I returned home tonight after a two week absence, a business trip in Laos. Hanoi is still hot an humid. I thought it would be much cooler by now. I’ve been hearing that October and November are great months here.
After two weeks of hearing a horn just twice, my ears were immediately assaulted with the incessant honking of trucks, cars and motorbikes, of “Hey, I’m on your right” type beeps and “Move over asshole!” sounding full horns.
While my apartment was super stuffy, I could see that Hien had stopped by earlier in the day to spruce up my apartment for me. I’ve got 3 vases full of roses, nicely placed about my apartment. All my laundry has been done and my bedding looks fit for a hotel advertisement. Hien is one of the angels in my life. She takes good care of me (even if she does ruin my laundry from time to time!)
Laos is an incredibly peaceful place. Even though I couldn’t work as efficiently as I would have liked (the internet connection th…ere…is…s…o…..sl….ow!!!) I did accomplish what I needed and managed to have some fun in the meantime. I ate too much, got plenty of good, sound sleep, and squeezed in just a few moments of shopping.
You can find some photos of Laos HERE !!!
The eyes of this Buddha used to have precious stones in them. Inside the crown of the Buddha lay valuable stones and jewelry. But when the Siamese invaded Laos in the late 1700’s, the Siamese knew from their own Buddhist culture that the Buddha statues would contain such gems and so cut off the tops of the heads of the Buddhas and scratched the stones out of their eyes.
This is all told to my by my guide, and so I’ve only searched the net a bit to find other bits of history to verify. If anyone knows of a good website on Lao history, please leave a comment. I’d like to learn more.
For those of you who followed my life in Japan, you’ll remember that I am an absolute sucker for festivals. I LOVE them! It’s one of the more interesting aspects of foreign cultures. Sure, we Americans have our parades and block parties, we throw a few fireworks in the air for 20 minutes for America’s birthday. But we fail to celebrate rice harvests, the return of the spirits of ancestors, the full moon or even the seasons. This is where numerous foreign countries have us beat by miles.
I was lucky to catch just a bit of one of the best festivals in Laos – in Luang Prabang. It’s called the Bun Ook Pansaa Festival and it celebrates a the end of a 3-month Buddhist ritual where the devout are not to kill any animals, have sex, eat meat, nor eat after 12:00p.m. The highlight of the festivities are the handmade, natural-product boats, paraded down to the river, and any incense and candles on board are lit before being se afloat down the Mekong River. Similarly, little bamboo and flower boats are abundantly available and anyone who wants can buy one of these, light the candle and incense and make a wish before setting their own boat afloat.
Hand-held fireworks are everywhere! That was really fun! They have these long sticks which set off about 60 pellets and once in the air, explode into a mini starburst. We also had a few big fireworks which you put on the ground and which shoot fire in the air. So WAY cool! These would be totally illegal in the U.S., which makes it all the more fun for me!
It was so awesome to spend part of the evening riverside, watching all these people send their wishes and hopes into the river, shooting off fireworks and having a great time. I particularly enjoyed walking past store fronts, where a group of friends had gathered, blared some traditional music and were just dancing in the streets. The spontaneity of that was delightful. I’m sure there would be some ordinance that would be violated, had we tried to do that in our streets in the U.S.
And that’s exactly why I love these kinds of festivals. Laos is a communist country, but the people are so free in their everyday life and certainly allowed to express themselves and have fun when it comes time to celebrate. And I love being a part of that.
I am already planning to be in Luang Prabang next year for the same festival, as I couldn’t see all of it due to out hotel’s anniversary party. (It wasn’t me who planned them on the same night!) Next year I’ll take some better photos and even some video and really capture the spirit of the festival. It was just sooo sooo much fun!!!
I’ve mentioned before our property in the Lao jungle, just outside the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang. Kamu Lodge is a super special place and I am particularly proud that my company’s portfolio includes this unique “hotel”.
Kamu works in cooperation with the local Kamu Village and in two of my three visits, I’ve made a visit to the village to say hello to the locals. If Luang Prabang is a throw back in time, then Kamu has the ability to strip away all layers of modernization. For the most part, the typical house is made of bamboo. Most all things are accomplished by hand and manual labor and the villagers are unspoiled by greed, and the need to keep up with the Joneses.
Some aspects of Western Culture have crept into their life. Once man had enough money to buy a generator, and so he powers his, and the only television in the village. He sells tickets to the others which in the end allows each family a once-per-month evening of viewing. I have no idea how many channels the TV gets or what’s on. For all I know, it could be Thai dramas which are shown. That would kind of suck, because the Kamu language is more a mixture of Lao and Chinese, not Lao and Thai.
