Stone Guardians and Open Roads
I’m riding on a local bus through the Laos countryside, heading for the Thom Konglor Cave, an apparently massive cave that can be toured by boat. Currently, I’m travelling with Van, a warm and strong hearted man from New York who I met one night out with a lively bunch of travelers in Vientiane. This is to be my last expedition before leaving this lovely country. I don’t know exactly what it is about the people and the culture here but even some really nasty turns in my travels have done nothing to dampen my appreciation of Laos. As we left the bus station and drove through the outskirts of the city of Vientiane, I felt this sense of calm love for everything I saw slide past my window. I loved the piles of fresh colorful fruit sold by roadside vendors. I loved the shops selling kids hula hoops next to brooms, bikes and motor oil. I loved the cows wandering the city streets, searching for grassy patches by the road. I loved the small children riding with their mother or father on a motorbike, perched standing on their parent’s lap, holding, with tiny hands, onto the stems of the rear-view mirrors. The city gradually fades and soon we are driving through small towns and rice fields, some with farmers bent low over the bright green shoots of the rice plants, arduously working to gather and bundle their harvest. More cows line the roadway, roaming free as the billowing white clouds above.
In about four hours time we arrived in the tiny town of Sien Kam. We stumbled out of the bus a bit dazed and thoroughly confused as to what to do next. A short interview with a kindly elderly gentleman with surprisingly fluent English pointed us in the proper direction in which to find our next ride. Just up the road a tuk tuk taxi was waiting to gather more passengers before beginning the journey into the mountainous countryside. He was leaving in thirty minutes so we passed the time relaxing the shade and, in my case, munching on snacks purchased at the nearby shop. I had found nori, one of my favorite snacks, and as I was happily crunching away like an oversized lizard I noticed an adorable young boy, held by his grandmother, was looking longingly at my treat. I tore him off a piece, fully expecting his guardian to kindly refuse the offer, but to my surprise she let him take it. He grasped the dark green seaweed in his tiny chubby hands and his face lit up into the biggest melt-your-heart baby grin as he took his first taste. I nodded and smiled with him, patting my belly, hoping this was an international gesture for “mmmmm tasty!” I’m not sure if he understood but he smiles bigger than ever, his chubby cheeks opening wide enough to show his first baby teeth, and that’s enough for me.
Soon the driver motioned that it was time to go, so we filed into the tuk tuk and began the drive up into the hills. The flat landscape of Sien Kam quickly gave way to dense mountainous jungle set to a backdrop of stunning shale-colored limestone cliffs. The cliff tops were jagged as shark’s teeth; their faces woven with jungle trees and vines. Some exposed patches were streaked with light beige stone, creating a beautiful contrast to the predominant dark shale color of the cliffs. These cliffs were perched above us like giant stone guardians, towering over us at each bend in the winding road. Sometimes they were quite close but at other times we could see in the distance, through a light mist, an entire expanse of dark stone cliffs woven with jungle and painted with streaks of beige. The landscapes in Laos have been nothing short of mesmerizing in their beauty and this venture into the countryside only served to underline this statement, perhaps even to highlight it and place it in all-caps and bold lettering.
After an hour of gawking, open-mouthed, at the passing scenery, we arrived at our taxi’s final destination, Kan Koun Kam, the first in a series of villages in the valley that lead to the Konglor Cave. After some investigating, we found a fantastic bungalow at a simple resort which looks out over a river. Our resort had the added bonus of being one of the only places around (if not the only place) which rented motor bikes so the following morning we rented ourselves a bike and tore off in search of this legendary cave.
Now most people with a destination in mind might first consult a map, or ask for directions before hitting the road, but Van and I preferred the wanderer’s approach and instead tried every possible route other than the correct one, before finally landing on the road that leads to the cave. In fact the very first turn we made out of the driveway of our hotel was incorrect. That said, we did discover some lovely things on our errant wanderings. First, we meandered into the nearby village, past more serene cows, one of which was lovingly licking its kin, past smiling and giggling village children, past ramshackle huts and shoddy wooden fences enclosing bright green grassy pastures. This place was the most idyllic little peaceful village and it stretched no larger than the interior of a Walmart store.
