Click! It was just a quick snap. A moment in time from 1991 that I’d hold close forever. A picture I’d carry with me for decades and across continents, as I moved from South East Asia via Europe, the USA, New Zealand and Central America to Australia.
Two little girls whose names I couldn’t remember. They looked about 10 or 11. The age of my daughter now. In the background, the muddy Mekong River flows past one of Luang Prabang‘s many ornate temples. 25 years later I remember it all so well.
Walking through town on my way to climb Mout Phousi, those two little girls followed me. The only tourist in town, a gangly twenty three year old. At five foot nine, taller than most Lao men and towering over every Lao woman, I must have stuck out like a sore thumb.
After spending four months teaching English in Vientiane I spoke with the girls in Lao. They didn’t speak English, they still don’t but, my back then Lao was good enough. We spent two hours together talking about our families, homes and lives.
Sometimes we didn’t speak. Just smiled at each other. Sometimes you can build a stronger connection with smiles and eye contact than you ever can with words.
The girls helped me with my Lao, pointed out their homes, the school, the rivers. The empty road that stretched off into the distance.
I took a photo of the girls, lining them up, a distant temple sandwiched between them. Then I asked one of the girls to take a photo with me in it.
Posing, one hand on my hips, one hand on the other little girl’s shoulder, a shy smile on our faces, light shining in her hair and bouncing off my forehead. My sticky-out ear angled to the sun. Sunglasses slung round my neck and a Mayan music ball on a leather thong.
Behind us the Nam Khan River winds its way in front of mist-capped hills towards the tiny town of Luang Prabang. Today, although the road is now busy with traffic, the view remains largely unaltered. Nothing has changed yet everything has changed.
When I visited Luang Prabang in northern Laos in 1991 I was travelling alone and this is the only photo of me. It reminds me of a special place, the special people who lived there and how special it was to be able to visit Luang Prabang at that time. Despite my odd appearance and the fact that I was so obviously different it was a time when I felt welcomed and accepted as I never had been before.
If you walk up Mount Phousi today it will probably be packed. When I climbed the 150 meter high sacred hill last year there were hundreds of tourists crowded on top, all vying to capture the perfect sunset over the Mekong River photo or selfie.
In 1991 I was the only tourist in town. Clad in loose-fitting tailor-made Lao silk pants and shirt I fell in love with the bucolic yet spiritual atmosphere of Luang Prabang just as tourists do today. There were monks everywhere, draped in robes ranging from dusky brown to banana yellow. Temple spires glistened with gold, their walls sparkled, a kaleidoscope of glass mosaics depicting village scenes.
I was carefree, happy, doing what I loved best. Exploring new places, meeting new people, settled in a distant land, living, eating and trying to speak like a local. Choosing total immersion in another culture and langauge to help me forget how little I knew about myself.
After I left Laos my story unfolded in fits and starts. I embarked, eyes closed, on a rollercoaster ride. 25 years of travel, then pregnancy, breastfeeding, motherhood and career changes from teacher to digital marketer and copywriter. Throughout the years, when I packed and moved from place to place, I’d come across that photo and remember that faraway place, time and feeling.
Then, 25 years later, I was invited to return to Laos and run a half marathon. What had happened to those beautiful, friendly, trusting little girls I wondered? How had they fared? Would I be able to find out?
Before flying to Luang Prabang I raided my garage and unearthed their photos from a dusty box of outdated prints. I felt shy about trying to find the girls. Ridiculous. Trying to track down two little girls, I’d known so briefly and whose names I could no longer remember seemed crazy but I had to do it. I had to try.
The receptionist at the 3 Nagas Hotel, just a short walk from Mount Phousi, listened to my story and looked at the photos. It was hard to explain that the photos were taken 25 years ago and that now those little girls would be about 35 years old. It seemed unlikely that anyone would recognise them. It seemed nonsensical to even try.
Although he was a local, the receptionist didn’t know the girls. If I left the photos with him, he said, he’s ask around and see if anyone remembered them.
Two hours later I came back from supper and he waved me over. He ‘d spoken with some of the old people in town and shown them the photo. They recognised the girls, grown women now who still lived here in Luang Prabang. In fact they worked together at a hotel just a few doors down from mine.
The next day I dropped by to see them, still doubtful, still bemused by my own persistence in finding these girls, I barely knew.
At the hotel where I’d been told they worked, I showed the photo to another receptionist and a waiter. They shook their heads. No, they didn’t know these girls.
I explained that the photo was very old and the girls would be women now and they looked again. Then they started jabbering, ignoring me and holding the photos up to the light. Yes they said, the girls are here. They are upstairs.
Upstairs the dining room was empty except for three staff members, two women and a man. I showed the photo to one of the women and she frowned.
“Is it you?” I said, pointing at the girls in the photo. She looked again then clapped her hand over her mouth, eyes wide. She called the other women over and showed her the photo. They clutched at each other, pointing, giggling, looking shyly up at me, just as they had 25 years ago.
They still didn’t speak English and I no longer remembered how to speak Lao. But I could see that they understood that I was the European woman in the photo and I had grown up too. Not taller but older now.
One of them said she had got fat. She gestured to her hips. Tears glistened in her eyes. We hugged, we laughed, we held hands. We pretended not to cry, swiping tears from our eyes furtively.
I had so many questions I wanted to ask and the man tried to translate:
“Did they remember that day?” Yes, they did.
“Did they remember meeting me and coming with me up Mount Phousi?” Yes, they did.
“Had they ever seen a photo of themselves as children before?” That was unclear.
But they were happy, they were healthy and they were still friends, still living here in this little town. Like me they now had children of their own.
We took photos and friended each other on FaceBook. It’s ludicrous how easy it is to stay in touch and share photos with people nowadays.
They offered me coffee. I declined. They invited me to eat noodle soup with them but I had no time. I’d forgotten about Lao hospitality and how kind, how generous the people are. For 25 years I’d remembered that Lao people were friendly and welcoming, now I experienced it all over again.
The next day, back in my hotel, reception called and told me my friend wanted to see me. Puzzled I went down to find Daomani, one of the girls waiting for me. She had brought me a present; two Lao silk scarves to take home, a kind reminder of the gentle accepting spirit which made her climb a mountain with a stanger 25 years ago and which she still embodies today.
In 1991 photos were more precious than they are today. Buying film and developing prints was expensive so, always on the tightest budget, I only took photos of the most special things.
Lao Reunion Part 2 – In which I track down these babies and try to return the photo of them which I took 25 years ago.
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