stilts, overlooking a gentle, green river. Light flickers off the surface like sparkling jewels. Surrounded by intensely bright bougainvillia and large leafed banana trees, I stand on our balcony and breathe in my surroundings. Across the river, children laugh as they run along dirt paths between rice paddies. Farmers finish up another day of work as the sun begins to set and the land glows in golden hues.

Small coffee shops and restaurants with relaxing ambience line the streets of Pai. It's a place that attracts hippie-types and backpackers, with a relaxing atmosphere that woos the mind and body to slow to a crawl. I've heard Pai is a difficult place for travelers to leave - its charm and beauty become intoxicating and time seems to melt; days turn into weeks if you are not careful. The longer I stand here enjoying the view, the more I understand why. top

Festival

timWe heard one traveler say, "I've come to the conclusion that the air in Pai is lazy." I couldn't describe the town more clearly myself. It radiates calmness and serenity while simultaneously sucking from you any productive ambition you once displayed. So days are just spent relaxing and enjoying life.

Today's full moon seemed to agree. It rose from behind the mountains as slowly as people ambled down Pai's darkened streets. (We witnessed its rise riverside with drinks in hand.) The moon followed us through the dirt streets and down an alley lit by torches, to the field where tonight's full moon cultural festival was being staged.

A bonfire illuminated the center of the field with a dancing circle of light. Several straw mats were scattered around the field, illuminated by candlelit, so we chose the closest one to the warm fire and settled down for what turned out to be a long evening.

The Shan hilltribe men started the night, playing local music with their traditional bamboo instruments while we ate dinner. The music complimented such local dishes as pumpkin and tofu curries, pork, cabbage, eggplant, and rice.

After dinner, five Lisu hilltribe women danced around the fire wearing a strange mix of traditional clothes and thick Spice Girl shoes. A lone male musician playing a wind instrument circled opposite them in what looked like a courtship dance, wooing the women with his ability to dance and play simultaneously.

Other tribes danced to a different tune, such as the two women in bird costumes who danced to the offbeat music created by a five-foot high Coke bottle shaped drum and five gongs. What other music would sound better for dancing around a fire with wings strapped to your back?

Later in the night, the hilltribe people said their good-byes and handed the music over to the foreigners. Old hippie, folk, and Irish tunes filled my ears and, for better or worse, made me forget for a moment what country I was in.

There I sat under the full moon - next to a fire, listening to music, eating sticky rice, enjoying the company of friends, and hanging out with nothing to do. I'd found the essence of Pai. top

Elephant Ride

timElephants are huge. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but that was one of two thoughts running through my head before the elephant trainer ushered Michelle, our friend Catherine, and me to mount the enormous elephant standing next to us.

We climbed a ladder to an elephant-high platform where I was 'volunteered' to hop on first. I stepped barefoot across the elephant's broad neck, walked the rear, swiveled around, and sat down on its bare back. When I looked down, the other thought running through my mind came through more clearly - my brain reminded me that if I fell from this height, I'd break my neck and my mother would give me the biggest, 'I told you so!' finger wagging ever. But then I saw the giggling eight-year-old boy who was the trainer for the other group's elephant and felt much safer about my position. At least our guide was old enough to drive a car.

The guide sat on the elephant's neck and controlled it by grunting commands, nudging behind its ears with his bare feet, and tapping it lightly with a mean looking pointed hammer. As we ambled down the road, my legs gripped the elephant's back with the same efficiency of a child's hand palming a basketball - the elephant's torso was too large for my legs to get a good grip, so I had to rely on gravity and my friends to keep me on top.

The short stiff hairs on the elephant's hips swished below mine and, with each lumbering step, gave me the sensation of being tickled by bristles from an old scrub brush. Meanwhile, the trainer made "Ughh, ug, ungg!" noises and drove the elephant down into the Pai River.

My skepticism about taking a touristy elephant ride faded away when we reached the deep section of the river. The trainer barked the new command of "Bon, bon, bon" and the elephant turned into a slow motion bucking bronco, dunking us into the cold river and hosing us down with sprays from its trunk. (Brave Catherine in the front took the brunt of the trunk spray). It was better than any amusement park flume-ride I'd ever seen. Between our fits of laughter and the dunking we took, it was a miracle we stayed on.

We arrived back at the elephant camp after our 90-minute ride sporting sore bottoms and wet clothes. But the elephant put up with us so graciously that Michelle tipped him a big bunch of bananas.

