In the Kingdom of One Million Elephants, I only saw two.
He was just a baby, huddled against his larger mother with wrinkly skin and sad, wet eyes that blinked against the bright sun. His trunk gripped a shoot of green leaves like a toy, and waving it in the air, the young elephant moved down the road like an obese child on the first day of school.
The great Kingdom of Luang Phrabang endured 242 years, about the same as the country of the United States, but today, all that is left is a city of the same name—a city that for me, felt cleaner and calmer than its neighbors Vietnam, Cambodia, or Thailand.
Communism is cleaner than capitalism—the streets were tidy and swept, and there was none of the squalor you find in so many of the tourist towns in southeast Asia. The streets and sidewalks were so clean that I knelt directly on the pavement in order to deliver my alms to the passing monks.
It’s an age-old tradition—every morning at dawn, gifting food to the hundreds of Buddhist monks who parade up the street. They arrived so suddenly, like migrating birds, dressed in orange and saffron robes, their eyes fixed forward, their heads shaved, their faces gaunt.
It is an honor that we, as foreigners, were invited to participate in this ritual, but I did not know I would have to divvy up the food by hand, dropping fistfuls of hot sticky rice into each metal pail with a light thud.
“You are too generous!” pointed out one fellow traveler on National Geographic’s 125th Anniversary Expedition, and she was right. The hot rice burned my hands, so that I instead of distributing equal portions, I was tossing out the rice with great unease. While a few young monks received nice, hand-sized clumps of sticky rice, the others got bombarded with sticky, snowball-size chunks that I pinched away and tossed into the passing pails so quickly before rubbing my burning hands.
A few yards down the line, another girl knelt barefoot, her tiny hands clasped in Namaste. Instead of giving rice to the monks, she was hoping to get some. Every day in Luang Prabang, the poorest of the poor line up at the alms giving in hopes that some generous monk will share his surplus with them, and they often do.
But I watched that little girl, her face so earnest, her mission clear. Only after so much waiting and begging did she finally receive one handful of rice from a monk who passed by in a flash of orange.
The little girl’s face brightened, and though I was thrilled for her success and the meal that she would eat, that little moment of giving revealed a vast truth—that many people are hungry, that there is not enough food to go around, and at the end of the day, we all get doled out uneven portions of rice.
Our group moved on to the market, where vendors laid our vegetables like works of art—red and green chili peppers piled into perfect squares, salad greens wrapped up in neat bundles. But as I progressed down the line of available food, things took a turn to the creepy.
Live frogs—dozens of them, were all tied up by one leg, hopping for their lives, only to be pulled back to the group, destined for a frying pan somewhere that day in Luang Prabang. I imagined each little warty animal in a few hours time, fried, seasoned, and stuck on somebody’s plate, or the grinning mouths of a hungry family, cleaning the meat off a very slender white bone.
It took me awhile to figure out what the mottled chunk of broken bark was, but then the little pods began to move, and I saw them—live grubs, the size of my thumb, still wrapped up in their maggoty beds. I assumed these would also be sautéed. Again and again, I saw the grubs for sale—some thick and squirmy, others tiny maggots laid out on green leaves.
For me, at home, these white worms represent a disgusting infestation, but in Laos—it’s lunch. The same goes for the steel bowl of fat, clicking crickets I saw on the ground, being picked through by a sweet old granny. She smiled at me with five teeth—a tea-stained smile the color of the crickets she held in her hand.
Travel shoves you far away from the safety of your own kitchen and into a frightening dreamscape, where maggots and crickets taste good, and where a little girl will kneel for an hour, just to be fed a handful of rice.
Yes, these moments teach us to be grateful for everything we have. Yes, travel confronts us with the heartbreak of poverty. Yes, I have learned—again and again—not to judge, but to accept every new country as its own reality.
Our group spent only a day in Laos, but it was enough to discard the petty distastes of home and to inhale every breath of this new place—from the pink lotus on the ponds of water buffalo to the warm pots of jasmine tea and the rich incense of a sun-baked afternoon.
Twilight met us on the river, floating down the Mekong on a wooden boat, with the sky turning to the color of cantaloupe and roses. Now we were truly floating through a two-page spread of National Geographic, watching folds of lavender mountains disappear into night.
Back at the market, the food was gone, the rows now filled with cheap tourist silks and T-shirts with Laotian script. Only at the far back of the market did I find a shop that stirred my curiosity, stacked with antique buddhas and elegant opium pipes smoked by travelers a century ago.
I found her in the back room, a wooden head painted white, covered in dust from years of storage. It was Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of compassion. Her name derives from the Chinese, (“Observing the Cries of the World”) and I recognized her gentle face only because I grew up with her statue in my parents’ living room.
There are so many legends of Guanyin and her Indian counterpart, Avalokitesvara, who not only attained enlightenment, but gave it all away to continue to help those of us trapped in the cycle of suffering.
Once, upon hearing the cries of so many suffering people, Guanyin reached out to help, but there were too many in need, her two arms shattered into a million pieces. Seeing this compassion, the Buddha Amitabha gave Guanyin a thousand arms, so that she could reach everyone who needed help.
Standing there in that antique shop, I thought, “There are days that I wish I had a thousand arms to reach a thousand different people.” And I do. Travel lets you meet the entire world, and so many of them I will never forget.
Thus I left Laos, with the head of a Chinese goddess under one arm, and the memory of a little girl, holding out her single hand out for a bit of rice.