Learning to Live with Gratitude in Pakbeng, Laos

Beautiful views in Pak Beng, Laos.

Shocker. White girls have exploited and bastardized eastern religious practices.

And I say that as a white girl. What’s more, as a white girl who hates white people who try to self deprecate their whiteness in order to look “woke”. “Wellness travel” seems to be in vogue these days. Particularly, mental wellness seems to be a big hit on Instagram. Nary a day goes by where I’m not subjected to images of tiny, blonde, white girls with seemingly all the privilege in the world talking about the importance of “self care” and “spirituality.” Really, the movement is pervasive. Cups of tea, yoga mats, yoga pants, sports bras, om symbols, string lights, vegan smoothies, the list goes on. 

The bastardization of mental health support

I’m not anti wellness or against mental health support. In fact, I’m quite passionate about the topic. Check out this post to read about my road to help with my mental health struggles. 

I am however disgusted with the bastardization of the word I both love and hate…”mindfulness.”  Evidently, mindfulness is tangible and can only happen on a beach or in a jungle. That’s it. Those are your options. At least, that’s what Instagram says.

Mindfulness in and of itself if a wonderful tool. I use it in my personal life and with my students, and it has saved me in more instances and ways than I can even begin to list. Not least of which, was during childbirth when I was forced to deliver without sufficient epidural! 

Me in labor prior to meditating as a last resort.

Mindfulness leads to the capacity and ability for gratitude. Mindfulness and gratitude are such pure concepts. They are personal journeys for each individual to embark on and try to embrace each day. Mindfulness and gratitude aren’t meant to be flashy, boasting, or vain when practiced. I think the need to document mindfulness constantly on social media for likes is actually the opposite of mindfulness.

A woman stands on a dock in Laos looking up at the camera from far away
Hanging out with the crew of our slow boat.

I believe that gratitude in particular isn’t what happens as a result of drinking chia smoothies and wearing purple yoga pants in downward dog. It’s humbling and insightful, and leads to an omnipresent way of living, or trying to live. There is nothing wrong with finding string lights soothing, or smoothies delicious. However, if your desire for gratitude requires an audience, it’s not really mindful. 

A woman smiles at the camera wearing a gray tanktop and pony tail. She had tan skin and brown hair. She is on board a slow boat that is sailing down the Mekong river.
Sailing down the Mekong River on our slow boat

Often times, gratitude and an ability to live mindfully are ignited by a singular experience – that is the case when I visited Laos. In particular, we stayed over in the town of Pak Beng. 

Our tour group was taking a two day slow boat ride down the Mekong River into Laos. The boat did not have overnight accommodation – so Pak Beng was our rest stop for approximately 24 hours. Pak Beng is a small riverside town that lay halfways between the Thai border and the border of Laos leading into Luang Prabang. 

Traveling via slow boat in Laos

Our time on the boat was relaxing, and the views were stellar. Our group played games – no not wholesome games. We watched 4 pairs of fellow travelers act out as many sex positions as possible in a specific number of minutes. In addition we played trivia, drank far too much beer, and noshed on sour cream and onion Pringles. I also tried my first rambutan, and now I’m sure to shout “OH MY GOD, RAMBUTANS!” whenever I see them. 

The "Welcome to Laos" sign in the hills of Pak Beng

The Goldfish Grabber

We slowly pulled into port, the view of the small rural village came into eye view. Immediately I was struck by our natural surroundings. The landscape really solidified that I could not have been further from home. When the boat was fully stopped, we began unloading our bags to bring up to the guest house. 

Arriving in Pak Beng

We? Who am I kidding, Arthur began unloading for us, and I stood idly by with a family sized bag of Goldfish crackers in my hand watching the parade of fellow travelers form a line to pass the bags to the top of thill. 

I was concentrating on the uniqueness of the slow boat and the landscape behind it, when I felt the giant bag of Goldfish crackers float out of my hand. My immediate thought was that I dropped them or that the wind blew them away. I was surprised to see that a small child had grabbed them right out of my hands and was walking away quickly with them. By force of habit as a teacher in New York City, I shouted at him. My drive to correct his behavior was impetuous and instantaneous. 

Three long slow boats pulled into port in Laos from the Mekong River
Travel by slow boat down the Mekong river to get to Laos

“Hey! That doesn’t belong to you!” or something to that effect is what I remember saying. The small boy, who frankly looked very dirty to me, turned around and a look of sadness overcame him. With his free hand, he rubbed his stomach to indicate that he was hungry. It wouldn’t be a bad guess to say he might have been starving, rather. 