Here is a sketch that Michelle drew of the elephant:

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Burmese Children

michelleA trickle of sweat rolls down the spine of my back. It tickles a little. The afternoon sun, high above, makes the white pages of my book glaring bright and I have to squint to read. I sit on the bungalow balcony letting the sun soak through my skin and turn it a couple shades darker.

I hear laughter in the distance and look up. Across the river I see a line of children making their way through the rice paddies. They laugh and yell, run and skip. Older children lead the way and little ones struggle to keep up. I watch as they make their way over the river on a rickety bamboo bridge and then turn down the dirt path in front of my bungalow. Their semi-uniform line reminds me of a rag tag marching band except their music is their laughter.

Soon the children pass under me, oblivious to my watching eyes. The same dirt that covers their skinny arms and legs has seeped into their clothes leaving a brown orange film, muting out the underlying colors. All the boys wear dirty baseball caps too large for their heads and all the girls carry shoulder bags. As they march pass, my heart inside is warmed as much as my outside solar-heated skin. Despite their obvious poverty they skip and play and laugh as children should - with carefree spirits embracing Life. A young girl at the end of the line looks up and catches me watching. I smile and she smiles back shyly.

Later in the afternoon I walk with Catherine (our new Irish friend) down the dirt path to the Riverside Guesthouse next door. I can still hear the children's chattering voices drifting in the air. I am curious to know what they are doing. A large round-faced Thai man greets us and introduces himself as Johnny. Off to the side, nestled by small bamboo bungalows, I can see the children sitting in rows under an open-air thatched roof.

Johnny tells us they are Burmese refugee children and he has donated some of his land to start a school for them. Every afternoon they children come to be taught, hopefully, by tourists and volunteers. His face suddenly brightens as he asks us to teach.

We wander to the back of the school hut and watch. A woman visiting from Turkey is teaching. I watch in interest as she struggles to teach English words, numbers and songs. Confusion mixed with wonder crosses the children's faces. I can see they understand very little of what she is saying. It is hard to teach when the teacher doesn't speak in their native language. They try to listen and behave but soon are fidgety and bored. So the class breaks into small groups. I sit with the older girls and help them write their alphabet. I write a letter and then they copy it. Next, I write my name for them and then they write their names in Burmese. The strange curling characters of their names look as foreign to me as my written name probably looks to them - two different worlds meeting under a thatched roof. We can't communicate by words but plenty is said through the small touches, nodding of heads, pats on backs and glowing smiles.

Later, a Thai man in a long black ponytail teaches the children math and Thai. The warmth between teacher and students makes it apparent he has an on-going relationship and commitment to the children. I found out later he comes everyday from town to teach the children as a volunteer.

The sun is beginning to glow its familiar evening 'it's time to relax' light. School is over and the children strip off their clothes and run to the river to play. Their brown bodies shine like polished stone as they splash, laugh, and play the way children should - with carefree spirits embracing Life. top

A serene lotus pond in northern Thailand. Five Thai kids flash big smiles and try to impress us with their phrases of broken English,

Chiang Kong, Thailand

Border Town

bothThough we have enjoyed our month in Chiang Mai, it is time to say good-bye to our familiar surroundings and move on to new places.

On today's 7.5-hour bus ride - a ride plagued by the choking smoke of a burned out transmission - we miraculously arrived to the northern Thai border town of Chiang Kong. Tomorrow we cross the Mekong River, enter Laos, and take the slow boat to a small town called Pakbeng. top

Pakbeng Slow Boat

timI was curious why the boatman from the slow boat to Pakbeng insisted on putting our bags on top of the boat during the rain, despite the fact the inside of boat was virtually empty. But I sat down on one of the long wooden benches that ran the length of the craft and quickly put that thought out of my mind.

The boatmen's shoes lay piled near the entrance of the boat, as they would in any home - this was their house, of course. Clean straw mats covered the floor and laundry hung from the walls near the captain. As I began to get comfortable, 30 other backpackers stomped into the captain's home with muddy shoes. So much for solitude, people filled every available space on the boat.

The Mekong River runs 4350 km down from the Tibetan Plateau through China, carves the border between Burma and Laos and parts of the Thai border with Laos, continues through Cambodia, and ends in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta. It was the dry season here and with the lack of rain, the river ran low and much of the jungle displayed the rich colors of fall - the reds, yellows, and oranges of home. The river still looked mighty to me as we shot through a fast moving gorge, but high above my head I could see the waterline of the wet season, where the river rocks thinned out and the trees started to grow.

