Deep into the Heart of the Mekong

23 Jun

Monks walking through the streets of Luang Prabang

Low hanging clouds drape themselves over brilliant green mountains that build up from the sandy shores of the Mekong River.  Large swaths of bamboo transcend into thick tropical rainforests.  Dried bamboo thatched roof huts built on stilts dot the shore line and in the foreground small herds of water buffalo graze on the grassy hills, completing this incredible landscape.  I find myself swept away by the beauty and peace deep in the heart of the Mekong River basin in Northern Laos.

This is probably one of the most laid back places in the world.  The days go by so slow and I’ve taken a step back in time.  I started my journey here in Luang Prabang, a little river town bursting with color and flavor.  It is also a modern-day spiritual center in the Buddhist world.  Several Wats with their golden temples and intricately painted pagodas blossom out of the bright green flora.  Hundreds of monks of all ages dressed in their saffron-colored robes meander the streets and their dwellings.  Before dawn, they walk throughout the community with large containers (called Almsbowls) reciting prayers as they visit each home, most are no more than small one room shelters made of wood and bamboo.  At each stop a fellow Lao places a spoonful of sticky rice in each Monk’s almsbowl.   This is the traditional Buddhist practice of giving alms and serves as a daily reminder for how important it is to give, no matter how much or how little you have.  There is so much that we, Americans and others of more wealthy backgrounds, have to learn from the simple art of giving – and trusting – that the people of Lao have so gracefully mastered.  Giving is certainly an intrinsic value from the Buddhist roots but it is further institutionalized in daily life through the current Communist political environment.

Landscape of the Mekong river at sunrise

The spirit of Northern Laos has already given me so many gifts in this short time.  Probably the most significant is a glimpse into Lao family structures and the place of women in society.  Like in most of Asia, and the world (unfortunately), women are expected to be subservient to the men.  But in Laos it feels a bit different.  Men here, it appears at least, assume much more hands-on roles as father’s to their children, fully sharing the parenting duties alongside the mother.  Women are also very entrepreneurial – producing crafts, farming the land, weaving silk into the most beautiful scarves, and setting-up stalls in the local street markets to sell their goods.  This movement in local micro-economic development, driven by Lao women, is a more recent development that has been aided by the growth of the tourism industry.  Most of the products that are produced include fine fabrics with ornate tribal designs, cloths children’s books, silk decor galore, brightly colored quilts with intricately cross-stitched scenes of the Mekong, animals and daily Lao life, and stunning gold-leafed paintings on rice paper.  A myriad of handmade crafts perfectly suited to fulfill any tourist passing through this rich land.  The growth of tourism in Laos (similar to Cambodia) has fueled the local economy, and in the process given rise to a heightened position for women in society.  Dabbled about in the street markets are women selling their art and their young babies sleep and eat and play right on top of the silk scarves and quilts we are shopping for.

Women weaving a silk scarf in her street stall

Like women in all parts of the world, women in Lao also face the challenge of balancing the need to provide for and at the same time care for the children.  I find this inspiring and a reminder for how much more we still have to do to further advance the position of women in society.  The road to true gender equality is still a distant vision on the horizon, and as I travel and as the years pass I find myself increasingly passionate about women’s rights and gender equality.  My heart breaks when I read about the reality many young girls face in Yemen being forced to marry at 8 years old and repeatedly raped and beaten by their “husbands” – and worse yet, they aren’t allowed to get divorced.  Tears stream down my face when I learn about young girls, who haven’t even reached puberty – sold as sex slaves – beaten by their owners and forced to eat dog feces to banish any hint of self-confidence and self-worth.  It’s probably hard for many you to read those words but it is the raw truth and we can’t hide behind rose-colored glasses any longer.  And while these are examples of the “worst of it”, at the same time women who have to work to put bread on the table and care for the children day-in and day out while (for many, not all) their “husbands” spend days at the bar or gambling their money away is also gravely unjust.  And this is why in Laos, families often prefer to marry their daughters to men who have spent at least several years as monks living at the wat, for they are considered closer to God and better suited to be a respectable & hard-working spouses.  Southeast Asia has brought forward the perilous challenges we face as humanity in achieving gender equality, and quite frankly I find it my responsibility to raise awareness so that we can bridge this gap in our lifetime.  Back to Laos… I also heard that more young Lao women everyday are receiving higher education in local colleges than their male counterparts.  And that this is in large part due to the fact that they are able to begin making money producing & selling their crafts at a young age, save the earnings, and invest it in their own education – their future.  This alone gives me a reason for hope – that it is possible to achieve gender equality in our lifetime.  So I guess that in itself is a good excuse to visit Laos and buy the beautiful silk scarves woven by these determined young women.  Women do hold up half the sky.

Man fishing in the Mekong River

I also appreciate the feeling of traditional daily life in Laos.  The pace is so slow and seemingly deliberate.  Watching young kids play naked along the rocks of the Mekong, jumping like little cannon balls into the sediment-filled water.  Meanwhile men tinker from rock to rock checking their fishing nets for the next meal.  The young girls who help their mothers make crepes for sale at the little street side stalls.  And the farmers that tend to their goats, rice paddies, and sugar cane plots that dot the lush green hillsides.  These are all glimpses into daily Lao life.  it is a good life.  Though it’s not always easy, it is wholesome life.

Girls playing in the field

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