The White Temple in Chang Rai is achingly beautiful and pictures do not do it justice. Millions of glittering glass pieces embedded in pure white plaster and stunning mythical carvings create an illusion of an enchanted, frozen castle. I felt like I had slipped through a portal into the kingdom of an ice queen. Created by famous Thai graphic designer, Chalermchai Kositpipat, the white symbolizes the purity of the Buddha and the glass symbolizes the truth and wisdom of his teachings.
I left Thailand and took the slow boat to Laos; a two-day lazy chug down the Mekong River on a longboat to Luang Prabang.
Laos has only been open to the outside world since the 1990’s and has been ruled by the same communist regime since 1975. Landlocked, the Mekong River is the life blood of the country and small jungle villages dot the winding shore. People wave a red flag signalling that they want to be picked up. If the longboat can get to shore, it stops; if not, the villagers board mid-river from a fishing skiff. It’s hard not to use cliches when describing the scenery. It was as spectacular as you can imagine; rugged cliffs, jungle mountains, herds of wild water buffalo, and small thatched tribal villages. I soaked up every minute.
A group of western kids were drinking non-stop at the back of the boat. The party culture here, that so many kids engage in, terrifies me. I eavesdropped on a conversation about a kid who flatlined for 56 seconds in an ambulance after taking acid, opium and meth, but according to the the kid talking, the drugs were fine; it was the energy drinks that rendered the other kid unconscious. And he was laughing about it! We all have our issues, but excessive drinking and drugs frightens me on so many levels (not the least of which is death). Especially in a foreign county where it’s essential to keep the survival instincts sharp. For me, that means constant awareness of where I am, of the people around me, of their customs, and of my personal belongings. Having said that, most of the young people I have met so far are completely awesome and the generation gap is not noticeable – until it is.
I was happy to meet Marianne, possibly the only other lone female backpacker of my generation in south east Asia. Marianne is a Finnish woman, who is travelling in more style than I am, but we both live a little off the beaten track, are in bed by nine, suffer temporary muscle mutiny after waking, don’t use apps, need glasses to read our 100 lb. guide books, and forget what we’ve read five minutes later. Funny story – at the Lao immigration office I filled in my visa form without my glasses and it turned out that everything was in the wrong place. The officer wasn’t the happiest corpse in the morgue and wasn’t amused. Thoughts of my wonky form and his grim response entertained me for hours (clearly, I’ve been alone a long time).
The Lao currency is the kip and my first Lao meal was som puk, a dish of steamed rice topped with fermented garlic, chilies, lime, and morning glory leaves. It was fiery and fragrant with a healthy dose of sour, but delicious.