Despite the occasional speedboat hammering past us and jarring me to the present, I spent the five-hour trip looking out of the boat as if it were a window to the past. There was not a factory in sight. Thatched bamboo houses conglomerated on hilltops to form occasional villages. Fishermen strained to cast weighted circular nets over the sides of their old wooden longboats, much like they have been doing since their ancestors arrived. Naked boys played on the muddy shore while their mothers washed clothes nearby. Water buffaloes sunned themselves. Rows of green vegetables sprouted from the sandy shore of the river - farmed only during the dry season when the land is not under 10 feet of water. A team of five elephants, each chained to an enormous tree trunk, pulled lumber down to the shore to an awaiting boat.

We passed a bright aqua-blue longboat travelling in our direction. Three Lao women peered outside at us from an orange-framed doorway, staring at our boat full of nappy backpackers. I stared back at them from the shady darkness of my seat. Their expressions seemed to question what life would be like as one of us, and I couldn't help but to wonder about the reverse. Our bodies were only feet apart, but our minds and cultures seemed distanced by years. top

Entering Laos

michelleYesterday, as we journeyed east on a bus toward the Thai/Laos border it was evident it was the dry season. Fields were yellow and brown and the ground parched and cracked. But we crossed over several mountain ranges and hundreds of miles to arrive in Chiang Khong, where the air was a little cooler and damper.

Last night we fell asleep to the sound of rain. This morning the air was thick with wet and gray. To cross the Laos border we caught a long boat across the Mekong River.

Laos was a country we never planned on visiting. But after meeting so many travelers who said it was their favorite country in Southeast Asia, we started to think about adding it to our itinerary. Just recently open to foreign visitors it still has the charms of a country not yet polluted with much tourism.

But our decision to visit Laos was also met with caution. The U.S. State Department warned of a recent string of bombings of tourist spots in the capital of Vientiane. Explosions have occurred in the post office, an internet cafe, restaurants and the Morning market. There were also warnings of bandits on the highways. After much thought and a call to the US embassy in Thailand we decided to go.

So it was with a little trepidation as I sat on the long boat and approached the Lao border this morning. The low gray sky and midst on the river gave our arrival an eerie, mystical feel.

Once we filled out the appropriate papers, changed some money to Laos kip and added another stamp to our passports, we headed out of town by foot to find the slow boat which would take us on a two day journey down the Mekong River. With our packs hoisted on our backs we made our way down a dirt road. Chickens and ducks ran across our path and old women ate a breakfast of noodles at small tables along the road, cackling and laughing without teeth.

As we passed a large white wall I noticed two small boys peering over at us. When our eyes met their heads popped up fully in view, and one of the boys gave us a thumbs-up sign accompanied by a smile. I accepted this as a symbol for our time in Laos - a greeting, a welcome, and a sign that everything would be okay. top

Pakbeng, Laos

Photos

timPhoto check-in. top

A beautiful morning sunrise on the Mekong River. The photo is taken from the small Laotian town of Pakbeng, a stopover on the two-day riverboat trip from Thailand to Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Orange Robe

timThe That Chomsi Stupa is a Buddhist monument perched on top of a 100 meter hill in the middle of picturesque Luang Prabang. At night the golden stupa can be seen from far away and, by day, makes an excellent place to watch the mountains, streets, and Mekong River from above.

I met 15 year old Novice Sinethana here while sitting on a flight of stairs. He approached me nervously, out of breath from the steep climb up. His skinny brown body, shaved head, and orange robes clashed with the clear blue sky as much as his timid eyes clashed with his big smile.

We exchanged hellos in Lao and he began - what turned into an hour conversation - by asking how long I'd been in Luang Prabang.

Novice Sinethana joined a nearby monastery at the young age of four, and will remain a novice until he becomes a full-fledged monk at age 20. For the last nine years he has been teaching himself English and the language of the Theravada Buddhist texts, Pali Sanskrit. He wakes everyday at 4 AM and spends his mornings studying, meditating, and while he didn't say this to me, probably going on alms rounds collecting food and attending to other needs of the monastery. He eats only twice a day, both times before noon. (I met him in the afternoon, so he pointed to his stomach and joked about being hungry.) And in the afternoon, he swims in the river like other people his age.

We only talked about simple things and, despite our dictionary consultations, he had trouble understanding my English at times. But I loved the way he kept our conversation going by sheepishly reading questions from a cheat sheet hidden in his orange shoulder bag and I admired the effort he put into learning. Most importantly, I enjoyed meeting such a kind person.

The next time I come back, I hope that Sinethana will be able to have an English conversation with me about some abstract facet of Buddhist thought. I have a feeling that, for him, it won't be a problem. top