When the road ended in a pasture we turned around and bumped and jostled our way right back out of the village. We rode past all the smiling children who waved again with just as much enthusiasm as if they hadn’t just seen us moments prior, past the serene cows licking one another, past the dreamy green pastures, and out onto the main dirt road in search of the next possible route. Our next wandering journey took us up into the nearby hills, through beautiful dense jungle and up past a spectacular lookout point. When we had driven for a good twenty minutes with no signs for the cave we began to suspect our error. A short interview with a toll officer confirmed this suspicion, so we turned around and headed back, again. We loped and wound our way through the gorgeous dense jungle, on the tight and winding steep mountain road, back to the spectacular lookout point where we stopped to take in the view of the valley below. This view alone was worth the hour detour into the mountains. Below us stretched the river which wound through the valley, the humble village sitting just up the road from the tiny town of Kan Koun Kam, and the vibrant green rice fields extending into the distance. Running the boarder of all this wonder were ranges of the limestone cliffs, lording over all like omnipresent gods of the valley below.
Finally we gave in and admitted that we had no idea where we were going so we rode into the main village, Kan Koun Kam to ask for directions. In no time we received proper directions and sped off on the last road we hadn’t yet tried. This road was gloriously paved and smooth, unlike many roads one finds in Laos, and stretched straight as an arrow for nearly the entire 40 km journey to the cave. Lining the road on each side were more majestic shale-colored cliffs set behind seemingly endless rice fields. Every now and then we would drive through a little “village”, no more than a modest stretch of ramshackle bamboo houses, and wave at all the happy smiling children who simply burst with friendly calls of “Sabaidee!” and “Hello!”. I marveled at the simplicity of the lives of these humble people, and yet the stunning grandeur of the surrounding landscape spread in their back yards. And they all seemed so happy, despite the hardships of living as poor farmers. A certain peacefulness in their hard worn faces echoed the serene beauty of the land in which they lived. I gave a silent prayer to the Forces That Be that no resort developer finds this hidden gem of a valley and decides to build a golf course over all the beautiful rice fields.
When at last we reached the cave we quickly hired a boat and set off, as the park was closing soon. Unsure of what to expect, we followed our two guides into the wide mouth of the cave and carefully climbed into one of the many long narrow boats which lined the dimly lit river bank just inside the cave. In no time we were speeding deeper into the blackness, slicing easily through the dark waters. The brilliant green patch which was the cave’s mouth quickly shrunk behind us and soon blinked out completely as we rounded a bend in the river. Complete darkness draped heavy around us, broken only by the shafts of light shining from the large headlamps worn by our guides. As they shone their headlights around us we began to get a sense of just how huge the cave really was. As wide as a freeway and tall enough to fit a four storey building, the cave’s enormity and presence were as palatable as the damp yet fresh and cool air that moved in its interior. To behold such a space gives one a feeling of expansion, of being lifted up into the air.
At one point, we pulled to a stop at a sandy bank and followed the younger of our two guides up the steep shore to the beginning of a cement path. Van and I pulled out our phones to light our way but this quickly proved unnecessary as our guide closed an electric circuit and light came flooding into the cave. Somehow these ingenious people had routed an electric cable all this way, deep into a cave filled with water, to create one of the most spectacular lighting displays I have ever seen. The lights ranged from a warm orange color to a shocking cool blue to a brilliant pink. Each light was set to illuminate one of the many massive cave formations scattered along the river bank. As we walked along the cement path these flamboyant cave creatures towered over our heads, their shining color a blinding contrast to the dense darkness from which we just emerged.
Our guide was practically running past this spectacle, ushering us quickly along a rehearsed route of which he had long grown bored. I wouldn’t have it, and stopped often to study the surface, frozen in stone, of what appeared to be gigantic oozing mud monsters in pink, orange and blue. So beautifully strange. The older guide brought the boat around via the river, and at the end of the walking path, we scrambled back inside the narrow boat and continued speeding up the river.