I was totally mortified. My fat ass being like, “Hey! I need those – they’re mine!” to a poverty stricken famished child was really a sight to be seen. I’m entirely grateful that more people did not see it. 

How I eat Goldfish crackers

I was aghast. Of course, I’d seen my share of homeless folks in the Big Apple. However, I had never experienced actual poverty. I had no idea what to do next. I had never been face to face with a person who was so emboldened by hunger to steal food right out of my hands. I could not even fathom that level of necessity. I nodded at him. “Go on, have it.” I gave him a thumbs up, he returned the gesture and ran off showing his friends his score. 

Food and Bugs

Late at night my husband (then boyfriend) took a walk through the town. We were able to pass by the homes of some of the residents of Pak Beng. From what I saw as we walked, it would seem that hunger and poor food options were not limited to the small boy who took my crackers. One family graciously invited us to join their barbecue, and we declined.

Walking around Pak Beng at night.

The choice of meal was some kind of scorched rodent, perhaps a gerbil or guinea pig. Perhaps the family enjoys this dish, I’ve never had it. In my Western eyes, I felt sickened just looking at the creatures on the end of the skewers. I’m not saying this family is doing anything wrong, just…different from my life. However, this would not be my first choice of dinner or most Americans. As we walked on, I could not get the image of the charred rodents out of my head. I’ve never been forced to eat something I didn’t enjoy. I even had a mother growing up who would cook me a separate and special meal if I didn’t find the original meal that she had prepared appetizing. I immediately felt grateful for all of this.

I have a severe phobia of bugs. If they’re especially big or in a bunch, I actually get physical symptoms! Sometimes I vomit, get the chills, sweats, or a racing heart. Yeah, I know, fucking weird. No idea what happened to me in a past life. In Costa Rica some years ago, a beetle fell from a ceiling in a restaurant and into my shirt. I ripped my whole shirt off and screamed bloody murder for all to see. I could not live more than a day in the shoes of those who live in Pak Beng. There are bugs galore. Everywhere. They were in the shower, in the beds, on the ground, in the ceiling, your name it.

A giant bug outside of our door. They were everywhere including the shower and bed.

I remember eating a delicious meal of rice and larb made by the owners of our guest house. I heard a buzzing, and assumed it was the overhead light (it was evening as we ate.) I looked up and saw insects the size of pterodactyls hovering overhead flocking to the light. I immediately became nauseous and felt my heart race as I was terrified one might fall into my food. However – gratitude. I ate my meal which seemed to be more than most of Pak Beng would be eating that night. 

Laotian larb and sticky rice

Sleep was difficult to say the least. The bed had several critters in it, and I remember crying as I tried to fall asleep. The front door to our room was so flimsy, that the wind rustled it several times. I remember considering how easily someone could push the door open and steal from our room if they felt the need.

Our guest house lodgings.

I am not admonishing or poking fun at Pak Beng. I have no idea how the locals feel about living there. Perhaps they are more than happy and I sound like an asshole. However, the vilage is impoverished. The residents do not travel for leisure. Much of the way of life seems to be bred from necessity. There is no running to the five star Italian joint in town if you are sick of eating roasted river rat.

An interesting bar in Pak Beng Laos. Very bare bones, almost could have been someone’s backyard.

My point is, this is not the way I am accustomed to living. So much of what I endured made me severely uncomfortable. I am merely stating that I am so grateful that I do not have to live in a place that makes me feel discomfort every day. In these moments of Pak Beng, I truly grew a spirit of gratitude. I began to cultivate a sense of mindfulness – an awareness that I am incredibly privileged and that I’ve never had to do much of anything out of necessity, other than work.   

A winding road in Pak Beng, Laos
A winding road in Pak Beng, Laos

Pak Ou Caves

After our rest stop in Pak Beng, we were fortunate enough to visit the Pak Ou caves before arriving in Luang Prabang. Thousands of forms of Buddha statue are hidden within the cave! According to our guide, locals hid the statues in the cave for fear that they would be destroyed. It was a hidden treasure to be discovered.

