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Window on Southeast Asia:  
Listening to the Rice Grow: A Journey Up the
Nam Ou River in Laos, Part 1

This is part of our Window on Southeast Asia series.

If there is a place in Asia that seems to fall off the world's radar screen, Laos is it. Its geographical isolation has made it a difficult place to reach for years, and its political isolation after the victory of the communist Pathet Lao in 1975 made it a hermit state. Today, however, Laos is opening up to the world, and this charming, quaint, and surprisingly beautiful country is again accessible to those who don't mind a bit of roughing it. Outside of the main cities, roughing it is about the only option, but the rewards more than make up for it.

I started my journey in the fairy-tale city of Luang Phabang. Such a town warrants an article all its own, so I'll skip ahead to the day I left for my journey up the little-known Nam Ou River. Early in the morning I made my way to the dock only to learn that the passenger boat wouldn't leave for two more days! So I took the bus instead. The "bus" was actually a tuk-tuk, a covered pickup truck with long seats on either side facing each other. There were about 15 people on board. The road paralleled the river most of the way, and soon the scenery took a turn for the, well, the only word that comes to mind is "unsurpassable." All around were lush green mountains, some covered with jungle, some with emerald-green rice fields, some with huge, vertical cliffs. Even the cliffs that were vertical often were covered with jungle. Trees grew on the slightest ledge and long vines hung down several stories from them. If all that wasn't enough, there were a few clouds in the sky, weaving darker shades of green into the mosaic and helping to make the landscape breathtaking enough to make one run the risk of asphyxiation. After taking all this in and enjoying the warm, fresh air that blew through the tuk-tuk, we began to encounter groups of people, most of them colorfully dressed, walking along the highway. We passed one group of children carrying armloads of orange flowers. Others were carrying items in bags with long, thick straps attached to their foreheads (yes, their foreheads.) Soon we were passing through villages.

There seemed to be three main activities in the villages: bathing children, winnowing the rice in flat rattan baskets, and sitting. Women seemed to be doing most of the winnowing, thrusting the rice up into the air on rattan platters to get rid of the husks. Both men and women were engaged in the other two activities. These were mostly Lao villages with houses much like those of suburban Luang Phabang—bamboo walls and thatched roofs on stilts. As we ascended higher into the mountains the villages took on a different feel. In the lower villages most people wore western clothes except for the sarongs worn by the women (usually with a western shirt or blouse.) In the higher villages, where the hill tribes live, the clothing became more colorful and decorative. Many women wore black headdresses with intricate designs woven in and coins attached to them. Only one item of western attire seems to have made it to these villages: the bra.

Many women wore elaborate headdresses on their heads, colorful sarongs from their waist down, but only a bra on top. Some older women went topless. This became more common the higher we climbed and eventually some younger women were going topless as well. Another difference was that the loads the people were carrying seemed heavier, but they had different devices to distribute the weight. Many carried their babies in a bag on their backs. The houses looked about the same but many were not on stilts. Watching daily life in these villages was fascinating and easy to do with the smooth road. That all changed when we turned down another road. I've heard people refer to bad roads as "Mexican roads." Well, if that's what you call them, then you've never been on a Lao road! Actually, they aren't all that bad; the ones near major cities are quite smooth. Not this one. It was more pothole that road and the fresh air was soon replaced with dust. At times when we hit a pothole I found my body moving rapidly upward while the seat was moving downward. All too soon this was reversed until I slammed back into the seat. After a little while it became rather fun really, and it was more than a little entertaining to watch 15 other people all bouncing out of their seats and into the air all at once. The most disappointing thing I found about taking the bus and river rides in northern Laos was reaching my destination. The rides were so enjoyable I was sorry to see them end. But the destinations I found myself in often cured any sense of disappointment.

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