Mekong, Monks, and Market

What is the common thread of the Mekong River, monks and markets? Nourishment, the passionate joy of discovery, a shifting of the inner self to allow meditative balance.

The Mother of all rivers is the 2,700 mile long Mekong which begins in China, flows through the Tibetan Plateau and onwards to Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to the China Sea (*note– SE Asia isn’t happy this sea is named for China!)

The river supports many diverse groups of people. Britannica states that 80% of protein (fish) is harvested from the Mekong River in Cambodia and 1/2 of all crops are irrigated with her waters in Viet Nam. Small hydroelectric dams have been in place since the 1950’s, but current large projects are highly controversial. I cannot imagine flooding of the Buddha cave and other ancient sites and this is only one component of the debate.

Early every morning, orange robed monks walk single file and barefoot down the streets seeking alms of rice. This ancient Buddhist tradition offers residents a way to attain good karma and peace as the sun rises. Monks are a visual reminder to be faithful, to walk with intention, to be mindful of all actions and words. Religion nourishes us from the inside out.

Daily markets are a microcosm of life worldwide. A young mother rests on a bench, feeding her baby before gathering the day’s sustenance for the rest of her family. Women from the countryside harvest fruit, vegetables, and even addictive Betel Nuts. People develop friendships with locales as well as strangers, and these interactions feed their souls.

Some venders cook meals, including grilled rat which is a local delicacy in Asia. (*It tastes like grilled pork)

Other booths carry flowers for spiritual and religious uses. Birds are captured and sold, some to release for good karma and others to grace our dinner table.

One of my favorite markets is the night market in Luang Prabang, Laos. It is certainly set up for tourists, but the items are varied and negotiations brisk. Hand-turned exotic wood bowls, handmade paper made into lanterns, beautiful paper greeting cards with intricate pop-ups (*note to buy in quantity, but keep in mind they are $1US a piece in Vietnam), fabric and embroidered goods.

Please refrain from buying the jewelry made from bomb casings. Do not encourage public collection of these dangerous materials unless they are from a certified and safe removal organization. IMG_0563

Royal Wat Xieng Thong

After a delicious lunch at Joma Bakery in Luang Prabang, we visited Wat Xieng Thong, built in 1559 as a royal temple where kings were coronated until 1975.

 

Wood doors covered in gold tell the life of Buddha. Enter the building to see carved Naga on the ceremonial cremation barge used for the kings remains. These snake figures are said to be a supernatural deity, and can be a protectress or demon, guardian and demigod. Evidently, some of them can turn themselves into human form, which might be kind of freaky.

 

Images of Buddha with various hand positions (called mudras) instruct us to follow peace, banish fear, quell demons or practise charity.

 

I was busy looking at sparkling glass tiles and painting on the wood beams of winged Pegasus and didn’t realize that the tour had moved to another building.

 

Three children were busy getting their fortunes. Delighted, they showed me how to pull a numbered stick out of a container and how to foretell my own future. Later, I learned doing this three times would have been better.IMG_9067

Across the courtyard is the temple where the Laotian Kings were coronated and where the sacred boat is kept.

 

Another favorite building is the Sim, or congregation hall, with the outer wall decorated in glass tiles in the shape of a tree of life that shimmer in the light.

.IMG_0318

This golden guy is a cautionary tale about a peeping Tom and he got caught.  Of course, he had karma payback for his naughty actions.

 

In 1887, when rebels invaded and destroyed Luang Prabang, this complex was saved because the leader had once been a young monk who studied here.

 

Phoenix Rising From The Flames

On my SE Asia trip, I confess to being hesitant to visit places like Pol Pot’s killing fieldsIMG_0652 and the CuChi tunnel outside of Ho Chi Minh city. The “American War” (Vietnamese name) brought up memories of friends killed and protests at home. I didn’t want to revisit anger over my government’s lies. My peers, those with a bright and promising future, signed up because they believed in the honor of that war. How do you justify top brass without the cahones to admit they were wrong? Those men who delivered our young to the slaughter house instead of doing the right thing? Frankly, it’s happening again in Afghanistan. History repeats itself, and we’d be wise to revisit these places of horror.

 

 

I felt helpless facing so many ghosts and told our guide, KC, that I didn’t think I could handle the encounter. He encouraged me. “Dawn. You need to come. I’ll make sure you don’t have to see anything that’s too difficult. Please come.”  KC kept an eye on me throughout, and now I must admit that he was right.

IMG_9346

This old school became the high security prison and torture center for the Khmer Rouge from April 17,1975-January 7, 1979

Chum Mey is one of only seven adult and five children survivors of the Tuol Sleng high security Prison and torture center during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Mr. Mey doesn’t know why he lived, other than he knew how to fix machines and his captors needed him. He was arrested on Oct 28,1978 and was tortured in ways that I will not speak out loud for fear of evil revisiting the world again. Mr Mey’s entire family was murdered, even his 2 month-old son.

