© — About a decade back, I spent two months in central Laos. Laos is one of the world’s last remaining communist dictatorships, and was then the sixth poorest country in the world. I first spent a couple of weeks in the capital city, Vientiane. It’s on the Mekong River, and you look across the river to Thailand. From Vientiane, I traveled north to a small town called Vang Vieng. I landed in this town after a long, harrowing ride in the back of a small pickup, and soon fell in love with this place. Vang Vieng sits on a network of plains surrounded by limestone mountains, cut deeply by the millennia into the kind of mountains found in whimsical Chinese paintings. Rivers flow from caves at the very base of these mountains as fresh, aquamarine ribbons of body-temperature water. Gigantic caverns gape from the cliffs, and the huge rooms hold remnants of base camps supporting hundreds of years of warfare.
Farmers work the deeply cut valleys as their families have done for centuries. Aside from a few, very odd, rudimentary tractors brought in from Brother China, there are no vehicles. The homes are small, one-room structures built of planks or bamboo, and are raised on stilts to keep the living area out of the floodplain, and away from the bugs. The whole family works the field, on long days, seven days a week. If a village has one ball, a single ball, it’s a really big deal; otherwise, there are no toys. There are few books; most Laotians have no education, and are illiterate, so, I, and a Buddhist monk, taught English in the evenings to teenagers so they could work in the relatively lucrative tourist trade.
And they are happy. I rode my mountain bike around Vang Vieng every day, visiting the outlying villages. On one day, I came across a group of girls having a wild time in the middle of the road. They had collected sticks and stones from the roadside, and had created a game. I stopped to watch as they would crouch and watch their game intensely, and then suddenly jump up screaming and laughing. I took some photos, and scared them a bit. Then I showed them their picture on the monitor of my digital camera; this brought on mile-wide smiles and lots of laughter. One by one they lined up to have their picture taken, and then the whole group would rush in to see the picture, laughing.
No computers, no mortgages, no shiny new cars. And they are happy. You can find a smile everywhere. Laughter is shared. What we consider small things are deeply cherished. Everybody is everybody else’s friend. No self-imposed burden. No assumed mental stress. They are happy. Proving that happiness is possible…any time…anywhere.
Copyright – Robert W. Hansen – 2012