Slow Travel on the Mekong

On the riverbank of the Nam Khan river in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by Flickr/Ville Miettinen
On the riverbank of the Nam Khan river in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by Flickr/Ville Miettinen

The children point and giggle at this group of westerners visiting their home. It’s just home, after all. Kids of an age to be having their own iPhones in the UK are enthralled at the magic of seeing themselves on screens as we gather with them for photos. They giggle and smile and point, a shy warmth to their personalities. After a quick navigation around the ‘town’, it is time for dinner. Rice, vegetables, warm broth and cool water fill the table.

And suddenly it is night. Darkness descends quickly around here, enveloping the hills and town in pitch black almost instantly.

With such early starts, and the need to preserve precious electricity, the children usually go straight to bed after dinner. But with visitors in town they have a treat – more school! We are to teach them. Their enthusiasm was striking (other than the few boys having to be dragged from their game of football, but some things do transcend all boundaries) and soon we are surrounded by a cacophony of voices of all ages chanting back colors and calendar months.

Parents peer through the windows to applaud, and it’s a genuinely fun evening, surprising many of us. A successful hour’s education is rounded off with a riotous rendition of Head Shoulders Knees & Toes and the Hokey Pokey. As always in this situations, it’s hard to know whether the lesson or the play was more valuable, and whether the teachers or students learned more. An inner sparkle that comes from playing for the sake of playing seems to ignite in us all.

And then it’s to bed. The home is simple, three linear rooms, and we are at the front in an empty square space with only a Buddhist shrine and drawings by the seven-year-old daughter, Phra. Four mattresses, blankets, and mosquito nets are set up on the floor, one for each girl staying. After thank you’s and what we hope are the final toilet stops at the shed a hundred yards down the bank we blow out the candles to sleep. Unable to completely escape the slave to technology urge, I cast a glance at my phone (it has a light) – 8 p.m.

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