Big Brother Mouse, Luang Prabang, Laos

How a language can be a transformative tool in our lives is being best showcased by a small school on a narrow street of Luang Prabang. Almost seven weeks into my travels in south east Asia, I realized that English is such a hot commodity in this part of the world, especially among young people. A widespread idea that learning English is a way to succeed in life has been playing an important role in shaping thinking of many school and college goers in these countries. This is exactly what I heard from young adults in Big Brother Mouse when I spent a few hours talking to them. One could see that the hopes and dreams were shining through their eyes.

Big Brother Mouse is an independent free school in a small building that opens two hours every morning and two hours every evening giving high school and university students an opportunity to interact with tourists. The informal settings let students chat freely with visitors from every corner of the world. Smiles on their faces and enthusiasm in their voice show sheer willingness to improve their English language skills. Not only they want to hone their writing and speaking skills, these aspiring kids want to learn more from tourists about their countries and cultures. A simple conversation, sometimes, takes a form of deep discussion about careers, goals and ideas. Questions are mostly asked to gain knowledge; however, curved balls can be expected that put visitors into deep thoughts, and, sometimes, into awkward situations.

A high-school student from the country side of Laos wanted to know why people in India have snakes wrapped around their necks. Why snakes don’t bite these people? There were so many innocent assumptions in this question that I almost stopped for a minute thinking where this question is coming from. He told me that he watched some Indian TV programs. It seemed for a moment to be less like a language class and more like a cultural awareness workshop. A few students were curious to know how it was to live in India and America; and which I liked more. “Life is good in both countries” was my short and uncomplicated answer. A first-year university student asked, “If I ever want to consider living in Laos?” The question itself was not puzzling but the intent behind it moved me. He wanted to have more people in his country who can teach English to children in his village and others.

Many students come here often to seek help prepare for potential career opportunities. They want to confirm if they were constructing sentences correctly and using words appropriately. When I asked, “Why are you so dedicated to learn and improve your English?” The responses fascinated me. The range was wide from “I want to be an English teacher” to “I want to be a tour-guide” to “I want to be rich.” One 16 year told me secretly that he wants to have an English-speaking girlfriend in the future; innocent and honest answer. Some told that they also want to learn Japanese and Mandarin because a lot of Japanese and Chinese tourist come here every month. These answers were not mere words, they reflected dreams many of the Laotian youths have.

The idea of running such a school deserves a mention. However small my contribution was to this school, it gave an opportunity to add another story in my life.

The Land Where the Sacred Meets the Sublime

Three days in Thailand, and I still did not have a theme for my story about this colorful country. As I was contemplating in a bus from Chiang Rai to Chaing Mai, I saw a golden statue of Buddha on a hill. I found my story in that moment; it had to be about Buddha.

From the mountains of Pai in the north to the beaches of Pattaya in the south, one thing was consistent: Buddha. Form, color, size kept changing, but the same peace was prevalent everywhere I went. It was a 15 day odyssey in the Buddha universe. DSC03428

When An Ancient Temple Becomes a National Symbol

“Angkor” is the word you will hear and see all around Cambodia. From the national flag to popular beer, influence of the Angkor Wat temple found its place everywhere in the country. Restaurants. hotels, consumer goods brands, travel agencies, roadside stores etc., all feel recognized when they associate themselves this national symbol. How an ancient temple became such an iconic figure? It was a good project to undertake while exploring the country.

I had around two weeks to travel through the country. “How could I know Cambodia and its history?” This was the question in mind when I crossed the Vietnam- Cambodia border to get to Sihanoukville, a coastal town in Cambodia. A travel route from south to north along the river Mekong was the most optimal path to be familiar with some of the major population centers, touristic spots and historic places.

Koh Rong island was the first stop to soak in the Cambodian way of life and chill before the hectic travels ahead. When I got off the speed boat, my first impression was that it’s  a backpackers’ crash landing zone. More I walked away from the village center,  more I was charmed by the island’s sedating feeling. I started my project right away: ordered an Angkor beer, which is the most widely consumed beer in the country.  There wasn’t any special taste, but there is a special feeling when Cambodians drink the locally brewed beer. Hike, swim, eat, party and just lose yourself in the lulling effect of the island.

The project to learn about Cambodia got serious as I moved further north to the capital city of Phnom Penh. Once a hub for Khmer Empire and known as the “Pearl of Asia,” it was considered one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina. Word “Angkor” and the images of Angkor Wat temple were displaying in every corner of the city. The city also has many imitations of the original temple. There are dance clubs and bars flaunt the name and images of the temple. The modern city has taken brand “Angkor” to a new level of glory in every aspect of life. However, a sad history is buried underneath the shiny and noisy streets of today Phnom Penh. Just an hour from the city, the Killing Fields tell about the dark period of the country (the Killing Fields topic will be covered in a separate post). Whatever the city has gone through, it has beautifully come back to vibrancy. The national flag with Angkor Wat depiction on it was high and waving with pride.

