Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Floating back to Laos

In between worlds, having left Italy more than a month ago, I'm having to adjust to life back in the US. Our household effects are still in transit from Italy to the United States, and we are still in transition. We have everything we could ever need at our fingertips, but it all feels impersonal, white, lifeless.

Not that I'm particularly missing Rome's chaos, pollution, sirens day and night, shoddy sidewalks, but I'm still stumbling to take in my surroundings. Clean, quiet, easy Arlington, just across the river from downtown Washington DC, feels sterile and "vanilla" to me.

In these temporary surroundings of mine, my mind is flipping through the archives of the past six years. We've moved countries 4 times now and traveled to a total of 17 countries in that same time frame. I spend my afternoons while Roman is napping looking at old photographs of the times when we were living at double intensity.

In 2008 we were in South East Asia and spent a few enchanting days in Luang Prabang, Laos. Time has erased some of the details of our trip but the overall emotions of visiting this place still remain.

Temple, Luang prabang, Laos

Banks of the Mekong, Laos

There was a food market every morning outside our tiny hotel. The vendors started setting up before sunrise. Those early morning noises were delicate, like small birds chirping. Their movements gentle, with little feet shuffling. They kept their voices so low that in my half-asleep state they appeared to be elves, not people.

At night, townspeople sold their crafts under vibrant canopies. Handsewn books, pillowcases, tapestries, rugs, all colorful and made with pride. No one called out garishly to us to entice us to buy. Rather, if we made eye contact, they would bow and politely utter "sabaidee" hello.

Night market, Luang prabang, Laos

People were visibly very happy, although it was plain to see they had little material goods. They had each other's company, they had their work, and they delighted in sharing their hometown with foreigners. Their smiles were contagious, their kindness palpable. It's a memory I reach for now, surrounded by big chain stores filled with employees trained to smile.

3 generations, Laos

Back here in the land of plenty, I'm pouring over the photographs of things that don't come encased in plastic and cardboard. Goods without price tags, marketing, or gimmicks. Staples of life, bought fresh, net-caught, dried in the sun, colored, spun and woven by hand.

Market shot, Laos

Fishing Nets, Laos

Drying cakes, Laos

Handmade silk tapestries, Laos

As with any place we've visited, there were unforgettable meals, including this one, where we grilled our meat and made a luscious soup in the same contraption, placed in the center of our table over hot coals. We were given a slab of fat that sat on top of the grill to impart its flavor and moisture into the grilling meat, then dripping down into the broth in the moat where we placed the noodles and the greens to cook quickly.

Dinner, Laos

Looking back on our visit to Laos years later, I'm still charmed by the quiet mystery of the place. We watched the monks collecting alms at daybreak, stumbled upon their orange robes drying on the line behind a temple, we were moved by the temples ever-reaching up to the sky, and wondered at a religion that we knew little about, but that didn't matter.

Cave with Buddhas, Laos

A few travel tips:
We stayed here at the Ramayana Boutique Hotel.
We loved this restaurant. The kai phen, freshly made jerky wrapped in dried, marinated river reeds was unforgettable.


  1. Sabaidee and ciao Nicole:
    I can understand your unease for too much orderliness. I think I will get counter-culture shock (again) when I return from Italy to the US (after 6 weeks of absence)...I am thinking, especially when I return to the mammoth supermarkets. If you have a chance watch this video on "forced optimism" of the US(which I think contrasts very well with the real positiveness of simpler even though more confusionary cultures): That said, I have to say there are also many many many things I adore of the US and look forward to going back to...
    When I am in transit or can't sleep at night, watching old photographs is one of my favorite distractions too. Your travels sound amazing. I have never been to Laos: you have definitively now put it on my must-go map!!!

  2. This is absolutely beautifully written.

  3. South East Asia has always been my dream destination, for its culture, nature and food. So I just dreamt a little. Thanks

  4. This was very nice. Quiet footsteps and chirping to start my day.

  5. What beautiful photographs. I have never been to South East Asia and it is a dream of mine to one day travel there. Such different cultures, so many things to soak in.

    You sound so nostalgic of that time and so disappointed to be back to the US Nicole. This transitional period will be tough. Hang on in there!

  6. i love the pictures beautifully focused and detailed love it

  7. Don't you just love traveling? I've lived in several countries these past years (including the USA) and the experience has enriched me so much.
    I've visited both Thailand and Indonesia and your photos bring back memories. South East Asia can be so enchanting.

    I hope you have an easy time re-adjusting. 'Culture shock' can work both ways! :)

    This Good Life

  8. Amelia- I enjoyed the video! Interesting perspective. It's always a hoot to experience how other cultures live and then try to fit back in somewhere.

    Jessica: Thank you :)

    Fiona, Glad I could allow you to dream a little!

    Tracy- It is a nice way to start the day (not like the construction trucks I'm listening to here....)

    Magda, The disappointment is waining, there are many positive sides to being back. You're right, it's always getting through the transition.

  9. Hi Nicole! I can attest that the transition is trying, but that it gets better with time (and once your stuff arrives). Have you been to the Dupont Circle farmers market on Sunday? They have some really great products there and most of it doesn't come wrapped in plastic. I know it isn't Campo dei Fiori, but it is a start

  10. I've read through this post on a couple of occasions--your pictures are mesmerizing. how fortunate you have been to have lived in so many different places, and experienced the various cultures. one journey is apt to trigger memories from another. you can learn so much, and gain such compassion for all our fellow beings.

  11. Laos looks like a place that exudes a certain magic. "People were visibly very happy, although it was plain to see they had little material goods." -- So true. Material goods do not equate to happiness. I hope the weight of your transition lightens soon.

  12. This is so well written! You have a way with words which is a rare gift!

  13. I have been have commenting problems w/blogger....sorry :(

    hope this works....I think I figured out a way to get my comment thru it just takes a few steps!

    What a wonderful look back, Once again Nicole, your writing and photgraphs are just wonderful... Love your honestly adjustment for sure.

  14. "Staples of life, bought fresh, net-caught, dried in the sun, colored, spun and woven by hand." I love this. I hope your transition back to the U.S. goes smoothly, simply, and is full of summer berries.

  15. It's amazing how returning home makes you think of other trips, doesn't it? I've never been to Laos, but memories of my trip to Thailand (right after moving back to the U.S. from Egypt, in fact) hit me at random times.

    I hope that you are recovering well from your return to the U.S. - I know after I returned from Morocco I was in a fog for at least a month. Now it's been so long since I travelled, I've been itching to say "grad school savings be damned!" and jump on a plane to Europe.

  16. Isn't it funny: we left Italy to return to France so happy to be leaving the chaos and the madness that is Italy and to the well-regulated calm that is France. And within a few weeks we missed Italy like crazy and realized that we should have stayed. We are now talking about moving back. But, but, husband is drawn to the East and if I showed him these absolutely stunning photos he would start packing his bags.


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