At times we moved past patches of rain, oddly isolated as if a permanent rain cloud perched just above. In a sense this is what was happening. The rain was from other water ways flowing through the stone above us and fell from cracks in the cave’s ceiling. We sped along for some time and I started to wonder if we would ever make it to the end, until at last some light began to filter into the cave. We rounded a bend in the river and a small fire work of vibrant green light burst in the distance. We were looking out the mouth of the beginning of the cave at the lush jungle found just on the other side. When we emerged out into the light it was like moving between two starkly different dimensions; in one moment we were in the cool, dark quiet of the cave and the next we were in a sensory overload among the biting neon green of the jungle, the heavy warmth the air, the incessant orchestra of jungle insects. It was intoxicating. My heart sank when after just a few moments in this sensory bath our guides turned us around and plunged us back into the cold and dark cave.
Back past the patches of rain, back past the formations, back along the entire winding length of this snaking river cave. We arrived back at our origin where we bumbled out of the boat and steered ourselves into the light doing our best to process all the wonder we had just seen.
We were low on fuel so before jetting off into the sunset we stopped at a market outside the park to fill up. As we were buying fuel a gorgeous female dog belonging to the shop came to me to introduce herself and then led me into a shed adjacent to the shop where she kept her just born litter of little baby pups. I lost my knees. They were just gone. It was all I could do to just kneel there, hands over my mouth and bask in their unbearable itty bitty beauty. Each one could easily rest in one hand. Their eyes were still shut and they wriggled around on the floor like little turtles, padding the ground with the sides of their miniscule paws, unable to stand and walk. I couldn’t help myself; I picked one up even though their mama looked at me suspiciously. Its tiny nose moved quickly back and forth and its head bobbed up and down as it tried to make sense of his surroundings. What a little wonder! I was mesmerized. With reluctance, I put the puppy down and saddled up on the bike. Sunset was coming, and quickly.
As the villages and rice fields swept by us, the sun sank lower and lower in directly front of us. To get back before dark was a race against time and, with this in mind, we pressed forward as fast as we could. Up above the sky above blossomed into a flood of orange light, dappled with deep gray purple clouds. Unfolding before us, the final kiss of an epic day: a silencing sunset.
Oh No! We must have died and landed in a fairy tale. This place is too beautiful to be real.
I now am in Luang Prabang, Laos, after having taken a two day boat journey down the Mae Kong river from the Thailand Boarder. The boat trip was lovely in and of itself: a nice slow meandering journey through jungle landscapes, beautifully arching hillsides extending into the distance. This being loose and laid back Laos, we were free to light up whatever we felt like, kick back in the cool breeze and watch the scenery go sliding by. My travel companion, Raviv, a kind, polite Israeli man, and I passed the hours reading, chatting and lazily snoozing. I did get up to some writing but not nearly enough; I'm still so far behind in documenting the last month!! Upon our arrival to Luang Prabang we found a nice clean guest house that actually provides towels! This is my marker for an extra fancy guest house, and lovely luxury as my travel towel is dinky and just about as absorbent as a sheet of cardboard.
The following day we lost no time in venturing out to visit the main tourist attraction out of Luang Prabang which is the Kuan Si Waterfall. My travel partner, two other Israeli men we met on the slow boat, and I began the search for a tuk tuk taxi, resulting in the one hilarious circus of a morning. My Israeli counterparts wouldn't settle for anything but the lowest deal possible and the taxi drivers wouldn't settle for any less than 6 passengers, two more than our number of four. Thus we spent over an hour driving in circles around the small down town cat calling at other tourists in attempt to get them aboard our taxi, first in one tuk tuk, then, after becoming angry and impatient with our driver, switching to another and continuing the same activity. This approach, of course, did not work. No one wants to be catcalled into a tuk tuk. At the end of our patience we demanded the driver leave for the waterfall immediately, and dumb luck had it that at this moment we picked up two extra tourists. At last, we set off for the waterfall.
