The climb

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It is January 29. The only reason I know that is because I saw someone write it on a ticket at a counter when paying for lunch in kip, the currency in the great communist country of Laos as I heard a Frenchman call it today. One U.S. dollar is about 80,000 kip. I’ve been in Luang Prabang, Laos, since yesterday. For my friends back home, do not pronounce the “s” in Laos unless you’re mad. The town smells like burning wood, everywhere. It’s not smog. It’s not incense. It’s burning wood like a fireplace.

I’m sitting here at the bar in my hotel drinking the Laotian version of ice tea which includes no ice and includes a strong dose of lemon and something else I simply can’t identify. Much like everything else I’ve eaten while here. My legs hurt. My knees ache. My soul soars. I climbed 2 mountains and hiked through 1 cave today. Literally. A couple times my legs wobbled but I was resolute.

Luan Bang is truly a beautiful town, one that rivals any in Europe. It’s surrounded by mountains, and upon those mountains are Buddhas. In fact, there are more Buddhas in this town than people. There’s a Buddha for everything and most of them are gold-leaf, as are the temples.

I skipped the parade of monks at 5 am this morning. Getting up that early to donate to a Buddhist monk somehow did not motivate me. It’s suppose to be a grand thing with the long line of orange robes but my new year will just have to do without that particular blessing.

I did make it to Wat Xieng Thong to see the Tree of Life mural. Basically the story in the art is a cow who begs a tiger not to eat her calf because she’s so young. Instead, eat her because she’s old. The tiger agrees to let the calf continue to suckle and when it is weaned, the cow will come back to be eaten. If you’re looking for something deeper, well that’s pretty much it. The mural was beautiful and the sweeping roofs of the temple were quite pretty.

From there I took a long boat up the Mekong River. We stopped after 2 hours at a mountain that was stunning. A temple had been built into the side of a cave and its where they have been “hiding” there Buddhas for thousands of years.

I appreciate the spirituality. They are a praying people, no doubt. They invest much time in prayer and meditation, and the rest of the time in wishing. Wishing for good luck. Wishing for good fortune. There’s a Buddha for every day of the week corresponding to the day you were born and wishes run aplenty. Do good works and you have a shot at nirvana/heaven. Misbehave and you’re reincarnated an insect. Screw up royally and it’s hell for you. And by the looks of the thousands-year-old murals, hell is fairly gruesome.

One of the temples required a contribution and then they hand you an “offering” made up of 2 yellow candles tucked inside a cone-shaped palm leaf. I paid the money at the entrance and handed my newly-acquired token to another well wisher to pray to the gold-leaf statue.

Since I don’t worship idols (first commandment) that was the first time I got to invoke that belief. But as I think about it further, everyone has a god, really. Everyone has something to which or to whom they commit their focus and adoration. For some, it’s a job. Others, money. Especially in the U.S. there’s a whole list of things that folks worship from cars to iPhones to football. In fact, there are more idols in America than Buddhas in Luang Prabang.

My flight into town yesterday was over an hour late. The prop job delivered a smooth flight, but the approach was just a little alarming. We made a left turn that placed us like a marble in a groove between two mountains. Still we tucked neatly inside and came in for a perfect landing. I only say this because I was flying Laos Air and thought I had about a 50/50 chance of arriving.  🙂

Much as I was born and raised between two mighty rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi, the town is 2,296 feet above sea level and sits at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. More­over, the city is Unesco Heritage. So what, I hear you say? Well, that means the city bans buses and trucks. Most traffic spans bicycles, motorcycles, and pedestrians. The 11.30 pm curfew silences the city by midnight and keeps things quaint and traditional.

The country’s contemporary history really starts in the1400s. Laos, specifically the city of Luane Prabang where my feet touch at this moment, was spurred from the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, established under King Fa Ngum.

For 300 years Lan Xang kingdom greatly influenced Cambodia and Thailand, and especially Laos. After centuries of gradual decline, Laos became dominated of Siam (Thailand) from the late 18th century through the late 19th century when it became part of French Indochina.

Knowing your history is imperative to travel here

The Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1907 set the country’s modern-day border from Thailand. Then the Vietnam War (called the American War in these parts) came about when France asked for assistance when communist Northern Vietnam began making its way south. They had a lot of help from their friends, the Soviet Union and China (communist) had already been there for years from the First Indochina War (1946–54) that had the same intention: spread communism because oppression can be a good thing, especially for the oppressors.

As most of us know, the Vietnam war ended with our withdrawal in 1973 and the unification of Vietnam under communist control two years later. More than 3 million people, including 58,000 Americans, were killed in the conflict.

I had a very brisk conversation with the locals yesterday and it was an education and delight to present a side they’ve either not heard or don’t believe. Keep in mind, the highest ascension to success (nivana if you worship gold-leafed statues) you might achieve in Laos is to work for the government.

The part that most amazes me: they believe we are the devil, killers, war mongers (you know, all the things we’ve been actively called over the last 6 years in America) and then they try to sell you something. Seriously? I felt confident of my position and commiserated with theirs: Take his money and you are indentured. And they are most certainly indentured, and coerced, and oppressed.

I wouldn’t visit Cuba, ever. Well, maybe if we assassinated the regime. And there are moments when I’ve wondered why I’m here as I run into the propaganda. But mostly I feel sorry for the those in poverty who kneel before gold-leaf statues and make wishes. For this, they are a simple people. And you don’t exploit the simple for they “shall see the face of God.”

Laos, for whatever reason, liberation or communism’s notch on their gun, is historically the most bombed country in the world. The story I ran into yesterday was how the U.S. bombed women and children a couple hours-drive North. Here’s the real story.

So with the bombing, there are few ancient temples left… but I visited the few remaining. And they are on hills and in caves. Hence, the 2 mountains and 1 cave, and Luang Prabang’s nickname, “the best preserved city.”

The Lan Xang kingdom included a summer palace in Luang Prabang. The palace’s front entry faces the temple on the mountain. (I’ll add more here later.) Whilst I say it was on a mountain, it is still built into the mountain and likely had the protection of said.

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