Life in Laid Back Laos – Laos

Life in Laid Back Laos


Baby Water Buffalo - pearly whites gleaming!
Baby Water Buffalo – pearly whites gleaming!
How is it that time seems to pass so quickly when you haven’t really done anything. Our time on Don Khon, a palm fringed island in the middle of the Mekong River in southern Laos was like that. The day started at dawn. All the local villagers were up and busy with chores. We were just dozing off since the air had finally cooled enough to let us sleep without fear of drowning in pools of our own sweat (sorry, I know the image is not an attractive one!). By 8:00 a.m., the noise had died down and the adults were having a rest in their hammocks, or in the shade underneath their stilt houses.

Our day started with a leisurely breakfast overlooking the river. There was a hive of activity on the water – narrow dragon-tail boats with food mixer like propulsion screaming along the river ferrying shoppers to market and coming back laden with goodies dropping off neighbours along the way.

Watching village life from our veranda, we saw children cycling to school on bikes too big for them, just able to turn the peddles, but legs not long enough to let them reach the seat. Often they’d have a smaller sibling riding on the parcel carrier! Women walked by with long bamboo poles, a hook at one end, to poke the mangoes high in the trees and shake hard until one or two ripe green fruits tumbled to the ground.

From the riverbank we saw children swimming and playing in the water using large coconuts as floats – no orange plastic armbands here. There were small boys wearing nothing, their skinny brown bodies gleaming when wet, girls modestly swimming wrapped in sarongs – squeals of laughter coming from all. Toy fishing poles and boats made from the husks of coconuts provided rich entertainment.

The village high street, just a dirt path, was the route for the occasional motorcycle, for many bicycles and regular hand barrows piled high with coconuts, stacked with bamboo poles, or loaded with huge sacks of rice.

It was Election Day. Villagers were out in force. The main street was busy with people coming and going to the polling station in the local wooden hut of a school. Along went gossiping old ladies with mouths dyed deep red from years of chewing betel nut. Families joined the procession. The women and girls were in their very finest sarongs; dealing with officialdom demands a certain amount of decorum.

Two soldiers guarded the polling station carrying AK47s; two more similarly armed soldiers escorted the returning officer through the village with his all-important plastic briefcase. How incongruous those weapons seemed in such an idyllic and seemingly peaceful place. On entering the polling station, the women had to leave their umbrellas at the door. For what? That they might rap the returning officer over the head? For the past few days a list of election candidates had been displayed with a photograph and details of each, with a picture of a domino by the side. Selections had been made, helped along by the large town meeting.

No PlayStations here!
No PlayStations here!
A slow cycle ride through the villages on the island revealed a way of life so different to what we are used to in the West. Houses are wooden and on stilts. Families live together in one large partitioned room. Animals are kept underneath the house – pigs tied up, dogs with frowns (all the same variety), chickens roaming free, cows grazing beside the rice paddies and the most beautiful of creatures, the water buffaloes in the rice paddies. All had young – piglets, chicks, ducklings, and puppies (with mini frowns). We noticed even the geckos were entangled with each other! The young water buffaloes posed for our photos showing us their pearly white, very prominent teeth – obviously breaking them in for someone!

We watched a fight in the street – drunken adults? Small boys? No, cockerels and not the organized gambling sort of cockfight, just two cockerels staring each other out, neither moving, each waiting for the other to be brave enough to attack. Then, all of a sudden claws were everywhere and as soon as it started, it was over. Feathers fluttered along the road, neither bird hurt, no blood spilled, both going their separate ways, difficult to tell the winning party.

All kinds of washing goes on in the river – washing of clothes, the fresh aroma of washing powder emanating from the river bank, people washing their sensitive parts, covered discretely with sarongs – men and women alike, washing of dishes and cleaning of teeth.

No PlayStations here. Children play simple games with objects available to them. The most popular game seems to be those using flip-flops (thongs). It consists of throwing a flip-flop at your opponent before they can run to the sanctuary of the other side of the pitch. If they survive they get another chance to run. If not, they have to sacrifice one of their flip-flops and hang it on the bamboo pole in the middle. Presumably, the owner of the last remaining flip-flop is the winner.

Another village used a different method of scoring. They collected elastic bands. This game seemed to be accompanied by many tears from the younger children when they had been struck by a successfully aimed flip-flop, and a one-off scream from the older children who were too old to let tears roll despite the pain! Skipping ropes, made from the bark of a tree, were popular mainly with boys. Not sure you’d catch many young boys at home playing skipping, definitely the preserve of little girls. There was fierce competition to see how many jumps could be achieved before tripping over the rope, or legs giving way with exhaustion.

Sunset over the Mekong - but the fish aren't biting!
Sunset over the Mekong – but the fish aren’t biting!
As the sun set, the fishermen went out on the river in their narrow dug out canoes with huge white fishing nets, weighted at the rim. Gathered up, swung gently back and thrown out wide and then slowly, pulled back into the boat, in our six days on the island, we did not see one fish caught in this way!

What a blissful few days we spent there, not doing very much at all!

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