Once reaching the site and dutifully paying for the 20,000 kip ticket that no one checks, we quickly realized that all the trials were well worth the end result. This place looked like it had sprung to life off the pages of a story book. The dense jungle was lush green and verdant as ever with winding earthen pathways of a moist deep brown and woven over and between small pristinely clear brooks. The light filtered through the narrow gaps in the voliage and flitted like glittering insects across the plants and pathways of the forest floor. We walked in silence along these pathways, stopping now and then to let the panorama of sounds fill our ears: the shimmering hum of jungle insects, the quiet burbling song of the stream, and the twitter and caw of jungle birds. Soon we came upon the first of a series of swimming pools created by the river which flows from below the waterfall. The pools are absolutely striking in their beauty as the water is the color of misty turquoise, set over a backdrop of striking green jungle. The water is cool, refreshing and absolutely perfect for swimming. At the main lower pool there is a rope for all the monkeys (read: humans) to swing from and go flying, in every incarnation of silly mid-air flail and dance, into the water below. You can also swim up to the cascading lower falls and sit beneath them (on the most perfectly placed and smoothed underwater boulders) for a relaxing water massage. The water below these short falls is deep an you can even walk above these falls to jump from the top into the frothing churning waters below. In short, this swimming spot is another of nature's perfectly sculpted playgrounds.
And this is just the first swimming hole. Up the river there are more story book pages unfolding before your eyes, more misty blue water over flowing gently from one misty blue pool into another, more damp, dense jungle opening its arms just wide enough to let this shimmering river flow through. The water itself feels so nice against your skin; its concentrated minerals feel nourishing somehow. Little fish hover around the rocks in the water and will clean your skin for you, whether you want them to or not. They especially love to clean your wounds, which leaves one feeling worried yet thankful, thinking perhaps it is a good thing for the skin after all.
Continuing up the path, we came upon the big mama, the mother Waterfall of this whole water wonderland we have discovered.She is a powerful cascade, creating a steady breeze in her waters wake. The mist at her base is cool and as soft as an iced kiss. I'm simply speechless, grinning like the moon and pinned, unable to move. When at last I prize myself from her gaze, I explore some acrobatic possibilities offered by the bridge stretching to the opposite shore. From there, I climbed the steep, wet and dense earthen path, winding over tree roots, under low jungle canopy, up steps dug into the earth, up and up and up even farther, to the origin of this majestic fall. The water at the brink of the fall was quiet and still, in sharp contrast to the rush and roar of her daughter below. This incarnation of the river was peaceful, haunting, and beautiful; a clear water lagoon twinkling in the filtered light. The eye of the forest nymph twinkled back. Well above the brink of the fall, the waters were smooth and slow, quite safe for swimming and yet still someohow dark and uninviting in the low canopy. But a tree there called to me so I sprung into the emerald water and whisked myself up the tree's easily sloping trunk, firm and strong as an elephant's. Hanging like an enlightened monkey from the branches of this tree, a familiar idea flowers in me: acrobatics in the natural element. My body the tool to dance in all dimensions across her contours.
All in due course.
At one point in the day I managed to capture a video of me hula hooping in front of some of the pristine overflowing pools of the lower falls. I couldn't imagine a more idyllic backdrop for a hoop video. A place like this makes you sit for a moment in complete and utter wonder that the random forces of nature, the minerals, the algaes, and everything in between, were at work over all these centuries, creating experiential artwork for the sake of it.
Take a look for yourself in the photos below and tell me what this place inspires in you.
