wander process

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New Photography Toy

As we are often wont to do, my roommate Nina and my friend Joy and I went to downtown Bangkok last night to Central World to eat Japanese curry and for them to find a few clothes for their upcoming travels. Predictably, I got lost in the world of stationary and notebooks and pens and school supplies at one of Bangkok’s nicest supply stores. In addition to buying some pens (a sickness which I inherited from my mother, and she from hers), I also bought a new little toy to keep me occupied.

Produced by Kola, these are small translucent plastic rectangles meant to mess up photography in all sorts of delightful ways. I’ve been playing with it some as I walk around.

The most fun 195 baht I ever did spend (so far).

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Back in Town

After a kind of eventful, but extremely different from my normal life type of week, I am back in Bangkok. Pictures forthcoming.

(Also, I wrote a whole long post about how thankful I was and it had a pretty picture and everything, but then the internet went out and only about 2 sentences were saved. So here: I am thankful for so much! If it’s any consolation to you, I at least have it down in my journal.)

I snapped this as I was arriving in Bangkok, after spending my whole day in a van.

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Good, Good, Good, Good Vibrations, Please!

I snapped this picture of an abandoned building on Charoen Krung this past weekend while I was wandering around. The street, one of my favorites and the oldest in Bangkok, is usually lively, and all but shuts down on Sundays. If I was not me, I would think that I look really strange when I’m walking around. I always stand in front of something in a mental turmoil over whether or not I want to take a picture. I used to usually brush those feelings aside and keep on walking. Now, however, I let my eye guide me. I never want to be haunted by an image I could have captured but didn’t. I stood in front of this building for about 30 seconds before deciding to take the picture. This is my resolve from now on – to always take the picture.

If we’ve been in contact (and if you’re reading this blog right now, we probably have), you might have already guessed that I’m all in a bundle of nerves about tomorrow (Saturday). As always, instead of preparing anything or packing, I am updating the blog with pictures.

So I ask of you this – to please send prayers/positive vibes/good feelings my way. I need all of the help I can get.

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Wandering Around Chinatown At Night

After discovering that Bangkok’s best night bazaar had closed (the hard way – when I showed up and nothing was there), I decided to wander around Chinatown when it wasn’t packed with people for the vegetarian festival. I wandered around the main drag, feeling more or less invisible. I wasn’t very hungry, but it was easy for me to pick out the best food stands. The best ones had fairly sizable crowds waiting around for their orders to be ready.

I found one lady sitting on a wagon of durians and I knew she was going to be my friend. (Durians are widely regarded as the stinkiest, most offensive fruit that exists. The fruit looks like yellowing chicken breasts and smells like rotting flesh. Naturally, I am a fan of it). I purchased a small amount of durian with sweet sticky rice for a snack. The lady at the stand asked me several times if I wanted mango (mango and sticky rice is a far more popular and palatable option for Thai dessert). Nope, every time she asked, I still wanted durian.

I took my little container of durian and sticky rice and realized that I didn’t have anywhere to sit – all of the tables belonged to food vendors. The thought that I could bring it to my apartment and eat it crossed my mind, but I quickly pushed that idea out of my head. If durian is illegal on public transport in cities across Asia, I felt like I shouldn’t push my luck by bringing it back with me on the bus. And I don’t think that a taxi driver would appreciate it either.

Finding a quieter step of a closed up shop on Chinatown’s main drag, I opened my container of durian and sticky rice and was hit by the smell for the first time in a long while. I poured the sweet sauces I was given on top of my fruit and rice. It wasn’t as good as I remembered it, I think I like it much better plain. I still felt happy to witness such a vibrant and beautiful area of Bangkok on that Saturday night.

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Phonsavanh, Or, Tangible History, Or, How I Ended Up At The World’s Most Dangerous Archaeological Site With Twenty Spoons In My Backpack

I’m not sure why, exactly, I decided to go to Phonsavanh. It was a 7 hour detour from the normal Lao tourist trail of Vientiane-Vang Vieng-Luang Prabang. I had sometimes heard about this mysterious ‘Plain of Jars,’ but I hadn’t heard too much. I never heard anyone say “AHHH, it’s awesome, you have to go there!” and I never heard anyone say, “Uggh, skip that tourist trap.”