I woke up with the peaceful sunrise and chants in Battambang after an overnight bus ride. Nobody was in rush in this city, neither was I. The old town is transforming itself into a cultural and art hub of Cambodia. Angkorian architecture and its influence can be seen everywhere, even on Tuk Tuks that display Angkor Wat sketches and portrayals to attract more tourists. Whether you are in rush or not, ride the famous Bamboo Train of Battambang.

After seeing representation of Angkor Wat and its glory all around the country, it was time to see the real thing and its home. The bus ride into Siem Reap was like walking along the alleys of deep rooted history and culture. Siem Reap is trying to maintain a subtle balance between the old and new: new-age cafes next to traditional old temples are not uncommon. Angkor Wat tour advertisements were common. Tuk Tuk drivers were selling the Angkor Wat temple complex tour all over the city. I opted the best way to explore the complex: rent a motorbike. The complex is so huge that many people take 2-3 days to see everything. Before I got immersed in the beauty and history of the temples, I was intrigued by fact that the Angkor Wat temple complex contributes significantly to the Cambodian GDP coming from tourism industry. One day pass cost $37, and approx. 25 million visitors showed up in 2017. Why Angkor Wat would not be a national pride when it gives back to the country more than it takes.

When the sun rose behind this iconic temple, its beauty amplified. My eyes and my camera were ready to capture this magical moment. The camera did not stop here. The 12th-century Bayon temple in the middle of the Angkor Thom complex is a perfect display of architecture genius of the time. My brain was overloaded and my camera’s memory was full after spending almost two days with temples, ruins and monuments. The question changed to “How Cambodia would look like today without Angkor Wat?” when I was in a bus to cross the Cambodia-Laos border.

 

Human Spirit in the Most Bombed Country on the Planet

The only landlocked country in the Southeast Asia, Laos is a crossroads of Asia and welcomes travelers with its open borders and open arms. Global travelers get an opportunity to experience a country untainted by mass tourism in slow motion– this is Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), or ‘please don’t rush’ as the locals like to joke. What makes Laos a unique destination in my list was not its beautiful landscapes or ethnically diverse culture, but its human spirit that helped the nation recover from the devastation caused by heavy bombing during the Vietnam war. Sadly, Laos is the most heavily bombed nation (per capita) in the human history. No visitor can experience what people have gone through in many parts of the country, however travelers should develop a sincere understanding and sympathetic perspective.

I had three weeks in Laos to learn about the country and feel life there as it exists today. After crossing the Cambodia-Laos border, I was in a land that embraces life the way Buddha taught, yet, at the same time, reflects a deep rooted fear and frustration that surfaces at times in daily life. In addition to mountainous terrains, French colonial architecture, hill tribe settlements, traditional markets, ancient temples and Buddhist monasteries, I had another item in my list to explore – land territories that are marked unsafe as there may be unexploded ordnance (UXO) burried in the ground. I wanted to learn as much as I could, even though most of these areas are not open for any kind of tourism. There are organizations, museums and field offices that help visitors learn about UXO and projects undergoing to clear the land.

Immersing in Laotian culture was important, so was bathing in its natural beauty. It all started from the southern city of Pakse and ended in the northern city of Luang Prabang. It took a series of bus rides and motorbike trips to get into the countryside and remote corners of the country. A couple of day in and around Thakhek, a beautiful town on the banks of Mekong, was interesting time to know about some of the largest and deepest cave systems between Laos and Vietnam. The area was also impacted heavily by bombing during the war, making it one of the biggest UXO clearance zones. Development and modernization in the country was not visible until I arrived in the capital city of Vientiane. Although the city is mostly residential and commercial, there are pockets where visitors get to meet the history, culture and architecture. A few hours bus ride took us to Vang Vieng, a nature’s lap with various shades of green stretched over the plain fields and mountains. One could not resist hiking rain forests in this slow-paced,  biodiverse town. A trip to Laos would not complete without visiting Luang Prabang, the royal capital of the country until 1975 and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Home to many old Buddhist temples, Luang Prabang is a residence of many modern monks who are sort of guardians of contemporary Buddhism. Along with many unforgettable memories, Luang Prabang also gave me an opportunity to understand the UXO problem in the country and involve in deep discussions about the dark past. The city hosts many UXO related organizations that are constantly in action to free the country from the unseen killer.

Days in Laos were full of contrast: seeing beautiful waterfalls to driving in muddy jungles, rainy city walks to steep mountain hikes, participation in rituals to casual hangout at riverside cafes and bars. After spending three weeks in the country, I can say one thing for sure: more than 2 million tons of bombs certainly destroyed the nation, but could kill the human spirit in Laotian people.