The foundations and roofs of some homes have been exchanged for cement and metal. The group of environmentalists visiting the same day as me did not like this change. They think it destroys the look of the village. While I agree, we cannot prevent the Kamu people from making progress, and if the metal roof provides better protection, is sturdier and doesn’t need to be replaced as often as bamboo-straw sections, then who are we to object?
It’s tough, I must say, to spend any length of time and not want to just give give give. I had an idea to bring clothes and school supplies with me the next time, but actually, doing this outright is not a good solution. It breaks my hear to see small kids in dirty, tattered clothing. But if I just give them a bag, and every foreigner who visits gives them something, then we are guilty of creating a dependency and are likely to perpetuate begging, something this group of people do not do.
My friend Anton knows a hell of a lot more than I do about sustainable tourism and how we as tourists and a hospitality company can better cooperate with the locals, allowing them to be prosperous, but without changing the essence of their culture and without creating a dependency on foreigners. We are also focused on being an environmentally friendly/conscious property, which is a whole other can of worms. It’s something I’d like to learn more about, as I believe our Kamu Lodge is a great little space on the planet for the opportunity it gives us to reconnect with a more simple life, and soak up lots of glorious nature.
I think you’ve all enjoyed my stories of the people I have met while traveling. Even though I am in Laos for work, I am still granted the pleasure of meeting great people. Nev and Maggie fall in the category of terrific.
This easy-going Australian couple are exactly the reason anyone would want to book a trip to Australia. They are kind, well traveled, easy to talk to and just genuine, great and amazing people.
They booked our Kamu Lodge on a whim, and I am so happy that I had the chance to share the weekend with them. Maggie and I bonded quite a bit as she spent many years as a business woman in Asia and can completely empathize with my choice in lifestyle and struggles in finding a partner/wanting to have kids and the whole bit.
Nev and Maggie have had several jobs and run several businesses, including a life-improvement seminar which sounds like it could put anyone on the right track. They are magnetic, dynamic and so open and giving. They are the kind of people you hope to meet on vacation, as you know that at some point they will arrive on your doorstep and you are always welcome on theirs.
To give you one more insight into Nev and Maggie’s personalities, we were discussing the Kamu village and Neve said something to the tune of, “I feel it was my privilege to spend the afternoon with them.” So very gracious.
These two folks made my trip to Laos shine even brighter and I am happy to introduce you!
And here is another thing we would never do in our culture. Give a 3 day resignation notice by e-mail. This forwarded email landed in my inbox and I honestly could not stop laughing, as I have never seen anything like this and would never imagine handling things this way…
Dear Mrs. D,
Excuse me that I have late news for you.
I am sorry that I can not tell you before. I need to resign from my work or check out from your company.
I have a very good opportunity from a big company in Luangprabang.
Thank you very much for the 3 years experience and I am very happy in working with everybody.
And that was just it. Can you imagine?
OK. So here is something which doesn’t happen in the U.S. – like EVER. For our team in Laos, we’ve been looking to hire a Sales & Marketing Manager because I’m not able to do all the work in Hanoi and it’s important to have someone who connects with all the travel agents there and manages the reservation staff. We first started with a Vietnamese guy who used to work for one of our properties a few years ago. But there was concern that he would not be able to deal well with the Lao people and that ultimately, he would not succeed.
Our second option was a Philippino gal, but again, the Lao owners thought that a Lao person would be best. Finally they came up with a candidate who has had some really spot-on experience and who will be able to pick up the job nicely and easily. She finished her contract at the end of July and was planning to take two months off, one reason being to attend a human resources training course. Her start date would be October 1st. A month later than we want and need, but nonetheless we found a candidate everyone agrees on. So yaaay.
I prepared all the paperwork with her offer, we all agreed on the salary and the morning I sent her the paperwork to sign I got this e-mail message (totally a surprise and out of left field):
Thank you Shanna.
Just want to let you know that today I am be coming a nan. I will stay in Temple for two week, I will be able to access to internet very limite.
Forget the misspelling and any thought this has to do with Indian food… becoming a nun was the last thing I expected her to say. And I certainly thought she would sign her papers before she would be unavailable for two weeks! I had to clarify with the Lao owners if this was something normal, acceptable…what this was really. The answer was that it is more of a cleansing ritual, washes away all the negatives, helps you gain a clear mind and a cleansed soul so that you can move forward in your life in a positive way.
While that all sounds very nice and zen, I was still left shaking my head. These are the kinds of cultural lessons no one prepares you for. They just pop up and you have to learn how to deal with them. Me personally, I would never prioritize my life in this way, and therefore did not appreciate being left hanging. But everyone else around me seemed ok with it, enough so that it made me feel like I was overreacting. So, I took a deep breath, talked to Buddha and told him that this gal had better sign our papers once she gets out of the temple. I am still waiting for the official signature, but have at least received an e-mail from her which tells me she’s back online this Monday.
Oh the joys of working in a foreign country. Never a dull moment!