Wikitravel, the poor girl’s open-sourced version of Lonely Planet, describes it as such:

Phonsavanh is the provincial capital of Xieng Khouang province. It was built in the late 1970s and replaced the old Xieng Khouang which had been destroyed during the Second Indochina War. It is located in the centre of the Plain of Jars and has a pleasant climate all year around. The long winding main street of Phonsavanh looks like the setting of a David Lynch inspired Spaghetti Western minus the tumbleweeds.

To my knowledge, it’s still known as Xieng Khoung. That’s what the majority of the signs in the town said.

As for the David Lynchiness, however, I have my doubts. I recently finished watching Twin Peaks, and was interested in seeing how such a comparison would play out in a seemingly random town in Lao. After rolling into town, I found that the comparison seemed more or less loose, but not completely unfounded. Here’s what Phonsavanh’s main street looks like:

I feel like the description was given by someone who wasn’t used to normal towns off of the tourist trail in Southeast Asia. This wasn’t too strange. The one anomaly was that one restaurant and a few tourist offices were decorated with bombs.

Like all of the major cities in Lao, there were billboards of social realism propaganda to look forward to.

The tourist scene in Phonsavanh was thin. There couldn’t have been more that 30 tourists in the town. Each and every one of us were there to see the jars. Because of my training in Development Studies, however, I got far more than I bargained for in Phonsavanh.

I should have known when I figured out that the social activity of the night was me and maybe four or five other twenty-somethings watching a documentary about UXO (unexploded ordinance) removal in Lao (and then I read and when to sleep promptly at 9:15).

While Luang Prabang was a place to relax and enjoy the lazy atmosphere (albeit with an ongoing commentary on colonialism and neocolonialism going on in my head), in Phonsavanh, my mind wouldn’t shut up. It was yelling, cranking, thinking in overdrive. I hadn’t felt so engaged in thinking about something in a long time.

Here’s why.

Besides playing home to the Plain of Jars, Xieng Khoung Province was the most heavily bombed area of Lao during the ‘Secret War.’ And Lao is the most heavily bombed country in the world. So I was traveling what could have been the most heavily bombed area in the world. Lao was the theater for the ‘Secret War,’ an offshoot of the Vietnam War. During the Secret War, American forces dropped 9 million bombs on Lao. There were big bombs. There were land mines. There were cluster bombs. There were 9 million of them. At the time, Lao only had 3 million people – 3 bombs for every person. One bomb every 8 minutes. The worst part of it all, is that many of these bombs haven’t been detonated and explosions, death, and injury are a daily occurrence.

So I am wondering through the first Jar sight of the day. Out of 90 different jar sites scattered throughout Lao, only three are open to the public. There are serious attempts to declare the Jars a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it’s still too dangerous. They have been cleared by MAG, a group working to remove UXOs. We walk through narrow paths between rice patties to reach our first site, being careful to stay within the marked path (everything else has not been cleared by MAG and is potentially dangerous).

Once we reach our destination, I think that I will be able to tell what kind of day this will be. I will be looking at a lot of large, mysterious stone jars (and as far as the stone jars, were concerned, that was right. They’re kind of boring. It gets to be more of the same after awhile).

The jars are at least 3,000 years old and no one knows what there were originally for. They could have been for storing human remains. They could have been for fermenting vast quantities of alcohol. Maybe something ceremonial.

Now they are for people to gawk at, rest on when they get tired, and pose in.

I found that everything around the jars was more interesting than the jars themselves. There were markers showing us where we could and couldn’t walk. There were craters placed sporadically between the jars, sites of explosions in the past.

A crater from where a bomb had exploded in the Plain of Jars

As my small group gathered to leave the first jar site, an older Australian man in the group asked me pointedly, “How do you feel about all of this, being an American?”

I stammered and words failed me (as they often do). Thoughts were swimming around my head, I was drowning in them.

“Uh, I don’t know. I mean, obviously there’s guilt, but this was before my time…” I trailed off.

What a dumb response. Also, what a dumb question.

I was very quiet that day.

OF COURSE, I am embarrassed to be from a country that decided it was alright to bomb the living daylights out of one of the most impoverished countries in the world, for ideological grounds (namely, a matter of communism vs. capitalism). I feel no support for a cause like that. Why should I be proud of being from a place that did something like that to a country? And continues doing that in the present day.

