Saturday, November 9, 2002

Ventiane 2

Friends: While Laurie went shopping on our rest day in Ventiane I stopped in at a prominent Buddhist Temple near the largest and most holy of Laos' Stupas. There were more than the usual one or two monks in their bright orange dress milling about. As I casually roamed about, pushing my unladen bike, a monk in his late teens smilingly approached and asked in fairly good English, "How are you?"

He was the first monk to speak to me in the month we've been traveling in this deeply Buddhist region. He wanted to know about my bike. He gasped at how far it had brought me and the terrain it had crossed. He asked if he could give it a try, even though it was way too big for him. He was a bit wobbly, but it brightened his smile even brighter than it was. He was a student monk attending high school, living here at this temple, one of the few in the country and the only one in Ventiane that housed students. This was Saturday, so he and his fellow monk students had the day off. A couple other monks joined us. They too were passably conversational in English, an extra course they take in the evenings in addition to their high school classes.

They told me of their routine, rising at four a.m. every morning, washing and then praying before going out barefoot and with bowl to receive food from whomever cares to gain merit by giving. I had risen early myself one morning in Luang Prabang to witness the ritual. There are a dozen or so temples there. The monks from each march single file from eldest to youngest down the streets in search of people with large pots of food. There were lone individuals and also clusters of two or three or four people along the street ladling out food to the monks. As each monk passed, they would scoop a single spoonful of food in to their bowl. Each might serve 100 or more monks, and each monk received food from a dozen or more givers. Most of those giving were older woman, but there was an occasional middle-aged man. Merit is an essential aspect of Buddhism. In Chiang Mai locals were urged to recycle as a means of gaining merit.

After half an hour or so of conversation, Monk Bouaon invited me to his room for a drink of water. His room was nicer than many of the hotel rooms Laurie and I have stayed at. He had a World Cup soccer poster on his wall and several dozen books stacked above his bed. He had a fan and a radio. From under his bed he pulled out a stash of individually wrapped coconut wafer cookies. As we talked, we were joined by several other student monks. I learned that Bouaon was actually 22. He hoped to graduate from high school in May and then go to university. He was one of eight children and the only to become a monk. He and his friends all agreed that life in Laos has improved considerably over the last several years, ever since the country has been opened to Westerners. He said the roads used to be so horribly pot-holed, I wouldn't have wanted to have bicycled here then. There is still a shortage of decent jobs. I hung out for over an hour, until it was time for them to tend to some afternoon chores. Though he doesn't have email, he gave me a small business card with his temple's address.

Later in the day I met a retired, 65-year old German cyclist, who had bicycled Laos several years ago with his wife and had loved it so much, they have wanted to return ever since. They confirmed that the roads were greatly improved, and that the people were as friendly as they had been then. I wished they were heading the same direction as Laurie and I, as they would have made for great company. They have been committed touring cyclists ever since their first tour ten years ago, going off on a tour every year since, mostly in Asia. I was hoping he was an even more veteran touring cyclist than he was as I began talking to him and learning of his travels. As I revealed more and more of my travels and how long I had been at it, he said he regrets from time to time that he hadn't discovered cycle touring earlier. He said he rarely meets anyone who has traveled more than he has, then added, "You are the Lance Armstrong of touring cyclists." He told of taking a speedboat six years ago. He hated it, but decided to give it another try, except chartering the boat for just himself and his wife and ordering the captain to go at half speed and not to pick up any passengers. He said the captain was actually able to restrain himself and that going at a slower speed made the experience a real pleasure.

I meandered some 35 miles around Ventiane today on my bike, giving each of the wide, but far from glamorous, boulevards a look. I failed to find an up-scale business district or even middle-scale. There were some outlying areas of semi-affluence, but as far as nice office buildings and shopping areas, Ventiane has none. The sidewalks are all broken and worn. Even the area around the Presidential Palace with the American and French Embassies and guest houses and restaurants and Internet cafes catering to travelers would pass as a slum in most cities. It is a nice place for ex-pats to disappear to.

Laurie encountered an ex-pat we had met in Luang Prabang, the nervous, paranoid type who was full of dire warnings. She was a 40-year old woman who used to work for Microsoft, but fled the U.S. when Bush the Second took office. She told us it would be suicidal to bike the road through the mountains out of Luang Prabang. She warned us to be wary of what we sent by email out of Laos, as she claimed they are all censored. I told her that when I send out mass emails, including one to myself, I received it instantaneously without any censorship. She said she receives reports from friends all the time who say the emails she sends them are full of misspellings of words like religion and communism. "You can't be too careful," she told us over and over in little more than a whisper.

As my thought roamed today reveling in how wonderful these travels have been, it also veered off to considering what regrets I might have. There are always sites I wish I'd seen and fellow travelers I wish I'd spent more time with and pictures I wished I'd taken, but never anything very significant. I somewhat regretted not taking one of the three-day package treks out of Chiang Mai every other traveler we've met seems to have taken. They all include an elephant ride and going down a river on a bamboo raft and getting a dose of opium. For those traveling by bus getting out and doing something physical in the outdoors has been the highlight of their trip. Its not much of a regret, as no one had an experience to compare to ours in Chang Mai being embraced by Esther and her friends. My biggest regret may have been failing to draft a slow-moving motorcycle that had a monkey in a cage on its back. Laurie and I were riding side-by- side when it chugged past us. I didn't react in time to chase after it, which I could have easily done. On my own I'm always on the alert for a slow moving vehicle to latch on to. I keep imagining how that monkey would have reacted with me just a foot or two from its face, pedaling furiously to stay in its draft.

We thought when we reached Laos there would be no more side-by-side cycling on its inferior roads. The roads are a far cry from the quality of those in Thailand, but there has been so little traffic until we came within 30 miles of Ventiane, we have still been able to ride side-by-side and while away the miles and hours in conversation. Many of you have been the subject of our musings as we comment on the emails you have sent. After Laurie heard from a cousin in Nebraska she spent a lot of time with as a kid she told stories of their many adventures and pranks. As nine-year olds they once doused themselves with ketchup and laid down alongside the road in their small town of 700 hoping to get rescued. No one came along before they grew tired. They snuck out one night at one a.m. and roamed their deserted town wondering what it would be like. She said it was years before they ever told anyone. Her cousin and her three sisters and brother still live in Nebraska. Laurie said the postcards she's sending there will be the talk of the town.

I had a good day spotting favorite tasty treats we have discovered along the way. For the first time since Chang Mai I have found those Thai Power Bars that Esther introduced us to--the bamboo sticks filled with sticky rice and coconut milk and beans. I've also found a few women selling apple fritters and a guy with a cart selling meat filled pastries, among my favorite hunger quenchers. I've returned several times to a woman who makes very thick and filling honey dew melon smoothies. I'm restocking my reserves for our push on to Vietnam and the mountains that lay between. Rest days are for eating as much as anything.

Later, George

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