Lessons in Lau Land
I arrived yesterday to the Lau village for the Sunshine Network massage course and am still getting accustomed to the life here. The village feels like worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai. Even sleepy Pai feels like a booming metropolis compared to this village. The village rests on a hill and the pathways that wind through its simple huts and small wooden buildings are mostly raw red earth and mud. There is one road that runs through the village but every other pathway is earthen with perhaps some cement steps here and there. Over these paths and under every building, the village animals roam free. Pigs of all sizes, multitudes of chickens, dogs, and children all scurry this way and that through the scattered huts. The huts are all bamboo with thatch or corrugated aluminum sheeting for roofs. The villagers, who appear more Burmese than Thai and who speak a language that is nothing like Thai, wear simple clothes often decorated with bright fluorescent patterns. They regard us with a mix of distrust, curiosity and kindness. I certainly don’t feel like I am in Thailand anymore.
Each morning I wake up at 5:30 and prepare to head out to meditation and yoga. The sunlight is just starting to peak above the hilltops and illuminate the swirling pre-dawn clouds in misty blue light. Walking through the village up to the platform where the meditation and yoga takes place, I come across mama chickens with their baby chicks scurrying around their feet. I come across little piglets with their tiny tails wagging back and forth. I come across dogs and ducks and sometimes a large adult pig comes lumbering into my path and shares my walk with me for a short while. The animals have been up for some time now (the first roosters begin to crow at around 3:30) but with the heavy determination of a tired body I’ve managed to fall back asleep until my alarm wakes me up. Every now and then though, a rooster manages to meander his way into my dreams and no amount of tut-tutting him or putting him out a window in my dream world stops his intrusion into my happy sleep.
The platform is a beautiful wooden structure that looks out onto an expansive view of the surrounding hillsides. As we sit for meditation, the early morning sun light just pierces through the clouds and radiates from behind the hillsides opposite the platform. My meditation practice is still, thus far, quite fruitless but I sit just the same and attempt, with all my will, to stay still, not swat at the mosquitoes, and focus on my breathing. We have been instructed, in the Vipanassa manner, to simply sit and breathe, and, when they occur, to just watch our thoughts and how they wander. So this is what I do. I watch as I think about hula hooping, potential career pathways, home. I watch as my legs go to sleep, dense and heavy and burning like I’ve just shoved them in a red-anthill. I watch my frustration that I can’t meditate worth a damn and my posture keeps slinking down into a mush of lazy bones and weak muscle tissue. I watch my determination to sit there anyways, straighten my back for the umpteenth time, quell my judgmental mind, and breathe. Just breathe. It is so simple, you think it would be easier, but 30 minutes of meditation stretch for seemingly endless hours.
Yoga has been wonderfully challenging and always leaves me feeling thoroughly wrung out and desperately hungry for breakfast. I keep wishing it would be possible to somehow record each sequence our teacher, Helen, employs because they are perfectly suited to my level; just challenging enough to make it interesting and fun but not so hard that I cannot complete them. Helen, a previous student of the course, has a wonderfully playful method of teaching and often employs partner stretching and even group supported stretching, which I just love. It really spices up the normal yoga routine. I fear that I when I begin practicing again on my own I will be dreadfully bored by my solo, rudimentary practice. For now I am just soaking up the yoga knowledge she is bestowing upon us and loving every breath of it.
The massage course itself, the reason for which I’ve come to this foreign Lau land within the Thailand Kingdom, is absolutely fantastic. Before we begin each day’s instruction we sit and chant a Sanskrit prayer of world healing, sit in meditative silent for 5-10 minutes, and then chant another prayer of protection. The opening prayer is simple and short and is repeated over and over, gaining in volume gradually until we are singing with full heart and gusto. Then, just as gradually, the singing reduces in volume to a whisper, then a hum, then silence. This silence falls around us like a vibrating curtain, humming with energy, glittering with the golden light of our intention. Throughout the course of week and a half we learned two opening prayers for healing, both of which sound hauntingly beautiful when we harmonize together and sing them with heartfelt spirit.
The sequences of techniques we are taught feels more like a dance than a massage. They flow together so much better than the ones previously taught to me at the first Thai Massage school I attended in Chiang Mai. In addition, we are learning far more active stretches and whole body manipulations, which is what I hoped to learn in coming to Thailand to study massage. We are instructed to take a few minutes to center ourselves and focus our intention before beginning each massage session. Thus before beginning each segment of our practice, we all sit in silence again, close our eyes and rest our minds.
