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Monday, January 17, 2011

Weightless Bokeo

Gravity let go of me.

Soaring above the jungle, the world around me is silent except for the constant zzzzzzzz of metal scraping against metal.

It’s a sound of liberation.

For 30 seconds, I am weightless.

For 30 seconds, I defy nature and fly.

It ends too quickly.

From the safety of the tree-top platform, I look out over the Bokeo Nature Reserve. The canopy is solid. Branches sway from side to side as wildlife commute through the dense jungle. From far off, I can hear the cry of a bird. I keep my eyes peeled for a Gibbon, a primate on the brink of extinction. China has logged much of Laos but the Bokeo Nature Reserve is protected land where large cats, elephants, monkeys, birds and other creatures can roam safely.

The torrent of sweet, warm air rushing past my face as I swing from tree to tree dries the sweat from off my face. Laos is miserably hot and it's not even the dry season yet. I try to imagine the jungle parched but cannot fathom it; everything is moist and vibrantly green due to the swelling rivers, teaming lakes, and short but powerful rain storms.

There is something special about this hole-in-the-wall country. Surrounded by China to the north, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, and Thailand to the west, one expects little in the way of backpacking hot spots but there in Laos lies the appeal. South East Asia has been open for backpackers for thirty years. It's absurd to see someone riding an elephant in Chiang Mai, Thailand holding a Starbucks coffee. The world is shrinking but Laos remains Laos.


Mountains shred the landscapes, rivers snake through villages, and oxen roam the busiest roads. Something in the water causes my pulse to slow and my blood pressure to drop. Perhaps it's because I can't compare my life with the one before my eyes; locals grow their own food, build their homes from local materials, and spend their day working a trade: cooking, building, creating. They move slowly as though they have nowhere important to be.

In mountain villages, backpackers go to local homes for meals. There are no menus nor signs indicating a business. That's because it's not a business for these people. It's a lifestyle. One family cooks and others come. It's an expectation. People matter. They are the only things that matter.

Sean and I sit on the ground with our two European friends Emily and Dave. Plates of rice, chicken, and vegetables are spread out around us. Cups of tangy tea are drained and then refilled by our gracious host, an elderly Loatain woman who sits with us. We cannot communicate verbally with one another. Four languages are spoken around this table but we don't need to speak to understand one another.

We sit in silent contentment and compainship. The jungle is a cocophony of sounds, and our evening soundtrack rings in twilight; above all, the river roars nearby. Occasional snippits of creaking branches sound like an uneven drum beat. The tempo is moderated by the ever present cry of birds. It's a beautiful melody.

If I could choose one place to stay, it would be Laos. The beauty of the land and people and lifestyle are simply intoxicating. It's Laotains' simple lives. It’s their clear values: people matter. Not money. Not stuff. Not time. And above all, it's the experience of being in a country that has not quite managed to join the modern world.

Over a quiet cup of tea in comfortable company, it’s easy to feel deeply rooted satisfaction.

I could stay here forever.

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