My first trip to Laos was in 2001. We chose Laos on a whim. It was 2 weeks after 911, and the dotcom crash was in full bloom. We were running away to tour Vietnam, Cambodia and just threw Laos on the list for the heck of it.
At that time there were few cars; no tourists in hindsight. It was a place that felt untouched, a backwater as it was just opening up to the outside world. There was an immediate impression of a forgotten place and time. The old people spoke French, and there was a shyness and curiousity among the people that seemed to have had little contact with foreigners.
The first sunset sitting in a food stall along the Mekong with a Beer Lao, grilled tilapia, stir-fried morning glory and a watercress salad…and I began my affection and appreciation for where I was. I had stepped out of the world I knew, yet it felt very familiar and comfortable in a way.
The next two weeks felt like discovery. The people were open and warm, as good Buddhists can be. Luang Prabang was a steamy, lost jungle kingdom full of temples and monks. It was romantic and with its past, tragic at the same time. The more I learned about the recent history of Laos mixed with our involvement and experience with the people and culture, the more I appreciated what survivors and optimists they were. I learned from them that the problems we were currently facing were in fact, survivable. You can live through things with grace…without ever losing yourself.
I met Sombath on this trip. He told me of his work to shape the future of the country through education of the youth. I was moved and felt a connection with him, but didn’t really grasp the concept at that time.
It would be 5 years before I returned. But I kept a piece of the place within me, and it would crop up in random thoughts. I sensed there was something there for me that could fill a void, if I only had the courage to embrace it.