Laos: In His Golden Ambit
By Willow King
Traveling with a child is like having the common cold. Everyone offers advice. “Bring a stroller,” and alternatively, “Whatever you do, don’t use a stroller.” Everyone has a tip, even if they have not been to the place you will be traveling, even if they don’t have kids themselves.
Laos, like most Southeast Asian countries, still holds a strong association of war for many Americans. It is not exactly a typical holiday to take with a two year old in tow; but after living in Vietnam for several months, we were looking forward to further explorations and had met many people who had traveled in the region and raved about it.
I packed with enthusiasm. I made a checklist: sunglasses, camera, proper clothing for entering temples, and then of course diapers (you never know when you will find them again!), sunscreen, snacks for the plane, snacks for the train, snacks for the bus. The backpack was getting bigger—good walking shoes, sippy cup, and oh heck, why not, the stroller.
We arrived in the capital of Vientiane on the evening of the water festival, a raucous Laotian holiday, which involves boat races, drinking beer and lots of firecrackers. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to see the races and just in time to get caught in the traffic leaving the river; so the old Russian Lada that served as our taxi took an extra long time to get across the city (snacks for the taxi!)
We had selected a hotel that sounded nice, but not overly nice; and it had a pool, which was important to my weary son, Luc, who was looking forward to a swim after a day in transit.
Le Parasol Blanc, it turned out, had seen better days. The pool was murky from leaves and flowers that had fallen in from the jungle that surrounded the squat little strip of rooms. The taxi had already pulled away, so we unloaded our bags and tried to be optimistic.
Luc swam in the dank pool, naked; as there was nobody around to tell us not to. From his grin you would have thought we were staying at the Ritz. There was a little restaurant where we ordered some basic fare, and then we retired to room 3F to peruse the guidebook and decide what to do next. Luc fell asleep soon after dinner and my husband and I marveled at: A) at the fact that we could also fall asleep, even though it was only 7 PM, and B) at how traveling had changed since having a child.
In the days before Luc we would have ventured out into the night, found a corner to sit in, drink some of the local brew, and maybe even thrown a few firecrackers. Now I found myself avoiding big, drunken crowds (they are unpredictable and will wake up the baby). We consoled each other with a favorite Asian maxim, “same, same but different” and curled up to sleep. There was no mosquito net.
Somewhere around 3 AM, I found myself awake, fanning my hands over my child’s sleeping body to discourage the mosquitoes from landing on him. I was making a catalogue of all the blood-borne tropical diseases I had read about. I was starting to think maybe this trip was a mistake.
Morning brought renewed enthusiasm; and after a strong cup of coffee, we were ready to see Laos by day. We had hired a driver who was to take us North, first to Vang Veing and then to Luang Prabang, of which our copy of the Lonely Planet said, "the city’s mix of gleaming temple roofs, crumbling French provincial architecture and multiethnic inhabitants tends to enthrall even the most jaded travelers.” Not that we were jaded. We were just in a new paradigm. My husband would look longingly at the nomads zinging by on rented motorcycles, wind in their hair. I looked fondly (enviously) upon the women reading for hours in sidewalk cafes, glancing up occasionally with dark sunglasses on.
Luc was not into sitting for hours at cafes. He wanted to keep moving, climb on things, examine the mud puddles, chase chickens and pet the local dogs.
The drive up the country’s one working highway was arduously long, but it was also beautiful. The countryside was so green. Life in the villages seemed to carry on as it had for hundred of years, with the women weaving baskets from bamboo, men tending the fields, children running around barefoot, and elephants hanging out on the edges of the forest. Luc gleefully pointed out the window chanting “Efalent, efalent!”
Luang Prabang, is indeed an enchanted place. We were also settling into the traveling groove and starting to feel the benefits of traveling together as a family. For one, we were awake before the crowd of tourists who stayed up late drinking cheap cocktails and falling in and out of love at the hostels. We saw pristine waterfalls at dawn and could imagine ourselves bathing in the prehistoric and pure water without the constant company of camera flashes. Luc was an instant celebrity wherever we went. Everyone from old women to teenage boys came up to pinch his cheeks and offer him sweets and fruit. Through him we were able to connect with people who would otherwise never have given us the time of day. We received the benefits of being in his golden ambit. Men offered their seats on the bus; other children shared their toys (sticks, plastic spoons, masticated sugar cane). There was a newfound sweetness to traveling with our boy; we were part of the universal equation of family—something that transcends the vast gaps of language and culture.
We cruised the streets pushing our little red stroller, which had accompanied us halfway across the globe, although it was usually Luc pushing his doll in it rather than sitting in it himself. Yes, it was nice to have an extra diaper or two in our backpack, but the truth was, we really didn’t need anything extra. There was no secret to traveling with a child. The basic needs of food and shelter were all provided, and the rest is merely a matter of convenience or preference.
We explored caves, took a boat down the Mekong river, watched the Hmong women weave their extraordinary tapestries at the night markets. We drank tamarind juice, ate river algae and toasted locust. Luc’s eyes would grow big at the sight of the long boats pushing out into the river or the bright colors of the women’s yarn. The gift of traveling with him was in the way he greeted each experience with openness and grace. The way he noticed small details that I would not have noticed without him; like a few pieces of rice left on the sidewalk after morning alms. He looked at it and said quietly “monk food.”
Things have changed, that is true. My husband and I still pine sometimes for the carefree travel that collaged our youth, but it is wonderful to travel with Luc and well worth the extra weight in the backpack, the extra box of crackers.
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