Monday 6 November 2006
My uncle, Loung Thone, lives with his wife (Pa Hun), her nephew (Bun), and their daughter, Nang Xan (Short Girl). Bun is a boarding student at the local university; he stays with my uncle’s family because his parents live in the countryside and can’t afford living expenses. He earns his keep by cooking, cleaning, babysitting younger cousins, and pretty much anything my aunt needs him to do.
This morning, Pa Hun was slow to leave the house for work. Her sluggish behavior raised an eyebrow – last night, she was up late celebrating the engagement of a good friend’s son. I was sitting at the stone picnic table in the front yard, under the shade of starfruit and gooseberry trees, when a train of women showed up at the house. They were trilling loudly and dancing as they came, appearing more than a little inebriated. My speculation was confirmed when one of the women put her arm around Mom’s neck and whispered, “I’m drunk.” That prompted Pa Hun to pick up the phone and order a crate of Beer Lao. About 5 minutes later, a young man on a bicycle appeared; attached to a rack behind the seat was a milk crate holding nine 40-ounce bottles of the popular beverage. He collected cash from Pa Hun, thanked her, and pedaled away. Once all the bottles are empty, the man will come again to take them to a plant where they are sanitized and reused.
Mom tells me that engagements in the old days were much different than they are now. Most marriages are still arranged, at least to the extent that the potential groom asks permission from the potential bride’s father, whether or not the girl is actually all that enamored. If the groom’s family is wealthy enough, the bride’s father will agree to the favorable union. One difference nowadays is that the pair have usually talked to some extent and find one another likeable prior to the proposal. Also, engagements used to occur early in the morning; by nightfall, the couple would be married. I guess it doesn’t leave much time for cold feet.
Once everyone left for work, Mom and I embarked on that day’s adventure. First stop: the Mittaphab Bridge to meet my Uncle Lay’s sister. Until recently, the only way to cross the Mekong into Thailand was by ferry. (Or, if you’re like my family, by swimming under fire.) In the early 1990s, when Laos first opened its doors to tourism, the Australian government funded the construction of the Friendship Bridge, facilitating travel and commerce between Laos and its wealthier neighbor. The idea, of course, was to improve foreign relations and the economy.
Loung Lay’s sister arrived by bus from Nong Khai. She looked unwell and had trouble walking without assistance from her daughter-in-law. Mom gave her an envelope of money from Loung Lay and updated her about our family in America. When it was time to leave, as we took turns hugging her, she burst into tears. We were not sure how to console her. She became more upset and pointed as an older woman in a wheelchair passed by. To be crippled was the thing she feared most in her growing age and declining health.*
*Loung Lay’s sister passed away in the first half of 2012. I heard the news that she was gravely ill and went home that weekend. By the time I arrived at the Shire, she was gone.
After a difficult goodbye, we moved on to more lighthearted wanderings. Further down the river, we arrived at Xieng Khuan, the Buddha Gardens. One of the better known tourist attractions, it still managed to maintain a sense of serenity.
We ate lunch at a picnic table, overlooking a green pasture and the Mekong. My cousin, Lan, ordered us fresh coconuts to cool our tongues from spicy tham maak hoong. A young English gentleman and a monk sat at the table next to us, deep in conversation.
As we walked through the park, Mom explained scenes from the Buddha’s life that the statues were meant to depict.
Eventually, we made our way to the Dome of Heaven and Hell. You enter through a gaping mouth and make your way to the top via a narrow staircase. The interior is dark and somewhat unsettling, especially since a possible drug addict was lurking just inside the entrance when we first attempted to enter. The climb symbolizes the struggle to ascend into Heaven or Nirvana; once at the top, you emerge in the glorious sunlight and look down upon all the statues in the park. Your outlook on the world seems brighter than ever before.
I would need an entire day in the park to spend enough time with each scene. It was a beautiful and peaceful end to an emotional day.