Thousands of Buddha statues of various sizes in the Pak Ou caves.
Thousands of Buddha statues hidden in the Pak Ou Caves

What I Learned

I was happy to explore such a profoundly spiritual space with a new found sense of gratitude and mindfulness. The circumstances which might normally annoy me seemed so trivial and petty now. Waiting makes me so frustrated, especially when I am being made to wait due to someone’s lack of awareness. There were several times that I had to wait to see an area of the cave so that tourists could take upwards of 900 selfies.

Silhouettes on Buddha statues in black and white in the Pak Ou caves.
A profoundly spiritual place – the Pak Ou Caves was the perfect place to explore with a new sense of gratitude and mindfulness.

Each time, I just smiled and agreed to come back a few minutes later. I’m no stranger to criticizing myself, particularly my physical appearance. My hair was so frizzy that day, I was sweating, and remember feeling SO bloated. Normally, I would spend all of my time perseverating on these matters and ruin my time. Not this time. For once, I had the where-with-all to realize I wasn’t here in hopes of landing on the cover of Vogue. I had a rare opportunity to experience a unique part of Laos history and culture and so my heart swelled and sang instead of sinking deep into my stomach. 

A woman kneels on a prayer mat in the Pak Ou caves. She is shaking a cup full of numbered sticks with an altar in front of her. A group of people wait behind her and look on.
You shake a cup here until a numbered stick falls out. You exchange that stick for a fortune! I had to wait my turn in a very long line and crowd. Typically, this would fuel my frustration, but I was high from a new sense of gratitude from my experience in Pak Beng.

12 thoughts on “Learning to Live with Gratitude in Pakbeng, Laos

  1. Cambodia definitely helped me feel grateful. It also helped me appreciate what you could have with so little.

  2. It’s easy to take our Americanism for granted. I am glad you were able to look inside yourself and overcome some of the things that would normally drive you up the wall. I like to write down what I am grateful for every morning as practice. I have been to Cambodia but not Laos and love the culture there. Travel really shows you that it isn’t what you have that makes you happy. People in other countries have so little and yet are so happy.

  3. Wow! Your intro sure packed a punch! Love your perspective on things and the fact that you’re not afraid to express how you feel. Too many people are so worried about how they will be perceived, they would never express the truth. I had actually looked into this very trip so I’m glad to have read your perspective on things os I can be better prepared when I do go. Love your outlook and the lessons you learnt in Laos. Forever grateful for the things we have. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Wow Stephaniie! The woke culture reference is spot on! Enjoyed the whole article. Had no idea that they ate guinea pigs in Laos. It’s really popular in some parts of South America as well.

  5. South East Asia generally is a place full of contrasts. There I realised I do not know how to react to poverty. If you see just one person that needs help, it is easy to react, but what do you do when the streets are full of people that money or food? But you are right, we should learn how to be grafeful from that… Great post!

  6. What an enlightening experience for you in Pak Beng. I have travelled to Laos but not as far as Pak Beng. I can understand how you felt about the cracker incident, shock then dismay. It does put a different perspective on travelling!

  7. You had such an excellent adventure! Such a beautiful trip. I love Laos. I was there in Laos and Pak Beng, too a long time ago in 2009, so it changes a lot. It was a less popular and less crowded destination in South East Asia. Now it a lot of tourists there, but it is excellent to know that you had a chance to look inside yourself and learning to live in gratitude.

  8. I loved your intro as it really makes us hard to think that how some people have exploited religious practices which should have peaceful approach rather than a glamorized approach. Also loved your journey in Pak Beng, Laos. I have never been to Laos and its near abouts but one day, I would surely visit this place. The Pak Ou Caves really looks like a perfect place to explore with a new sense of gratitude and mindfulness. Good to see so many statues of Buddhas here.

  9. I do the same when I see Rambutans haha! On a serious note, great topic on your intro. A lot of food for thought. Looks like you had a great trip, my favorite spot had to be the Pak Ou caves!

  10. I agree with so much you said here! Today’s trend definitely seems to be wellness travel or solo travel. I love the beautiful pictures of healthy fruit bowls or floating breakfast’s but when every other instagrammer have the same shot, it takes out the purpose of it. You know that many order them just to get a photo and you question if they would order them otherwise. I love it that you are brave enough to truly be yourself in your blog and follow your own path.

    1. Exactly, Paula! I’ve read that most of that food goes to waste. These countries are so poor and plenty of people would love to have that food. So wasteful. Thank you so much for your kind words, it means so much to me!

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