Pakse is the capital of Champasak province, and the jumping off point for a number of side trips. I'm heading to the most significant Khmer site in Laos tomorrow morning. I'll be there two nights and then back here to take a tour of some beautiful waterfalls before heading to Luang Prabang Sunday.
Jane asked my via Skype this morning what I thought of Lao culture, and I had to answer that I have no idea. What have I seen? I have visited a few wats, taken pictures of Buddhist architecture and artifacts, eaten Lao food, taken pictures of decaying French colonial remnants, and done some nature sightseeing. I have not, however, had any significant conversations with Lao people. I speak virtually no Lao, and nobody I have come into contact with so far, speaks enough English to have a serious conversation with. I enjoyed my time with my two guides when I went to the caves, but conversation was limited. From what I see, most Lao work very hard for very little. I was told today that the majority of business owners are either Thai or Chinese. They are certainly far wealthier than the general populace.
So what, then, is "culture"? Merriam Webster has this definition: "the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time."
I say I love the "culture" of Guatemala, but what do I mean by that? Certainly I love the traditional textiles and costumes of the Mayan people, and I love the elaborate rituals born of the interbreeding of Catholicism and Mayan tradition, and I love the painted school buses, but is that "culture"? I don't love the extreme paternalism of the society, or the corrupt political system. I don't love the exploitation of the many by the few who have wealth and power. So maybe I don't love the Guatemalan culture, but only the visual manifestations thereof.
I know almost nothing about everyday life in Laos. I do love the visual manifestations of the Buddhist religion, and the vestiges of colonialism. I will probably get a glimpse of traditional life in the tribal regions of the North later in my trip, tailored to please the Western tourist, of course, but I don't think I will really know very much first hand about Lao culture. I am an image collector, drawn to the visually unique and unusual. That is what draws me to places with rich and complicated histories. I am curious about the everyday lives of these people, but I don't know how to learn about them from here. So I take pictures, collect images, gather impressions, and move to the next place...