 

 

In January, 1979, Vietnamese liberators followed the stench of decaying flesh to free the Cambodian people after half of the population was forced to dig their own graves and were then bludgeoned to death in 388 killing fields.

IMG_0664

It was an honor to hear Chum Mey speak, not only about survival but also about forgiveness for his jailers who he felt would have also been killed if they didn’t follow orders. His testimony at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal resulted in the lifetime imprisonment of Duch, the man most responsible for genocide at Tuol Sleng.

CuChi Tunnels

 

 

 

It was a privilege to visit with Mr. Nam, a Viet Cong soldier who lived and fought every day in the tunnels for over fourteen years. He stood before an illuminated map showing military control zones and I held my breath, not certain of what he might say to the Americans sitting before him.

 

 

His first sentence was, “I never wanted to be a soldier. I never wanted to kill anyone.” He proceeded to tell us that his village was destroyed by US bombs and that he had to move underground. He met his wife, a nurse who took care of him when he lost his arm, and his children were born in the tunnels. He feels that he was protecting his family as US forces continued to bomb and tried to destroy where they lived. At the end of his talk, he said, “There are no winners here.” I asked him what made him the happiest and what was the saddest from that time. His answer was, “There wasn’t happiness and it made me so sad to see my friends killed.” The most heartwarming moment was when our veterans joined Mr. Nam in a moment of forgiveness.

How to Survive Peace?

IMG_9303

sculptures made out of unexploded bombs at the Vientiane, Laos Rehabilitation Center of COPE

Since 1996, COPE has worked in Laos with disabilities caused by UXO (unexploded ordnance or cluster bombs) as well as clubfoot deformities. 260 million tons of payload were secretly dropped over Northern Laos during the Vietnam war from 1964-1973. The airplanes couldn’t land with live bombs on board and the government in Laos asked for US help in trying to control pockets of communism along the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran the long border between Laos and Vietnam. The American public never knew.

 

 

Thirty percent of those bombs did not explode and remain today, waiting for one little mistake. There are still 300 accidental detonations resulting in 46 deaths each year. The war ended over 43 years ago. Because cluster bombs destroy a large area, the increase of collateral civillian damage is huge. The live ammunication can be dormant over many generations. There are hundreds of little bomblets in just a single casing.  In 2008, the United States refused to sign a ban  and we continue to use clusters in Afghanastan. (On a side note: In Afghanistan, the bomblets were painted yellow and so were the relief food packages dropped for civilians. Children thought the yellow balls were something to play with.)

Bombs and mines have hurt everyone in Laos. Our guide’s father built a fire near his field to keep warm. The heat was just enough to explode the hidden casing buried below him. There are instances of children finding cluster bombs the size of softballs and in innocence don’t know they are deadly. One toss. A child’s life taken.

 

 

These survivors picked up my broken heart and rebuilt it through their stories of heroism, grit, and courage. Their message was clear: Never forgot those who died at the hands of evil. Be vigilant that this never happens again. Forgive those who were manipulated, terrorized or lied to. We are all the same–we want peace and a chance for good health and prosperity for our families.

When do we stand united and simply say “No” to war and conversely, when there is a great evil like Pol Pot and Hitler, when does the globe unite to make sure genocide of an entire race doesn’t happen again? Are we paying attention in Syria and Mynamar?

 

Match Game in Southeast Asia

Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam have more in common than differences. All were part of the ancient Khmer dynasty, the rulers of Angkor Wat fame through the 1400’s. The rulers intermarried with Chinese. Today, each country is financially bound to modern China with an influx of foreign money for infrastructure and expansion projects in large cities while little changes in the countryside.

 

Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam suffered long periods of war (genocide),

leaving the people beaten down and wanting peace at all costs. Unexploded bombs and mines continue to maim and kill. IMG_0564Each country teeters on a political sword with either military dictatorships or communists who effectively crush any emerging opposition. No one has freedom of speech. Voices suggesting change often disappear.IMG_0729

This isn’t your grandma’s form of communism or socialism. Marx is rolling over in his grave with Vietnam, inparticular. What kind of hybrid animal is this? Although the law decrees compulsory primary education, the lack of funding for books and supplies blocks the poor from attending. There are no services to support the elderly or infirm. With distinct social groups, the growing middle class understands greased palm economics.

All of these developing countries have a high population under the age of thirty. In Cambodia, Pol Pot murdered half of the population (1975-1979) and current demographics show 50 percent under the age of twenty-two. None of these kids have experienced the carnage of the past. The new battle cry is “access to better teachers and a quality education.”

Ironically, Vietnam provides a cheap labor force to Thailand and there’s no silly talk about erecting a wall. This young man works “per piece” making more money producing these edible shells than working as a skilled mechanic. Get this–he spoke to me in English! IMG_8817

The future of Southeast Asia is not a match game for the faint of heart. The new generation likes technology, gadgets and material status. Capitalism resonates with their beating hearts. What will happen when the aged military dictators, Khmer Rouge generals, and Vietcong fighters pass away? Won’t be long. Stay tuned.