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Return to Southeast Asia: Enchanted by the people

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Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is nestled in northern mountains of Laos. It is the former royal capitol of this primarily Buddhist country. A lush, green, peaceful place on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, it is attractive to visitors and noted for its beautiful scenery and glittering gold temples.

The Mekong, which begins in the Tibetan plateau many miles to the north, was high and muddy upon our arrival, but not too high to be used by locals as the primary transportation corridor for other parts of the region. Small passenger ferries busily transferred residents from one side to the other, while barges, fishing boats and a fleet of visitor craft moved north and south.

Laos is a poor country and people work hard for their basic necessities.

We saw many examples of their enterprise once boarded our small boat on the first morning for an upstream cruise to a small village known for its many handcrafts.

In spite of the strong current and muddy water, I saw lots of local fishermen tending their nets and pulling in their lines as they harvested the day’s catch.

Recycled plastic water bottles are part of their tackle. They attach a line, weight and baited hook to the empty, capped bottled and place it in a likely spot. We saw hundreds of these fish markers set near the bank along our way.

Our first stop of the morning was at an open-air distillery set up under a tin roof on the riverbank just above the high-water mark. The proprietor appeared to be doing a booming business making rice-whiskey with very crude-looking paraphernalia, including a 55-gallon drum.

He offers tastings of his wares, with or without the snake.

To add some kind of extra zing to some of his beverages, including rice wine, he adds snakes (including cobras) and/or scorpions. We chose the one sans snake. It tasted a lot like the Italian “moonshine” we know as grappa.

Just upriver from the distillery, we visited a thatched hut village in which women were weaving and creating the many colorful scarves and blankets that they sell in the open-air markets in the city.

Many of the women had small children playing nearby. Unfailingly, we got a smile and a wave from each person we encountered.

Our next stop was formerly a 16th-century monastery set in steep vertical cliffs of limestone. The Pak Ou caves, popularly called the “Buddha Caves,” are filled with thousands of Buddha sculptures in various sizes; some are made of wood and centuries old. It’s a popular tourist stop, but well worth the two-hour cruise upstream from Luang Prabang.

Vanh, our guide for our stay in Luang Prabang had been a Buddhist monk for five years. He was born in a poor mountain village and chose to leave home and join a monastery at the age of 13. While the life is hard with strict rules, he said he received a much better education, including learning English, than he would have gotten in his remote village. Many boys choose this path out of poverty, and apparently there are no hard feelings against those who choose to leave life as a monk after taking advantage of the educational opportunities.

While Luang Prabang is a small modern city, the mountain villages we visited, including those of the H’mong and Khmu minorities, are not.

The roads are dirt, as are the floors of the thatched huts in which people live and work. But even in the most basic of dwellings there was at least one electric outlet to which a television was connected. We noticed small satellite dishes nestled among the lush tropical growth surrounding the homes.

We also visited the two-room schoolhouse where the children of the villages received their basic education. The teachers welcomed us as guests in their classrooms and we were able to converse with the children, who all knew at least a few words in English.

Without exception every man, woman and child we met during our stay in Laos seemed interested in talking with us and wanted to know where we were from and if we were enjoying their country.

It was with some regret that we bid farewell to the people we met in Laos and boarded our plane for Siem Reap, Cambodia, and the world-famous ruins of Angkor Wat.