On the Banks of the Mekong

In Luang Prabang, I stayed at the Xieng Thong Boutique Villa, located across the street from the most impressive religious complex in Laos and close to the Mekong River. Almost immediately after checking-in, I headed out the door. 

It was 2 p.m. and my first stop was Wat Xieng Thong, which at that time of day was filled with tourists and pilgrims taking photos. I, too, snapped away. The wat’s soaring roofs, white stupas, and glittering mosaics depicting Buddhist iconography and Laotian daily life were beautiful. 

My second stop was the Mekong River. Along its banks couples sat on benches and chairs, some eating, some chatting. As I took a photo of a wooden covered boat that could hold six, a man tried to sell me his three-hour cruise. The Mekong, the twelfth longest river in the world, flows from the Tibetan Plateau, and runs through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. 

The following morning at 5:00, I visited Wat Xieng Thong again; this time it was quiet and almost empty, except for novices that lived in its complex. I then walked down the street to observe tak bat rituals, the procession of dozens of orange-clad monks walking past villagers placing food into their alms bowls. 

At 6:00, I enjoyed a cappuccino and croissant at Le Bannelon Café, a Café and French Bakery. Throughout Luang Prabang there are reminders that the French ruled Laos for almost 100 years. After this, I walked back to my hotel for breakfast, which consisted of fruit, cereal, and eggs. On this and other mornings, I’d chat with other guests. There was an American retired woman doing animal volunteer work here, an older German couple exploring Southeast Asia, and a family of four from Singapore who were leaving for Cambodia after breakfast. Meeting people from all over the world is a bonus when you travel.  

I did not have a guide accompany me for sightseeing, many others did; it would have been easy to arrange. I prefer to explore on my own. When needed, I have a copy of the DK Eyewitness Guidebook in my backpack. I explored the Royal Palace, several other wats, the beautiful Tat Sae waterfalls, checked out local handicraft, bought items from a coop that supported children’s education, and scouted the night market for souvenirs. 

On my first day at 5 p.m., I heard monks chanting at a nearby wat. It was so beautiful that I sat down on a stool and listened. Local women, praying, sat next to me. A half-hour into the chanting one of them handed me a bottle of water. In some way, I felt that we had bonded. For my remaining stay, I was there at 5 p.m., listening, and meditating.  

An American senior expat who I met at a French café suggested I stop by Big Brother Mouse where locals 18-25 practice English. Because tourism is a major employer, English and Chinese are languages to know. After two hours at this nonprofit, sitting in a corner chatting one-to-one with a young man, while other tourists did the same, I got a good feel for this organization. 

Because of that, I decided to spend the following day at the nonprofit’s elementary school called Big Sister Mouse. At 9 a.m., Sasha drove me, and a family of four, mother, father, son 10, and daughter 13, forty minutes out of town to the school. What an interesting family; they were from England, but living in Cambodia. At the school, we were each assigned lessons for the different groups we worked with. Its purpose was for the children to be comfortable with English. I didn’t get it; we just caused confusion. I wondered, Was this an attempt to get donations out of us? 

One evening, I watched a silent black and white 1925 film called Chan, A Drama of the Wilderness in the garden of the Victoria Xiengthong Palace. Directed by the same people that directed King Kong, there were 500 Lao villagers, 400 untamed elephants, numerous tigers, leopards, snakes, bears, and monkeys in the film. It provided a rare look into Laos’ jungle a century ago. 

I loved Luang Prabang and want to return. It’s a perfect place to unwind.        

Why Spend a Month in Kolkata?

As a baby for a while, I was placed in a Catholic orphanage in a German village. Fifty years later, as a U.S. citizen and tourist in India, I stopped by Mother Teresa’s, Missionaries of Charity orphanage in Kolkata and spent the afternoon with a group of toddlers. Sitting comfortably, I picked one up, placed him on my lap, and rocked back and forth as I sang a German song. The moment I put the child down, the next jumped into my lap. Upon leaving, I saw a small-framed nun in the hallway. Recognition dawning, flustered, flabbergasted, I stammered, “Mother Teresa, how wonderful to meet you. I’ve read about the great thing you’re doing.” She stopped to look at me, and calmly, and serenely replied, “All of us here are just doing God’s work” and then continued walking. At that moment, I decided to do volunteer work, but got in the way. 

A year ago, I visited the Mother Teresa’s Museum, a 45-minute drive from Naples, Florida and was inspired to read key books about her life. During this process, there was more I wanted to know, but these books didn’t answer my questions. As author, historian, and traveler, I bet I could write a book that would add new insight to what exists. 