Again, I thought I felt a little removed from the situation.

We left the jar site, traversing the paths between the paddies. All of a sudden, I hear a loud BOOM. And I see smoke on the hillside nearby.

The Australians start to chatter, “Oh, was that a bomb?” “Dennis, did you hear that, a bomb went off!” They seemed a little too gleeful.

I asked our tour guide, who seemed very nonchalant, as he has probably spent his whole life hearing explosions now and then. “It was a bomb. MAG could have exploded it. Or maybe a farmer was burning his field and the fire set the bomb off.”

The Australians were excited, the tour guide nonchalant, and I was somber. The rest of the day, I couldn’t shut off the internal chatter in my mind.

I remember sitting in PS40 (Conflict and Cooperation in International Politics), bored by all of the yammering about the Cold War and bipolarity. One of the reasons I eschewed International Relations was because I didn’t feel like getting what at the time seemed like a degree in Cold War studies. Between living in and writing about Timor-Leste, and witnessing a bomb explosion in Lao, I can see how silly I was. I can see how wars of ideology can become the deadliest of them all. Though technically over in 1991, the Cold War and American foreign policy (thanks a lot, Kissinger) are still killing people in Lao. It doesn’t seem right that I should be watching a bomb go off in 2011, a bomb that could have been planted some 40-some years ago. This may have been a one-time occurrence for me, but dealing with UXOs is a daily occurrence for many people in Lao.

To make matters worse, the Lao people practice subsistence agriculture. Unfortunately, they are often unable to subsist on what they have grown. Adults and children alike search for scrap metal to sell to make ends meet. This sometimes means handling delicate bombs, just to make a dollar or two. A generation of children are growing up without the constant fear of bombing overhead and are unable to recognize bombs when they see them. All of this adds to more injury and death.

Traveling through Lao, I noticed that quite a few things were sponsored by the American embassy. However, almost none of the UXO removal work that I noticed, was being done by Americans. Many Australians and British people work for MAG and train the Lao people to remove UXO. I guess it’s easier for the US government to throw money at something to make themselves feel better than to address the problem (and notice how history repeats itself and fix that too, but I digress).

We stop and look at an abandoned Russian tank.

I am told that the American headquarters during the Secret War are not so far away.

We visit two other jar sites throughout the day.

When we head into town, I am without a hotel room (I bought an overnight bus ticket back to Vientiane), so I head to the town market to poke around. I have something in mind to buy.

The main souvenirs from Phonsavanh are strange ones. Spoons.

People have learned how to deactivate bombs, and the scrap metal collects from the bombs and other assorted metals are melted together into an alloy and formed into spoons. They’re a way for people to make money and a way to remember what happened and is happening in Phonsavanh and Xieng Khoung and all throughout Lao.

I find a market vendor who has a couple of different sizes. The spoons are packaged into groups of ten. I ask her how much they are. “10,000 kip.” Ten thousand of anything sounds like a lot, but in American dollars, it’s about $1.25. Not per spoon, per group of ten spoons. I buy twenty, thinking I can give them to people as strange gifts.

I head off to the bus station in a tuk tuk, thinking about my day and about my life in general. With every new place visited, I learn more about myself and about the world. Although I’m only 22, I can feel myself grow a little wiser, a little more sympathetic. The more I travel, the more I want to travel. I never know what unexpected lessons there will be (and there are always lessons). I feel extraordinarily grateful for my education at Brown, and more specifically, for my education in Development Studies. It has given me the tools to be a traveler with sharp critical thinking skills.

I know I’m known to many people as the girl who loves Southeast Asia a little too much (which is understandable). There’s so much here to learn though. It’s a theater for foreign intervention and colonialism (or in the case of Thailand, lack thereof), and an accessible way for me to learn about these things. It didn’t have to be Southeast Asia. Travel anywhere in the Global South and you can learn and think about these things. Southeast Asia is an interesting place where globalism confronts extreme poverty. Where else can I see a bomb go off, and 24 hours later visit the third largest IKEA in the world (my apartment needed a little help)? It’s a strange, beautiful place and I’m always learning more and more and that’s why I love it.

