09 April 2009
Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand
This morning some monks performed a ritual under a tree near my door. I did not want to intrude upon their tranquility with a camera, so I modestly enjoyed the moment, knowing that in just a few days I would walk into another, very different land.
In Laos, a few days ago, I awoke before sunrise to photograph monks collecting morning alms in Luang Prabang. Perhaps a hundred monks from the local temples collected alms from the people. After the transaction the monks and the people dispersed into the cool morning. In the great book of days, people were busy writing the pages of their lives.
That’s when this flower and the sun caught my eye. I had to wait a few minutes for the sun to rise into the frame, where a flower blossom formed a partial eclipse. For an ephemeral pause, flower and sun danced together, accentuating one another, and creating a simple splendor. Then the sun moved on and the moment was gone forever.
The event was not overwhelming, just a simple glimpse of beauty, there for anyone fortunate enough to enjoy, and another simple sentence was written into the great book of days, “Stopped to photograph flower and sun.”
Then it was off into this day, out of Luang Prabang to a couple of simple villages, where the children don’t wear shoes. Shoes are a funny thing. Up in Nepal, countless porters walk during the heat and in the snow. They walk over stones and through leech-infested terrain. Mile after mile, high and low, the porters often carry more than two-hundred pounds. Yet many never wear shoes, not even once in their lives. Sometimes rich travelers buy shoes for these silent, strong men. The porters thankfully accept the gifts and then sell the shoes and walk barefooted through every step of their lives. In the mornings their wives clean the mud floors of their smoky homes with cow dung.
On my first trip to Laos, I traveled two days by boat down the Mekong, and took some time in various towns and villages before landing in the capital of Vientiane. One afternoon in a café I saw a man speaking with the locals, and I thought to myself, ‘American military officer.’ In fact, he was an Army officer, leading a team to recover American service members who were lost there during the war. It’s difficult to convey the scene of all the bomb craters I saw that time in Laos. To get an idea, just stare at a full moon on a clear night.
Many Laotians are simple people. Their babies walk around naked, and their homes are made of what grows nearby or can be collected within a short walk, yet the world comes to visit them. Along the tourist migration routes, they live in a perpetual sort of virtual travel that I experienced in a much different way growing up in Florida, before pushing off on the great voyage. In some places, like Florida or Laos, if you sit still, travelers from around the world will come to where you are, and you can learn.
After a day in the countryside, it was back to Luang Prabang, where I spotted these monks and asked the driver to stop. They reminded me of Tom Sawyer.
Then it was off to the l’Elephant restaurant, which had been recommended by a Swedish medical doctor and her husband. After the juicy and tender duck, I settled the bill and began walking to my room. The sun was melting into night. That’s when the young monk appeared in a window and I photographed him from the shadows.
Had folks at home not asked for more images, these photos would have been among the many thousands of scenes absorbed by my cameras, but never published, and unlikely to be seen again. Thousands of such images, from dozens of countries, remain locked in the silence and darkness of archival catacombs. One day I would like to tell about the secrets of the cannibals and other travels on the trail of great mysteries, but I must first survive the war. In the great book of days, one entry might read, “Six times around world interrupted by Iraq war, then Afghanistan. Can’t wait for war to end.”
The monk closed his book and shut the window and disappeared.