In January to follow up, I flew to Kolkata, where Mother Teresa was based, checked into a hotel, was on the doorsteps of the Motherhouse the following morning, and soon volunteered at a Missionaries of Charity children’s home. At the same time, I explored Kolkata, which had been the capital of the British Indian empire until 1911. 

Between 1840 and 1920, Kolkata was an intellectual mecca where the arts, literature, science, and religion flourished. Today, Bengali gentry can still be found at the Bengal Club, the racetrack, and golf course. In contrast, poverty is visible almost everywhere. For first-timers to India, this teeming city would be bewildering, but not for me as this was my eighth trip to India. 

Since something always leads to something else - At Kolkata’s Literary Festival, I picked up a new bio of Subhas Chandra Bose’s written by his nephew. For Indians he was hero, but to the British, a traitor. During WWII, allied with the Japanese, he formed an army to attack the Raj, the British rulers of India. Visiting Bose’s home, more about his actions as a freedom fighter became clear… I canvased bookstands on College Street for Rabindranath Tagore’s bio, another huge historical figure. He was an essayist, poet, activist, painter, and well-known world figure. He began painting in his sixties and produced thousands of pieces. I saw some at his family mansion and more at the Indian Museum… While on College Street, I climbed the stairs to a coffee house that once was the meeting place of freedom fighters. Jammed with students, while drinking a cup, I tried to visualize this place in its heyday. 

Visiting the Mullik Ghat Flower Market at 6 a.m. by the Howrah Bridge, I saw tin shacks where people lived and men carrying huge bundles on their heads, a clue how tough life was for some. In the area, I also spotted men bathing in the river and wrestlers practicing their art. Wherever I walked, unexpected scenes unfolded. I never got bored, only hot, and tired. 

Digging into history, I visited St. John’s Church, where Job Charock, a seventeenth century English sea captain and father of Calcutta, was interned. In the back, stood the Black Hole Memorial commemorating the time when in 1756 a Muslim prince captured the city and imprisoned high-level British, many of whom died. I was the only visitor to the church. Most unusual, for everywhere else there were crowds. Not to be missed was The Victoria Monument, a marble building designed to mark Queen Victoria’s 1901 diamond Jubilee. I dodged merchants in teeming Barabazar to visit an Armenian Church, the oldest Christian one in the city, and the Moghan David Synagogue, which once thrived, but was now abandoned. I located the Muslim caretaker who gave me a tour. A huge diversity of religions and practices are found in India. The majority of Kolkatans are Hindu, a minority are Muslims, and a smaller number are Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains. Using my Lonely Planet India guidebook, I visited many of their sites. 

On a side trip, I flew to the Andaman Islands, known for their legendary beaches and fabulous diving, but for me it was another historic eye opener… From 1857 on, the Raj exiled political prisoners to this remote island, housed them in the Cellular Jail where many died due to cruel treatment. During WWII, islanders greeted the invading Japanese as liberators and Bose raised a flag to Indian independence. I visited the old Catham Saw Mill, still in operation, Ross Island, from which the British ruled, Japanese bunkers at the Hotel Sinclair, and spent a night in Havelock, which had beautiful beaches. On my next trip to Kolkata, I plan on going on an excursion to the Sunderbans, a mangrove area with much wildlife, and revisiting Dhaka and Grameen Bank’s headquarters. 

For the first week of my trip, I stayed at the four-star Kenilworth Hotel, located in the central part of the city. Its rooms were comfortable, food was excellent, and staff helpful. Since it was wedding season, I witnessed a number of wedding receptions at the hotel and got a glimpse of the colorful silk and brocade garments worm by both men and women. I didn’t want to leave this hotel, but I desperately wanted to stay at the historic, Elgin Fairfield, a 235-year old building. When a room became available, I grabbed it. Located on Sudder Street, where many backpackers stay, it was run by the eccentric Violet Smith until her death in 2014. Violet’s parents fled Armenia after the Turkish invasion in 1915. They landed in Kolkata and bought the hotel in 1936. Photos of the many who’s who that stayed at this high-end British Grande Dame flank its walls. On the balcony at 5 p.m., happy hour, I met some of its current guests. They were my kind of people - Older hippies, writers, photographers, and artists. Many had stayed at this hotel in the 60s and 70s and returned year after year. I loved hearing their many stories. I told my granddaughter, Amanda, that I met Kathy, my new BFF, at the hotel. She laughed. 

My trip was a huge successful. I did research on Mother Teresa, explored the city, and made new friends. I loved my time in Kolkata and plan to return for another month in November.