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Reaching Across the Mekong

They emerged from the jungle like a vision from Brigadoon painted by Gauguin: two youthful women in colorful sarongs, barefoot and bearing mounds of roots and leafy herbs in baskets balanced across their shoulders at each end of sturdy poles. Despite the mud and driving monsoon they were as graceful and serene as we farangs (westerners) were rumpled and discomfited.

Seeking to explore a remote mountain temple just off Luang Prabang (LP) in north central Laos, my friend and I had hailed a wooden long-tail boat to taxi us across the silt-infused Mekong River. Years after serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, I wanted to introduce my friend to various cultures along the river, including sites and villages in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Southeast Asia is “home” territory for me; I still speak Thai and Lao derives from the same Sino-Tibetan family of languages.

Arriving on the Ban Xieng Mene side of the river, across from LP, we scrambled up the slippery jungle mountain path leading to an 18th century temple we had read about. Soon, what began as a soft drizzle rather quickly morphed into a tropical downpour. Well aware that it was rainy season in Laos, I was not at all surprised when, despite the heat and blinding sun of the early morning, we were now subjected to a merciless dousing. There’s really no way to prepare for getting caught in such rain, other than bearing in mind that the sun will soon emerge again to dry your clothes and restore your dampened spirit.

Brushing aside dense foliage along the narrow dirt path leading to the top of the mountain, we at last spotted the temple, standing solemn and solitary in weathered grandeur. We dashed across the clearing to the entrance, where, crestfallen, we discovered that the temple was sealed tight against—no doubt—the transgressions of probing tourists drawn more to the structure’s historic artistry than to any spiritual manifestation.

By then, in congruence with the young women from the jungle, what we were seeking beneath the teakwood eaves of the ancient temple was temporary refuge from the driving rain. Though my knowledge of the Lao language was minimal, my Thai was proficient, so I greeted the women in a forthright but appropriate and friendly manner. Probably because we were female, they smiled and approached, resting their baskets beside us on the semi-dry turf beneath the eaves. I deeply inhaled the pungent coriander and fragrant lemongrass, imagining the delicious dishes the fresh herbs would soon grace.

One of the women responded in Thai to my inquiries, reporting that she was a university student helping her family while on school break by gathering herbs in the jungle for her father to sell at a market in LP. She identified the other woman as a friend who regularly sold vegetables to vendors in the local markets across the river.

Noticing the rainwater intermittently dripping upon our heads from openings in the decaying teak woodwork of the temple eaves, the student stepped away from the clearing and ducked back into the jungle. She returned momentarily with huge banana leaf fronds from which the two young women fashioned makeshift hats for the two of us. We all giggled in the borderless natural camaraderie that arises when humans huddle as one to seek shelter. Shivering in our drenched garments, we leaned in close, sharing our snacks and talking about our families and aspirations. I was intent on learning more Lao and the student reported that she was eager to study English and hoped to travel abroad in the future.

When the rain let up, the four of us ventured from the temple back toward the path leading to the boat landing on the river’s edge below. Halfway down the mountain, out of curiosity and to alleviate her burden, I asked the student if I could carry her wares. She consulted her friend and they attempted to shift one of the basket-laden poles unto my right shoulder. The compact cylinder of rough-hewn wood dug into my shoulder in an excruciating way, and I almost fell to the ground from the weight of the cargo. Quickly, the student shifted the pole back onto her own shoulder, while good-naturedly dismissing my apologies for my incompetence and physical frailty. She assured me that her dexterity had been honed since early childhood.

Toward the boat landing, the young women directed us to a long-tail boat passenger pick up area, and we took our farewells as they proceeded toward the spot where several other gatherers waited with their wares for transport to the markets on the Luang Prabang side of the Mekong River.

The next afternoon I wandered around one of LP’s fruit and vegetable markets, testing and tasting the spectacular assortment of produce, familiar to me but peculiar to most Americans. Several stalls over I spotted the student we had befriended, accompanied by an older man, ostensibly her father. He was dressed in traditional Lao peasant garb and was maneuvering, in wheelbarrow fashion, a large wooden flatbed cart containing produce. I rushed over, smiling and eager to renew our acquaintance. I greeted the student in Lao, and then addressed her in Thai, but she shook her head and looked past me, proclaiming in Lao that she did not recognize me or understand my words or meaning. Mystified and hurt, but wanting to respect her boundaries, I bowed, quickly apologized and moved away. Likely, the young student in the market was not rejecting me but was protecting her relationship with her father. I truly understood, but hoped that the previous day’s authentic encounter at the jungle temple had left a few strands of mutual regard between us. Perhaps, in the future, her children and mine will be able to publicly acknowledge such bonds.


Karen Beatty was reared in Eastern Kentucky on the Licking River, served as a Peace Corps Thailand Volunteer, and finally settled in New York City between the Hudson and East Rivers. Her essays and stories have appeared in Eureka Literary Magazine, Snowy Egret, Mud Season Review, and other publications.

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