Laos: All My Souls
By:Michèle Gerber Klein
My French colonial house on the Aman resort is all elegance with long French windows and hand woven fabrics of silk, cotton and gold. In the back garden my private swimming pool is filled with vermillion rose petals and water that's Ah! The temperature of my skin. Laos, at the confluence of the Nam Kahn and Mekong rivers is an unspoiled landscape of cloud-topped mountains rooted in the river's rice and vegetable patties and a plethora of kind elephants half wild half tame. I've never been bare back on an elephant particularly in the middle of the Kahn River so I'm feeling very brave on Maya, my elephant before we emerge into the teak forest where she decides to randomly up root saplings and I realize I have absolutely no control.
That evening we dine at L'Eléphant a stylish French bistro featuring escargots wrapped in lotus leaves, and where else? -coq au vent. An exquisitely maintained 1970 white Lincoln Continental -the gift from the United States government to Savang Vatthana the last king of the country is parked by the front door. The next morning it's Yoga and a visit to the living temples that have made Luan Phrabang a World Heritage Site. Buddha sculptures of wild variety, solid gold; wood; silver plate, reclining or snuggled on the lap of a giant seven headed snake that protects them from imaginary rain drops sit amid their offerings beneath hand carved pointed roofs that end in curls. Anyone can become a monk as long as he wishes, his life, food and education are free. Spirituality is a core of this country, which has not changed many of its ways since 580 BC Buddha's last reincarnation.
A sail down the spectacular Mekong in a carved teak barge reveals minuscule towns edging the water where farming; fishing, and fowl: hens, roosters and peacocks coexist with naked brown babies playing in the dirt amidst wooden houses on stilts as the adults work at the specialty of the town. In one it was rice cakes, in the next hand weaving with silk, cotton and gold. (A scarf is $5.) The last town was the richest with a television disk for every house – but that was because it made rice whiskey.
The last day is my favorite ceremony: Baci -for the thirty-nine organs in my body. Each one is believed to have its own soul. I sit on the floor surrounded by four Elders who begin chanting for my souls to return to my organs. I will be whole. Two strings are tied to each of my wrists and must remain for exactly three days. I am very happy because now, since my visit to Laos, I have all my souls. •