My friend Jules informed me of an episode of No Reservations where Tony goes to Luang Prabang and Phonsavanh. It’s on youtube, if you want to check it out. I started watching it, but stopped after a few minutes because I wanted to write this blog post, to make sure that the thoughts were my own and not influenced by anything Anthony Bourdain has to say. That was important to me. Now that it’s all written out, pieced together from furious scribblings in my journal, I will watch it.

And let me know if you would like a spoon! I have plenty.


Mountain Town Respite: Luang Prabang in Full

I can trace my desire to travel to Luang Prabang to almost two and a half years ago. Bored one evening in Nongkhai and clicking around on twitter, I came across a picture of one of the most ethereal looking waterfalls I’ve ever seen. My gut told me it was close to where I was at that moment. It was right.

Luang Prabang is a 10-12 hour bus ride away from the capital of Lao, Vientiane (pronounced wien-chang, as I recently learned).

As a side note, I’ve been trying to reprogram my brain and my writing to say “Lao” instead of “Laos.” After a lifetime of schooling where people say Laos, or don’t really talk about the country much at all, it’s difficult to say what is considered correct.
Here is an explanation from the Laos wikipedia page:

In the Lao language, the country’s name is “Muang Lao” or “Pathet Lao”, both of which literally mean “Lao Country”. The French, who united the three separate Lao kingdoms in French Indochina in 1893, named the country as the plural of the ethnic group (in French, the final “s” at the end of a word is usually silent, thus it would be also be pronounced “Lao”).

All of the Thai people call it Lao, the French people who colonized it call it Lao, and the Lao people call it Lao. It’s time for me to change what I’ve been calling it.

Now is the time for me to share something. I get really nervous when I’m about to set off on a solo trip. What did I think I was going to do in Lao by myself for a week? There’s apprehension of how I will reach my destinations and find reasonable accommodation. Regardless of what it may seem like, I really do think about my safety. I put myself in these situations because I know that the rewards are always greater than the risks and because there’s a part of me that becomes simultaneously more peaceful and more alert when I travel. I think more. I am able to do what I want, when I want. I’m often stopped when I’m alone, always asked if there’s anyone with me or why I travel by myself. People shouldn’t seem so incredulous. In traveling by myself, I learn more about myself and accept that often, I am the best company that I can have. And there’s a satisfaction I derive from experiencing new places on my own terms.

On to the journey!
I set out from Nongkhai one bright and sunny weekend afternoon to Vientiane, which is a border crossing and a 20 minute tuk tuk ride away. Like always, I got in a few minor arguments with the tuk tuk drivers. I sneaked out of one and got into another when the driver wasn’t looking (the tuk tuk hadn’t moved anywhere for ten minutes). I still think that I was ripped off, but whatever. I make it into Vientiane and discover that the bus station to Luang Prabang is at the Northern Bus Station, a bus station I hadn’t used before, on the outskirts of town, and a long ride away. My tuk tuk driver wanted to charge me about $10 for him to take me and there was no way I was paying that much. I hopped on the nearest motorcycle taxi and went to the bus station that way. It was still pricey (maybe about $5?) but it was a pretty long ride to the bus station.

By the time I rolled into the bus station, it was roughly 3:50pm. I walked up to the ticket counter and asked about buses to Luang Prabang. Quite a few buses left during the day. I looked at the list and noticed a VIP bus that left at 8:00pm, which sounded perfect.

My last experience on the Lao bus system, two years ago, consisted of me riding in a bus with vibrantly colored seats, blasting Lao traditional music, and an AC that dripped on me the entire journey, and bathroom stops that were really just the bus pulling over to the side of the road and everyone getting out and peeing.

Back to 3:50pm at the ticket office. I thought that this time around, I’d just spring the extra 20,000 kip ($2.50) for the VIP bus, which I thought would have a bathroom. I ask the man at the counter if I can buy a ticket for the VIP bus. But there was a bus leaving now, at 4pm. “But does the VIP bus have a toilet on it?” I pleaded.

“No toilet.”

“What about the normal buses, do they have toilets?” I asked in vain.

“No toilet. You buy ticket for 4.”

“Alright. But let me pee first!”

So that was that. I bought the ticket for the bus leaving right then, right there. I went to the bathroom quickly. Not having eaten or prepared food for the 11 hour journey, I darted across the bus station and grabbed two baguettes and a bottle of water before running outside and hopping on the bus, which was already poised to leave in the driveway out of the station.

