Saturday, March 6

Steve: Today was a planned free day in our itinerary, and we took advantage of the time for some leisurely strolls through Luang Prabang. We also relaxed during the afternoon and caught up on our reading and writing in preparation for our upcoming travels to Thailand and Cambodia.

While walking through the town, we talked about the quiet, simple lives that people live here. Even those involved in tourism, one of Laos' most important and growing industries, live slowly. From what we see, even though this is high season, there aren't enough tourists to go around. There are multiple travel companies in town, all offering the same two excursions to the waterfalls and the caves - we've never seen any customers inside. Tuk-tuks roam the streets looking for passengers - we rarely see any (this place is so small that everything's within easy walking distance). This explains the picture we took of a driver sleeping in a hammock that he rigged in the back of his vehicle! There are a huge number of outdoor shops and a large nightly market all selling the exact same crafts - mostly silk hangings and scarves - and we can't imagine how these all get sold. Luang Prabang is Laos' top tourist destination, yet even those involved in the tourist business obviously don't find it easy to make money. These are all signs of an economy that is struggling to find its way.

Tomorrow we leave Laos and fly to Bangkok.

Katie's Kwick Kwacks: Visiting Villages in Laos. Throughout our stay here in Laos we have spent a large amount of our time visiting villages. These trips have been some of the most interesting experiences we have had here. The next couple of paragraphs describe the things we have learned about these villages and my feelings about them.

An astounding eighty percent of the people in Laos live in remote countryside villages. In other words, four-fifths of the population is in the middle of nowhere. So, how can you visit Laos without being a little adventurous? It's impossible. The villages here in Laos are truly amazing. It's just how you imagine America was in the sixteen hundreds. They're like miniature versions of Plymouth Plantation, except even more exotic.

The homes are made of woven bamboo, and have roofs of long leaves. The insides are simple - the people cook with an open fire and sleep on bamboo mats. The dirt paths are filled with a mixture of laughing children, women weaving, old ladies chatting and chewing bitter nut, and chicks clucking. It's an unforgettable scene. Around the villages you see nothing but mountains and trees. You feel lost in the middle of some long lost civilization. At the same time you feel hot, dirty, uncomfortable, and thirsty. It's hard to spend more than twenty minutes in such a remote environment, and you wonder how anyone could live in such a place. The people are slow paced, many seem bored and tired, and have little to do in their spare time but make babies, talk, chew bark, and sleep. We haven't seen one person reading a book or newspaper yet. This is their life, and they don't seem to need any other.

Before we visit a village we always learn a little about the wealth and condition of the people living in it. Here in Laos, the people classify each village by placing them into different ethnic groups: lowlander, mid-lander, and highlander. The lowlanders live along the Mekong River, and make a living from fishing and farming. Because of their plentiful water source, they are a little better off than the other groups. The mid-landers make a living from farming rice and hunting. Because of their location, however, they are unable to sell their goods in town. This makes them the poorest group. The highlanders live in the mountains and do mostly farming. They also hunt grow opium. This makes them a middle class group.

All in all, visiting villages has been a great experience for us. I have been very surprised by how happy the people here are even though they have very difficult lives. They have family, food, and reasonable health. Right now they can't ask for much more than that. As long as the Lao people accept this fact, life will go on.

David's Daily Dump: Lao Life along the Mekong River. The Mekong River is both a source of life and a way of life for all people living along its banks. We have seen the Mekong being used in many different ways throughout Laos. Villagers depend on it for food (seaweed and fish), transportation, and most importantly water. Life would be unimaginable without the Mekong for the six countries that it meanders through on its 2,600 mile journey to the South China Sea.

We have visited many villages along the Mekong during our stay here in Luang Prabang. All these villages depend greatly on the river for their survival. It dictates the people's lives, letting them farm on its banks in the dry season when the water is low and letting them fish when it's high during the rainy season. The Mekong is also the only thing that connects these villages to the outside world. There are no railroads, little electricity and few roads or radios in the mountainous countryside - only a dense endless jungle.

Most of the villages even near the big cities don't use machinery, although some do have satellite television and radios. Everything is done by hand, from plowing the fields to building boats and homes. We even saw people making sugar and grinding rice, all by hand. Everyone, including the children had to manually carry water from the river up to the villages. The river is also used for bathing and laundry. The villages that are far away from major cities mainly farm for themselves, but also trade with nearby towns. The remote villages out in the middle of the countryside are totally self-sufficient, and produce everything for themselves. In some of these villages, people don't even use money.

The communities along the Mekong all make a living off the resources from the river. We visited towns that dried and collected sea weed, fished, farmed vegetables, grew peanuts, and some that even panned for gold! Although all the villages made very little money and lived very poorly, they were all happy and adequately fed. In fact in some cases, the villages really didn't have a very tough life. We saw many women just chatting in the shade and men napping in hammocks. The children also have a generally carefree life, playing all day when they are not in school. I made up a list of all the things I would do if I had that much free time in one of those villages. First I would make a bamboo fort, then a sling-shot for shooting birds, and finally a fishing pole for my long days casting on the river. Of course I would never dream of living in those kind of conditions, but it does seem kind of fun.

I have greatly enjoyed exploring life along the Mekong River and experiencing how 80% of the Laos population lives. It's hard to believe that 1 in 3 Southeast Asians live either on the Mekong or in the Mekong River Delta. You can't totally understand how big a part the Mekong plays on the life of Southeast Asians without actually seeing it for yourself.












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