Two Sides of the Coin

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Check out of hostel and cruise the streets before having to return my bike rental. Riding truly gives me pleasure, allowing for the exploration of the nooks and crannies of each destination, a way to cover more ground it seems than simply walking. I am eager to learn to ride a motorbike, the more popular mode of travel in these amazingly awesome Asian countries, but traditional bikes are certainly better for my carbon footprint. We love Mama Earth!

It is a bit chillier today than then previous days, a cool 70 degrees Fahrenheit instead of the normal 80 degrees plus. I embrace the freshness of the air by the riverfront and my last moments in Vientiane before heading to the minibus in route to Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is known for raucous drunk tubing down the river, illegal mushroom and opium consumption, a prime example of how tourism turns scenic places to shit. The New Zealand Herald states, “If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng”; it is a stop on the so called “Banana Pancake Trail,” the route via South East Asia followed by backpacking Western youths on gap year, post Israeli army, etc. who travel in crude hoards and seek the comforts of home such as pancakes. There is gossip that someone dies every month while binge drinking/tubing down the river.

Nevertheless in the midst of juvenile anarchy there is an incredible Organic Mulberry Farm calling me strongly, one dedicated to the preservation of traditional techniques as well as assisting the local communities. The farm was created in 1996 by Thanongsi Sorangkoun in response to the slash and burn farming practices of the region. The farm is a multidimensional operation that includes countless mulberry trees (used for tea, wine, and smoothies), fruits, vegetables, pigs, a restaurant featuring the produce and cuisine of the region, a goat project to produce cheese…and is proactive in aiding the education of the children in the town. Foreigners are welcomed with gratitude and can assist with all aspects of the farm life and in the school house teaching English.

So Vang Vieng bound I am, not for banana but for mulberry pancakes.

The road is another wildly unpaved adventure, one that should take three hours but takes five. A British couple and I chat along the ride as we jump in our seats, a duo on a three month honeymoon tryst through Asia. They have such similar features, their eyes both striking light blue, one may mistake them for siblings. But no. They are in LOVE and on the path. He works for an NGO and travels often to Africa, she a teacher in London. We chat a bunch about the medicinal benefits of drinking ayahuasca, a subject that emerges bizarrely and with increasing frequency… such a heart opening tea that naturally connects us all. I again imagine the potential uses in the future, hoping the tea will be more readily available for anyone who is prepared to explore deep inner emotional and physical healing, allowing the unification with one’s heart and true self, the one heart of the universe.

In Vang Vieng I hop off the van and search for a tuk-tuk to ride to the farm, a blessed 4 km out of the tiny town filled with pizza and sandwich cafes, bars blasting episodes of Friends and top 40 pop songs, trashy souvenirs. In a country where the attire is quite conservative, women most often wearing long embroidered silk skirts and always with covered shoulders, topless males with colorful markered body tattoos of “I am wasted/ I survived tubing/Get me more drunk tonight” and ladies in bikinis and tiny shorts serve no levels of respect. As the lone rider in the tuk-tuk I question my driver how the Lao people feel about these activities and it like most things in life has two sides to the coin- the tourism is great for the economy but the activities injurious to the culture. Interestingly Lao youth don’t care to mimic such behavior but are appalled, so strongly so they feel like the area of the river where the foreigners float down has become poisoned.

At the farm I am greeted by the most remarkable group of staff, an assortment of family members of Thanongsi Sorangkoun (aka Mr. T), long-term guests, employees from the local communities. My room is in the Mulberry House hut and I head back to the restaurant where I converse with the young receptionist from a Khmu village. He shares a story about how his uncle, an old shaman, healed his broken shoulder after he could not afford to get it fixed at the hospital. Three months, herbal salves, some prayers and all was well. There is a talented painter from Germany who offers to sell me his motorbike for he cannot take it to China, three guys in a long-term volunteer program (one from England, Italy, and the US), another from NYC, and the friendly couple from Britain that I shared drinks with in Pai and passed in Luang Prabang. I chat with Mr. T for a bit as he methodically sups on noodle soup with mushrooms, he is a contemplative fellow with exceptional calmness, chewing each of my questions thoroughly.

I am home…for today!

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