I settled into a seat in the back and listened to my iPod. There was still a good 6-7 hours before my normal bedtime and I can’t read in cars or on buses. I watched the Lao scenery. It feels a world away from Thailand. Everything is covered a layer of dust (PANTONE 18-1250 TCX, Bombay Brown). Rice paddies give way to unconquered mountains and much of the journey is spent slowing snaking around switchbacks and barely paved roads.

The bathroom room stops are the same. I fumed at the gender inequality. What are girls wearing pants supposed to do? Hold it, that’s what. We managed to make it to some squat toilets later on in our journey and I survived.

The bus rolled into Luang Prabang at the convenient hour of 2:30am. This is another reason that I wanted my bus to leave later, but oh well. I was disoriented and since I didn’t look up any information about where I should be going, I got in the nearest tuk tuk, the only tuk tuk, and ask for a guesthouse. I wrote down a few names but no one knows where these places are. I was dropped off in the wrong area of town and I wandered around at 3 in the morning, hoping to find anywhere that has an room. This is probably a good time to point out that I think it’s illegal for people to check into/guesthouses to allow people to check into hotels/guesthouses after midnight. After a fair amount of wandering, I found a place. It was 100,000 kip a night, but it was the only place I found. I had to wake up the desk attendant to take a key, but it worked out alright, despite the fact that he couldn’t speak English.

I woke up early the next morning because I knew that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. I walked around for half and hour and didn’t see any temples (this is one of the things that Luang Prabang is famous for). I like to figure things out by myself, but sometimes, it’s smart to ask for help. I asked a tuk tuk driver named Ly if he could take me to the area with the restaurants and the temples. I gathered my belongings and checked out of my first guesthouse, having been there for only 5 hours or so. Ly is kind enough to drop me off in a centrally located area of the old quarter of the town, where I began my search for a guesthouse. After looking around a bit, I settle on the first guesthouse I come across. At $35 a night, it’s expensive. But with all of the time I’m spending here in Southeast Asia, my bargaining skills are sharp. I can be persuasive and drive a hard bargain. Plus my sweet Midwestern charm doesn’t hurt things and that fact that I usually travel alone helps me out too. The owners speak English well, and I explain to them that I’m a teacher in Bangkok and I don’t make very much money. I spend time admiring the room. In a short amount of time, I got the room price down to $15 a night from $35. If you’ve spent time in Southeast Asia, then you know what $35 a night can get you in terms of quality, so I’m very happy that I got such a great room for $15. PLUS, the room had hot water, which my apartment does not have. That was worth about $5 right there.

A little worn out from the bus ride, I decide to take it easy my first day. The streets of Luang Prabang are lazy and are abundant in opportunities for taking pictures.

I soaked in the French colonial architecture.

I climbed many steps to Wat Phou Si, which is situated at the top of a mountain and offers great views of the sleepy town of Luang Prabang, located at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers and tucked in between sweeping mountain ranges.

One of my secret (but not secret anymore) favorite things to see are clothes drying on the line. The only thing better than normal clothes are monk robes.

I walked in and out of temples.

I always stopped to admire the color of moss growing on stone. Moss is one of my very favorite colors. I remember trying, in vain, to take pictures of moss for my black and white film photography class at RISD and always being disappointed in the results.

One of the common sites in Lao was chilis drying on the sidewalks, on rooftops, on the ground.

Every night in Luang Prabang, there is a night market selling crafts and souvenirs to tourists. The soi my hotel was on was right off of the night market street, so walking through the market was unavoidable.

(side note – I saw these umbrellas a photo on National Geographic’s photo of day. Now I have my own version)

I had walk around too much the first day to make it to any of the major attractions of Luang Prabang (the caves and waterfalls), so I decided to get a massage instead at L’Hibiscus. I haven’t had a massage in forever and it was wonderful. I got a little package deal that included a scrub and a Lao aromatherapy massage. The scrub was good for working away some of the filth that has accumulation on me from traveling and living in Bangkok, and the actual massage was great too, but my nostrils were all plugged up from my allergies so I couldn’t actually smell anything (for the record, I chose lemongrass). I wonder if I still reaped the benefits of the aromatherapy.

