Sunday, April 25, 2010

Laos, at Last

For those of you who do not already know--probably because she speaks perfect California English--my dear wife Mali was not born in the United States (don't bother protesting, honey, you do speak perfect English).  She was born in the small, landlocked country of Laos, and she and her family left their homeland when Mali was eight years old.  And for those of you who aren't so good with geography, Laos shares a long common border with Thailand, our current country of residence.  Just last week Mali made her first ever trip back to the land and city of her birth, Vientiane, Laos.

We decided that for Songkran/New Year this year we would go to Laos.  We flew up to Udorn Thani in Thailand's northeast, then took a shuttle van to the Friendship Bridge, caught another bus to cross the Mekong River to the Lao side, where Mali's cousin Kae met us.  Her cousin drove us all over the place for the time we were there, for which we will be ever grateful.

First, a little background/culture lesson.  In Thailand and Laos (and Burma/Myanmar and Cambodia, too, but we have no ties to either of those countries) the middle of April is the traditional New Year.  It marks the end of the dry season, right before the rice crops are planted in anticipation of the coming monsoon.  In Thailand they call it Songkran, but in Laos it's simply called New Year.  For both countries it is a huge holiday, with three or four days off, and it's a time for people to go traveling to see family and friends.  And get in massive waterfights, which is good because April and May are the hottest months of the year here.  Kids enjoyed the waterfight we had at one of the relative's house--all of them but Ben got into completely dousing each other.  We didn't participate in the crazy street celebrations, where people were throwing water at passing cars and motorcycles and dancing all over.  In fact, we were glad to be safely ensconced in the van while driving through those groups, because in addition to throwing regular water, they toss colored water and talcum powder.  I don't think the kids would have liked that too much.

I personally found some significance in the fact that Mali returned to Laos in a similar manner to her departure 29 years ago, by crossing the river, not flying.  Granted, they left under the cover of complete darkness in overloaded boats that threatened to swamp and send the entire family into the Mekong.  We also crossed at night, but we went over a modern bridge in a semi-modern bus and we didn't have to worry about anyone from either side of the river shooting at or arresting us.  For some crazy reason, Mali was not as enthusiastic about this significant aspect of her first time going back to Laos as I was.

One of Mali's first observations as we drove from the bridge to our hotel was that there were not soi dogs like we see in Thailand.  Her cousin's response, without missing a beat, was, "That's because there are so many Vietnamese here."  And before anyone says anything about stereotypes or racism or anything like that, you have to know that her cousin speaks fluent Vietnamese, did his university studies in Hanoi, and according to his oldest brother, has a Vietnamese girlfriend (we haven't confirmed that last one, but I suspect it is true).  And he has eaten dog.

This was my fourth time going to Laos, and I was very curious to see how Mali would respond to what she saw, and see if it would trigger any memories from her childhood.  Alas, all of the places that she might have remembered no longer exist, having fallen victim to progress and modernization (those terms being relative to Laos, of course).  The house she grew up in was torn down long ago, so we didn't even try to go visit.  We, did however, visit two of her great-aunts (her paternal grandfather's sisters); one is 90-something years old, the other is 104.  One-hundred and four.  Man, that's old.

Mali said that Laos appears to be about 20 years behind Thailand in terms of economic development.  I don't think I'd dispute that statement.  There are a lot of dirt roads, the ones that are paved ain't all that great, and there aren't any really tall buildings (not that that's a bad thing).  All that said, I love the laid-back pace of life there, and Mali and I agree that we could live there.  For a time, at least.

We had fun, seeing relatives and friends, going up to Vang Vieng (caves and a river, what more could a kid as for?), and eating lots of good food (sticky rice, barbecue meat, and cold soda, what more could an adult ask for?).  I have to commend our children for their patience as we tooled all over the place.  We even found some food that they were willing and able to eat--but Mali and I were really loving all the Lao food.  Awesome.  Especially since we didn't have to prepare it ourselves or do the dishes after.

I think the only complaint I have about the trip is that Laos is not as kid-friendly as where we live in Thailand, but our hotel had a swimming pool and that was a HUGE plus for the kids.  And thanks to our friends the Roses for getting us into the Ambassador's playground so the kids could work out a lot of their energy in a non-destructive manner.

I also have to commend Mali for being able to communicate with her relatives in her original language.  Mali, for those of you who don't know, can speak wonderful, amazing, beautiful Lao--when she has to.  With her cousins in Laos, there really wasn't much of an option, because they speak very little English.  And the longer we were there, the more fluidly and easily the words came back to her.  It was really fun to observe.  As for me, when we got back to Thailand I was speaking almost all Lao instead of Thai, and the Thais just looked at me like I was some sort of freak.  I get that a lot here.

It was a fun, and exhausting trip, and we were glad to return to our home in Thailand.  Most everyone slept on the car ride from Vientiane to Udorn where we caught our flight back to Bangkok.  Be it ever so humble, and hot, there's no place like home.


  1. We're so glad Mali, and the rest of the family, got to visit Laos. What a gift to recall times and things from her family's heritage. Someday the children will love being able to tell others they were there. You're right; 104 is old! Don't want to personally find out. Love to you all.
    Dad and Mom

  2. Beautiful pictures. Sounds like you guys had an awesome trip. How great it must have been for Mali to return to her motherland.

    Love the comment aout the Viets. Glad to know they help control the dog populuation. :)

  3. That is so exciting that you all got to go to Laos and see Mali's relatives!! 104 is definitely old. We just studied Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in my Francophone identities class. It was very interesting because they had all been French colonies at one time. Hope you are safe in Bangkok with all that's going on!!

  4. Beautiful story and pictures. The trip must of brought some sort of closure for Mali. Although she was only 8 when she left Laos, I'm sure the experience of returning to her birth place is quite amazing. Thank you for sharing your story. I hope that one day my sister, Martha Whitfield, and I will be able to share our stories when we return to Laos together.