A golden sun rises over the Mekong, I am on the eastern edge of Don Khoung Island in southern Laos. Fishermen in slender pirogues line the river and toss their glistening silver nets, each day their labor starts well before daylight. I hear the scratchy screeches of distant roosters heralding the dawn. A small herd of goats pass noisily below, water buffalo graze in a field just at the end of the street. The electric chorus of insects is gradually replaced by birdsong which mixes with the drone of distant scooters and outboard motors on the river. The air is cool and moves with a gentle breeze from the river. The sun strengthens and warms face. Lifeless white clouds hover above me, still asleep. The sun brightens the hilltop stupas on the far shore of the mainland.
Walking to the balcony I surprise a huge frog in the hallway which jumps quickly out of my way. Everything in Laos is open to the elements thanks to its doors ajar, broken windows, and holes in the roof. Critters commingle with human creatures without the forced separation of my world at home. Sparrows play on the balcony bannister, cartoon-like geckos with fat fingers fill their bellies with flies and moths, ants run over my feet as they attend to their all-consuming business.
I glance towards the temple and notice its unusual Buddha, serenely meditating as daylight warms his oddly decorated head. A lone bell sounds from the temple; it is the morning call to alms. In a few minutes monks in saffron robes file through the street carrying silver urns under their arms, silently and in single file. A few villagers sit and pray by the roadside, fruit and sticky rice before them, an offering to the passing monks. This daily ritual feeds the monks who must eat before noon; anything left over is given to the needy. This is good karma for the village donors and enhances their chances of a better reborn life.
In this southernmost corner of Laos, I near the end of my travels here. After nearly a month, I reach Si Phan Don, or the “Four Thousand Islands” on the Cambodian border. I am worn by three days of rough road travel: from the capital Vientiane on Highway 13 to the Kong Lo cave, through Tha Khek, Savannahket, and Paske on a series of bumpy local buses, tuk-tuks, sorngtaaou (a pickup truck with two rows of seats in back), and boats. My backside is sore from the hard seats and endless hours on old school buses, my shoulders ache from being jammed in a row of six people designed for four, my hair dusty and skin dry from the beating sun in this hottest month of the year.
We inched along at 25 km/h (15 mph) stopping every 5-10 kilometers to pick up or deliver goods and passengers. Cargo included scooters hoisted to the top of the bus, heaping bags of rice and vegetables, boxes of water, even the household items of a mother and young daughter on the move – stacked suitcases, a large box of food and kitchen supplies and small appliances, even the child’s bicycle. Dozens of chickens and ducks were loaded on the roof. A burlap sack holding a squealing and terrified pig was tossed at our feet in a tuk-tuk. There was no end to the surprises.
Despite the momentary discomforts, it was a scenic journey past beautiful terrain, pastoral villages, dramatic karsts and glimmering rivers slowly coming to life after the recent rains. The people were a marvel to observe: patient, subdued and smiling. My passengers greeted me with a friendly sabaidee, infants on their mothers’ laps facing me wide-eyed in wonder at my different appearance; I waved and grimaced, eliciting small grins. A shy child played with my iPod after considerable coaxing from me and his parents.
At stops in the villages, lively buskers passed through with fresh fruits, lotus seeds in their coniferous green casings, grilled fish and smoked duckling on bamboo skewers. I take in as much as I can. I am saturated by the colors, the expressions, the noises – rich scenes present wherever my eyes land with performers playing a thousand bit parts. In every face there’s a life, a story, a future yet to unfurl. Through the bus window, I observe a thousand negotiations, exchanges and reactions.
As hard as local travel is the developing world, I rarely regret it. Slow, yes. Uncomfortable, yes. Confusing and confounding, yes. But it is often the closest you get to the people. Not the locals who speak English and work in guest houses and tourist restaurants. These are the moments when you engage, however loosely, people in their daily comings and goings. It is the source of many wonderful, spontaneous and peculiar moments. Local transport can be a joyride. I sit back, relinquish control, open my eyes and senses, and smile as much as I can.
At the end of this recent journey waits Si Phan Don, the balcony where I now sit with the dawning day. This is my last of Laos, a country that slowly grew on me with its laid-back feel, first a curious stranger, then a fun friend, and finally a sort of paramour indulging my senses with its beauty and calm.
Si Phan Don is Laos at its laziest and I am relaxed. I snooze in a hammock on the creaky wooden deck of my riverside bungalow. I socialize with new traveling friends and some I met elsewhere. I kayak and bicycle and walk along the Mekong. I see freshwater dolphins and marvel at colossal waterfalls, wave to welcoming children, enjoy leisurely meals and spectacular sunsets. Here I rejuvenate my energy before crossing into Cambodia.
I have borne the erratic rhythms of travel during these past two months: Rising early, sleeping late. Bustling cities, sluggish villages. Hustling quickly, waiting for ever. Sunsets and moon rises; scorching sun that burns and torrents of rain that soak my skin.
I scratch my head, perplexed by something peculiar and unfamiliar. I enjoy creature comforts to smooth out the bumps. I grow accustomed to making fast friends and saying even faster goodbyes. I miss those I love and not here with me, I so want to share these great times with them. I maintain forward motion, resisting the urge to settle. The roots I cultivate are those within me, nourished by the energy and magnificence of my new surroundings.
I watch the sun rise. Another day, another moment to be aware, be present, be here. This is amazing, I repeat my regular refrain. These are delightful and difficult days. Here in Si Phan Don alongside the mighty Mekong I drift in the whirling currents of travel and time. And say goodbye to astonishingly lovely Laos.