When it was finished, then had a cup of tea waiting for me and a reveled in the post-massage feeling of floatiness and drank in the tea and watched the street outside.

I made the decision to visit the Kuang Si waterfalls the next day.

In my way to the waterfalls, I met Bob, an older man who was traveling sans his normal traveling buddy. Bob had sunscreen that needed to be rubbed in on his ears and sweat in his mustache. We started talking.

“Whereabouts are you from?” (People always ask this question before they ask your name)

“I’m from Illinois.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

I didn’t know if he was being serious or kidding or what. But this was not the end of Bob’s bad jokes, no not at all.

“I’m from Wisconsin,” he continued.

I didn’t have much else to do, and I’m find with talking to strangers, so Bob and I wandered around the waterfalls together.
Later on, he asked me what I taught. I kind of have this spiel going where I say that I teach a little bit of English, but I mostly teach whatever my students want me to teach. “I teach everything from World Heritage Sites to aliens!” and not so much in between.

“Do you believe in aliens?”

I was a little caught off guard.

“Uhhh, I don’t know,” I said. “I’m trying to teach my students critical thinking skills to be able to tell when things are real and when they’re made up and I think almost everything is made up.”

“Oh, I believe they’re real. That place in the desert…”

“Area 51?”

“The government’s trying to keep something from us. They don’t want us to know about it. You know, I once read this theory that there are aliens living among us, strategically placed. These aliens know the ultimate purpose for our existence.”

I didn’t even know what to say to that.

Bob said, “Since I’ve adopted you, would you like to join me for dinner?”

I agreed, since I was hoping to hear more ridiculous things and have my dinner paid for. He said I could pick, so I chose a restaurant (Tamarind, mentioned in the post before this), but it was too adventurous for him. So we went next door to one of the most expensive restaurants in Luang Prabang. He ordered a drink for himself and then gave me crap for not ordering alcohol. “I really like tea,” I shrugged, “everything’s so sugary in Bangkok that I take my plain tea when I can get it.”

We sat, semi-forcing conversation (one of my areas of expertise) until we happened on the subject of what Bob would have done for work if he could do it all over again. He was adamant that he would work for the CIA, FBI, or Secret Service.

My naivete and idealism came shining through and I thoroughly disagreed with him. “Maybe it’s because I’m young, but I was raised with the importance of helping people and that’s what I want to do with my life, help people somehow and make a difference.” I explained what people in my family did for work or study and how service to others is really important to us.

Bob listened to me say this and he said, “Oh, but that’s not all that’s important though.”

WHAT? What kind of world would this be if everyone thought like that? “You’ll learn that there are more things than that,” he said. Maybe I will, but I would sincerely hope I don’t turn into a strange old man who wishes he would have spent his life in charge of ex-Presidents for a secure salary and excellent benefits.

After he said that to me, knowing myself, there was probably a very visible change in my demeanor and attitude toward him. I asked for the check (he paid), thanked him and we parted ways.

This serves to illustrate the whacky people you tend to meet if you travel alone. Some are great, some are boring, but usually people are weird.

I had a much better experience while venturing to Pak Ou Caves the next day.

We took an hour and a half slowboat ride to the caves. We were surrounded by natural beauty at its best. One of the best reminders for why Lao has a little of my heart. I think few countries that I’ve seen are as beautiful.

The caves where nothing huge, but they were filled with little buddhas and big buddhas and candles and incense.

There were many steps to reach the caves, which were formed into a steep, steep mountainside.

This day was far more successful in terms of meeting sane people. I met Par, Pear, and Bew, three Chulalongkorn students from Bangkok who were also traveling. I met up with them randomly at about 5:45am the next morning. We had all woken up early to watch the alms giving ceremony, when the monks collect one of their meals for the day.

It was nice to sit and talk when them and learn more about the differences they observed between Thai and Lao Buddhism and what their thoughts were on the commercialization of what was once (and still) an important Buddhist ritual.

I am in love with the colors of their robes.

We ate noodles for breakfast together, and we parted ways. I grabbed another Lao coffee and a baguette for the road, as I was leaving for Phonsavanh at 8:30 that morning. Phonsavanh is where my story will pick up.

Here’s a view from the drive though. Another visual testament to the beauty of Lao.