It is 7:30 in Laos, and the morning bodes well: the sky is blue and the first rays of sunshine accompany my slow steps up the slight rise in the land of no-one where, after passing a welcome sign in English with a glaring mistake, manicured lawns tell you that you are entering China. It is just a few minutes walk and a one-hour time zone ahead, but in this hour and in the two or three hundred meters that separate the two countries, it almost feels as if you have made the I.
I savour this short transit like a Chinese enjoying a cup of tea; I linger to admire a yellow butterfly motionless among the leaves, I look at a few Laotians and Chinese who move from one country to another, trucks waiting in line to see their goods inspected. Only then do I realise that I am the only European around. I ignore an electric car that for a few pennies gets you comfortably across the short distance that separates not only two countries but two conceptions of life, two realities that, though united by a common ideology, cannot be more different one from another. It’s like going in a brief moment through two seasons both beautiful in their diversity: from a sad fall in pastel colours in Laos, to a lively spring the color of flowers in bloom.
I am welcomed by a modern border crossing semi-deserted given the time; only a few guards are presiding it. I head to the first I notice; he is kind and smiling, he enters my passport into a scanning machine, he adds the visa number and suddenly, to my surprise, a metallic voice in Italian invites me to press the button and print out my immigration card. I smile amused and begin to get the feeling of being in a different world, a modern Alice in Wonderland.
I continue my walk until I arrive at the passport control desk where another customs officer, also polite and also smiling, performs his check, applies his stamps and returns my passport. His eyes then point towards a machine placed on the counter to my left: 4 emoticons like the smiley faces used in the chats, a range from ‘very sad’ to ‘very happy’, underlined by some to me incomprehensible characters that I assume ask you to give an assessment of the service received. Under the satisfied gaze of the guard, I pass him with flying colours, and after a few more steps, backpack on my back, I finally enter China.
The trip, which from a certain point onwards would be strictly by land, had begun the previous day on a local bus from Chiang Rai in northern Thailand that covered about 130 km to reach Chiang Khong in a little over 3 hours, driving amongst rice paddies, plantations and the restful green of the Thai hills. With a tuk tuk I reach the Mekong River, which marks the border between the two countries. A few dozen kilometers to the north-west, the Golden Triangle and its splendours, and in front of me, beyond the river, once again Laos.
It is a simple local boat that in only a few minutes takes me to the other shore of the Mekong and, between the slow flow of the river traffic, I see the coast getting closer, I see the people busy in their activities of loading and unloading goods grow bigger in front of me, I see Laos getting closer.
Laos does not seem changed since the last time I visited it about six years ago: the landscape is still fascinating, with its hills, its mountains, its pathways made of ups and downs, its villages with small wooden houses, located on the edge of the road where they appear here and there as if to break the monotony of an excessively green scenery.
Life goes by according to the rhythms of all times, the rhythms of a rural life marked by nature and made of days almost all equal to each other: at dawn small groups of people in a line reach the plantations by road; in the local markets, made of cheap goods and lots of fruits, a slow activity bustles. People meet, talk, buy, sell. Outside of a few huts converted in shops, young and old spend their lazy day watching the traffic go by and conversing with each other, while the children, like all children of the world, play and run, still partly carefree, waiting for their time to help in the fields.
The sun surprises the peasants bent in the rice fields, planting or harvesting the precious offer from the land, the main resource in the “Kingdom of a million rice fields”, or plowing the fields with old plows pulled by water buffaloes helped by the thrust of men with their heads covered by traditional wicker cone hats. Often, some woman on the roadside wash clothes in streams flowing nearby, while others walk towards the market with an empty basket on their shoulders, which should return full for the dinner; a young monk in saffron robes approaches on a bicycle; old men sit on the houses threshold and look absently the playing children and the world around them, engrossed in some kind of thoughts. I like to imagine their mind roaming through memories of youth gone by now, a youth that for many of them has represented war, deprivation, suffering and bombs. On the side of the streets I can see wild dogs and piglets that lazily let life pass them, sleeping or eating.
Meanwhile comes the sunset: people come back from the fields always in a line, with their humble bundles and their tools on their back, the market sellers remove the goods and start to close, the shops get a few more customers who like to linger with glasses of local liquor while children, only them, continue to play peacefully, no matter how little peace of mind the poverty that surrounds them gives out. They are all waiting for the next day, for the beginning of another day.
You can clearly notice the presence of young people in rural areas, unlike in the near and more modern Thailand, where young people tend to urbanise, finding a viable life alternative in the cities. In Laos this alternative seems to be missing. Apart from the capital Vientiane and a few places where tourism has developed more, like Luang Prabang or the so-called 4000 islands, the country maintains its predominantly agricultural nature. The lack of access to the sea also limits higher developing models. For travel and transportation there are the roads, which I would call more than acceptable, and above all the channels and the river. All this means that rural Laos looks same as ever, a country where changes are exasperatingly slow compared to the world that surrounds it, and that instead runs in a frantic.
Seen from outside, the beauty of Laos, as well as in the temples of Luang Prabang, is just in this: a journey back in time, a population almost untouched, rhythms regulated by a nature that for us westerners seem to be much more on a human scale, and a form of spirituality that you can still breathe today in every corner of the country.
An old French colonial saying, which describes pretty well Laotians and their proverbial calm and serenity, reads: “The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, Laotians listen to the rice growing”. If it is true that rice is in this region the main source of food, and therefore of life, this “listening to the rice growing” seems to want to conjure up images of a people attentive in listening the essence of life itself.
When I arrive in Luang Namtha it is already dark. I have a light supper at the local bazaar, and a black coffee without sugar, which little differs from poison. I drink it before going to sleep in a very cheap guesthouse waiting to be heading towards the so longed for Chinese border. All this makes me savour the taste of the journey that has just begun.