It is pitch dark out now. Your bamboo raft is submerged and collecting water in the formerly airtight shoots. The big set of rapids at sunset cracked the bamboo and doomed your raft. You are starting to shiver from your legs being underwater for the last hour. You paddle vigorously for your destination but the waterlogged craft hardly seems to move. You can almost see the lights around the next bend in the river where your friends await with cold beers and a warm dinner. Suddenly your partner in this unraveling misadventure exclaims, "Do you hear that? More rapids up ahead! Oh man, we're sunk now!" The day started out really fun, but you have to ask yourself, "How did we end up like this?"
The official name of your host country is the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, but the people have no democracy, and you can hardly consider "Lao PDR" a republic because it has been ruled by one party since 1975. Called the Jewel of the Mekong River, Laos is one of the least developed countries in Southeast Asia, and thus it remains among the most unspoiled. Neighboring China is an economic powerhouse, as are upcoming border countries Thailand and Vietnam. The final two neighbors, Cambodia and Burma, share economic "dirt poor" status along with Laos, but these two countries contain incredible archaeological ruins to attract lucrative tourism dollars. Landlocked Laos relies on pristine natural scenery, along with the genuine kindness and smiling generosity of its people, to lure in precious foreign currency. When an old woman asks you to join her for tea in Luang Prabang you are amazed at how it is usually the poorest people in the world who seemingly have the most to give.
The Buddhist Socialists of Laos
Despite singular communist rule—one of the last true socialist countries to survive—the people of Laos remain happily devoted Buddhists. While 90 percent of all Laotians profess Theravada Buddhism as their religion, animist beliefs pervade all segments of the Lao population. The belief in phi (spirits) defines the relationship of Lao people with nature and community, and is often considered the cause of illness and misfortune. Particularly at the small village level, belief in phi is intricately blended with Buddhism, and often monks are highly revered for having the ability to exorcise malevolent spirits from a sick person, or to prevent these unfriendly ghosts from entering a house. Most wats (temples) have a small spirit house built on the grounds that is associated with the phi khoun wat, the benevolent spirit of the monastery.
Outside the two tourism cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang life moves pretty slow in Laos. Over 80 percent of the population lives a quiet existence on small family plots of land. The agrarian people have an intimate relationship with nature and animals. Most Laotian people are more familiar with the genitals of a pig than the controls of a television set. Only now are a few hilltribe villagers getting their first glimpse of television and a distorted image of things to come. The glow of a television set at night draws people inside huts where they sit quietly in a mesmerized state. An apt description would be moths to the flame. Other villages still have no televisions or electricity and at night people sing traditional songs and tell animated stories. As an experienced traveler who has seen far too many car–choked cities, this is where you want to be.
Being in a village where there are no motor vehicles undoubtedly changes the atmosphere of a place—for the better. Things slow down considerably; people stop and talk to each other in the middle of the road without fear of getting run down; a traffic jam usually means there are too many farm animals on the road; while noxious fumes and obnoxious noises are relegated to the outhouse. You and your travel writer friend Bruce are desperately seeking this kind of carbon–neutral paradise. You are told that Muang Noi in northern Laos fits the bill.
Only accessible by riverboat or footpath, this village on the River Ou exudes an Old World charm set amid a cathedral landscape of vertical rock formations. Fortunately roads have never reached Muang Noi, and likely never will. All commerce arrives on motorized boats or on the backs of sturdy little Laotian men and women. A network of footpaths extends out to remote villages that are completely sustainable from the "hustle and bustle" of Muang Noi. Out here, animals co–exist with humans in bamboo and palm leaf huts. Adults share in the chores of tending the fields, feeding the animals, and looking after the children. From what you observe, village elders settle disputes in a polite and nonviolent manner. After all these are Buddhists, which you begin to think are the coolest people on earth, both to each other and to the traveler. Even though the people live in modest dirt floor huts, each rural town has a brightly–colored spirit house with Buddhist and phi references.
One unique aspect of Laotian Buddhism is the "Calling for Rain" image, which depicts the Buddha standing with his hands held rigidly at his side with fingers pointed downward towards the soil. With a slight smile on his face, the Calling for Rain Buddha looks like he is standing in a field getting drenched by a torrential rainstorm, and loving every minute of it. Indeed, the simple agrarian lifestyle in Laos has influenced its own unique form of Buddhist thought and portraiture.
When you step off the tourist boat in Muang Noi you are asked to stay in a riverside hut with a dazzling view and a hammock on the porch for about a dollar a night. You accept! For three idyllic days you pay local entrepreneurs to arrange tours to caves and waterfalls, escort you to the top of the massive rock towers, and take you up river so you can leisurely float back to Muang Noi in a rowboat drinking Beer Lao.
Going for a Float
Then things get wierder. A Dutch couple you meet in one of Muang Noi's many tourist café's reveal their plan to have a local construct them a bamboo raft so they can float downstream the old fashioned way. You and Bruce ponder such a move and agree to join the Dutch couple on their adventure.
Navigating a bamboo raft is no easy task. The watercraft rides low in the water with little draft for maneuverability or speed. Basically you just have to float along with the current and use your paddle primarily to steer rather than accelerate. This is just fine, after all you came prepared with a sack lunch and plenty of Beer Lao. Watching the everyday life around the River Ou pass by with no clear agenda was the perfect recipe for fun. Packs of children came running out of their huts to greet you. While no common language was shared, what stands out in your mind was making animal sounds and hearing the children repeat them back in unison. You distinctly remember a father and his son paddling by in their dugout canoe as they were crossing the river. You and Bruce stared at them with the same kind of amazement as they did of you both. You could hear them thinking, "what in Buddha's name are these affluent Westerners doing in such an inferior watercraft?"
About three quarters of the way to your destination you hit a series of rapids where there was little you could do but steer the raft straight into the current. A few times the raft hits a rock and goes spinning out of control. Within the biggest set of rapids the raft completely submerges underwater and you can hear the pressure cracking several bamboo shoots.
You feel helpless as the raft slowly sinks you waist deep in water, but fortunately it rises back to the surface. You are soaked and so are your packs, attached to the raft by the twine you tied around them before you left, but you have just survived an exhilarating rapid ride on a homemade raft! As the sun lowers in the sky at about the same pace as your raft sinks you begin to think the fun has concluded. When you make it through the last set of rapids in the pitch dark, starting to shiver from being partly submerged, you begin to think it's time to survive. What phi spirit should you request for deliverance?
Just as despondency sets in the hum of a motorized boat approaches and you shout and scream to be rescued. The kindly river captain complies as you board his boat and jettison the broken raft to continue sinking without you in the River Ou. Within fifteen minutes you are changing into warm clothes and cracking open a beer with the Dutch couple.
The bamboo raft trip down the River Ou may not have been smooth sailing, but it defined one of the most "authentic travel moments" that any of you have ever experienced.
Brad Olsen is the author of seven books and runs CCC Publishing, which has put out 11 travel titles. He also contributed to the Rough Guides World Party book and is a regular contributor to several magazines and media outlets. See more at www.bradolsen.com and www.stompers.com.
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