The last most fortunate detail about my time here in the village, the kiss on the top of it all, is that I am here, sharing this unique experience with a crowd of the nicest, most fun and genial people I could have ever asked for. We are from all corners of the globe: Australia, Italy, Germany, Austria, Ukraine, England, France, Canada, USA, Spain, Switzerland, and Israel, and yet we set aside all our different identities and languages and come together each day to learn, to drop in and give each other healing touch. We spend our breaks eating and chatting on the meal platform, going for walks through the village and in the surrounding hills, or taking coffee or tea at one of the two family compounds where they serve coffee or tea. Life is simple and the rhythm of our days is easy and relaxing.
One night Natalia, the lovely and unusual Ukrainian woman, decides we are to throw a surprise birthday party for Sumi, the equally lovely and good humored (and quite pretty) Australian woman of Indian descent. So we spread the word for everyone to meet at this particular platform at this particular time, when Sandra, a wonderful Austrian woman and talented masseuse in the course, will be keeping Sumi occupied down at the meditation platform. In the mean time, Natalia, Adrian, a very funny and amiable Austrialian man and my best friend in the course, Adrian’s friend Mint and I race off to the neighboring village find fruit and other tasty treats to compile a birthday “cake” of sorts for Sumi. In the end we compile 7 different kinds of fruits into a wonderful flower mandala of a fruit platter, stick a candle in the middle and call it cake. Natalia had also bought balloons which we blew up and used to decorate the platform. We sit in the darkness of the platform for some time waiting for Sumi and Sandra but at last they climb the stairs and our happy birthday song just about gave poor Sumi the shock of her life! We then happily dug our hands into the beautiful fruit platter and ate it up like hungry baboons. Natalia’s present for Sumi was a presentation of some of her fabulous phography (Natalia is a photographer by trade and has taken some really breathtaking photos on her world travels), I gave Sumi a hula hoop dance, and Chris, another man on the course gave Sumi (with some severe encouragement and rib jabbing by Natalia) a song played on his ukulele. We danced some, dodged the bugs swarming around the one light fixture on the platform, played a few games and then, in time, sleepily bid Sumi and the rest good night. Getting to bed past nine is getting to bed quite late when you are waking up at 5:30 so we all took an early night’s leave and went to sleep before long.
Sure there are some small inconveniences and discomforts about living in the village. The toilets are all squat toilets which despite many adjustments and trials, are still just as difficult to use as ever. It rained for a good part of the course and as many of the paths are earthen, and thus veritable mudslides in the rain, this meant that getting anywhere was a treacherous task indeed. This was especially true considering that the footwear of choice in the village are flip flops, as you are so often slipping your shoes on and off when entering and exiting the huts. The rain also has an unfortunate way of raising all the smells of scattered dung and filth from beneath the houses and along the paths and alleys between the huts. That said, the rain was beautiful, as jungle rain tends to be.
The food was also nothing to sneeze at. Sticky rice and pumpkin, plus some excellent fruit, for breakfast, everyday, sticky rice and over cooked veggies for lunch, everyday, and more sticky rice and over cooked veggies for dinner, yes, everyday. You really start day dreaming about sausage and cheese in times like these. Or pancakes, or noodles, or anything different. 12 days of the same food every day can be rather testing. But again, these were minor discomforts in the scheme of the entire experience.
By the end of my time there I felt I could confidently give a 2 hour flowing Thai Massage. I knew it was possible, if quite uncomfortable, for me to sit still for a whole half hour in attempted meditation. I felt stronger and more fluid in my yoga practice. And most wonderfully, I felt like I had connected with some really beautiful people who I hope to meet again on this crazy beautiful journey called life.
A fiery fairy who has set off to explore Asia and discover new things about the world and herself. The journey is one to fully realize her strength and an unwaivering faith in her personal power.