|Priscilla, Queen of the Mekong|
|Room for eight?|
Every few kilometers we come into a small village, where storefronts, repair shops and houses sit close to the roadway. There are fields, though they don’t seem to be under cultivation now, perhaps because it’s the dry season. Occasionally, a rubber tree juts up from the open fields. Elsewhere there are stands of deciduous trees. In the villages and on their outskirts we see buff-colored cows and darker water buffalo roaming.
After about two hours, we come upon one village where, on one side of the street on a large field are set up hundreds of tents. There’s a gate through which we can see a temple and a stupa. Nou tells us that this is the site of the Buddha Footprint, a formation in the rock that Buddhists believe is an impression left by the historical Buddha’s foot. We walk in through the gate and down a shaded lane to a small plaza. On the left is a gate the arched top of which holds a replica of a temple and through which are the festival grounds. To either side of the archway is a long table under an awning where offerings can be purchased. For 1000 kip (about ten cents) we buy small bundles of flowers, incense sticks and candles. We turn and walk back towards the large stupa and beyond to the temple that houses the Buddha’s footprint. Inside the temple there is an extremely ornate case, about four feet tall and measuring perhaps ten by fifteen feet. Inside, on the ground, is the footprint. Lamps inside the case illuminate it and it glows a pinkish color. All around the sides of the case are trays to hold the offering candles, and here and there are pots for holding the incense sticks and flowers. We kneel, light our candles, and melt some wax into the tray. With a little help from Nou, we set the candles. Next, we light the incense sticks. I notice that Nou is praying. He holds the bundle of small flowers and incense sticks between his hands and bows. I take a minute or two to clear my mind a little, to step away from a voyeur’s perspective and into some kind of communion with the aura around me. I can only manage a glimpse, but it’s very much worth the time. On the way we pick up some sticky rice wrapped and cooked in bamboo shoots. Nou shows us how to peel back the outer husk of the bamboo shoots and get at the rice, which is contained by the thin inner membrane of the bamboo. Sticky rice is a staple of the Lao diet. It’s very good. Back on the bus we get comfortable. After a while of rolling along, with the sun coming in through the windows, we spread out and some of us nod off for a nap. I open my computer and I’m soon lost in writing. Then, suddenly, something feels odd.
I glance up from my computer and it takes a second to register that the bus is full of smoke. I turn to look back to where Darla is sitting in the furthest back seats, and I can’t see past a couple of rows. The smoke is billowing towards the front of the bus, and no one notices it at first. I jump up and call to Darla – for a second I’m afraid that she’s been overcome – but she wakes up from dozing and shrieks. I run back for her and grab her hand to pull her out. I push her past me towards Ben, who is just behind me, and I bring up the rear as we run out of the bus. I jump down the steps, wondering if flames are licking at my heels.
|Please pass the salt|