Gods Aren’t For Sale

I had an encounter with magic in southern Laos. I mean this literally. We flew to Pakse, in order to make our way down to an area called 4,000 Islands. Laos’s border to Cambodia is a stretch of the Mekong River with wild waterfalls and rushing waters. [1] The French ambitiously (and quixotically) tried to build a train through the jungle at Don Det-Don Khon. The rapids defeated them. D31_6937_DxO8 We hired a driver and sweet young man named Ley to guide us around. We made an outing to Paksong on the Bolaven Plateau, home of small, superb Laotian coffee plantations. D31_6495_DxO8D31_6496_DxO8On our drive back we stopped at a market hall. Taxis were filling with local workers who stopped to buy groceries. D31_6481_DxO8Rows of vendors sold grades of rice, D31_6488_DxO8eggs, fresh fruit, coffee (natch), bolts of cloth, dried fishes, D31_6478_DxO8D31_6479_DxO8vegetables and herbs, freshly cooked food and plastic bags of marinades and sauces.

D31_6491_DxO8D31_6489_DxO8The variety of fresh produce is tremendous: alone in these photos I can identify three different sizes and shapes of eggplant, tomatoes, cilantro, parsley, Thai basil, oranges, peppers in every size and grade of hotness, cucumber, bitter melon, carrots, zuccini, onions, garlic, bok choy, green and Napa (Chinese) cabbages, ginger, limes, long beans, shallots, spring onions, chives, squash, rose apples.D31_6476_DxO8
D31_6474_DxO8Women from the hill tribes had wares for sale. An older woman had set up a stand away from most of the others. Curious, I walked over.D31_6487_DxO8She had images of the Buddha, and  items for religious and medical purposes. Talons, hooves, D31_6486_DxO8deer skulls, D31_6485_DxO8bundles of herbs and animal horns. D31_6483_DxO8

Bottles of herb tinctures. Bark. Dried leaves.D31_6484_DxO8

I was pulled like a magnet to her strange pairs of roots. I couldn’t tear my eyes from them. I felt fascinated, and somehow frightened, too. She’d tied male and female roots together. They’d been carved to accentuate their human forms.D31_6483_DxO8
D31_6483_DxO8The pairs called to me on some strange level…. “What are they for?” I asked. Ley explained to me that they are placed in a home to protect it and the family that lives there.

“Would you ask her how much they cost?” I asked. She gave me a sharp look and hesitated. “Ten dollars,” she said finally.

“Ten dollars?” I was beyond surprised. $10 is a paltry sum in most parts of the world. Here, in one of the poorest countries on the planet, the price she wanted was outrageous. [2]

Ley looked confused as well, and talked to her for a while. Her voice rose. The two discussed the transaction so long that I became uncomfortable. At last he turned to me. “She says, these are their gods, and it would be wrong to sell them to outsiders.”

In an instant, desire to be near the figures left me. “I’m so sorry. Please apologize to her and tell her I meant no disrespect. They are very, very powerful.” Ley translated and she gave me a grudging looking-over.

I’ve thought a lot about that strange encounter with foreign magic. Even my husband says he wondered about me that afternoon; he watched with growing concern as I was drawn to something I didn’t understand. All these years later I recall the power that emanated from those male and female roots, and I tremble.

NOTES: [1] For a little while longer, anyway. Hydroelectric dams are being built by northern neighbor China, with breathtakingly little regard or concern for how this impacts the ecosystems further downstream. [2] She purposely asked for a ridiculously large amount of money.

Go to my posts The Salt Pits and The Waterfalls of Laos: North for more on Laos. Photos Copyright © 2012 Uwe Hartmann. More of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.

http://www.paksong.info
Don Khon narrow gauge railway

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12 thoughts on “Gods Aren’t For Sale”

  1. What a fascinating place to visit. When I see these enormous food markets (the same here in Mexico, as you know) I always wonder who can possibly eat all this food? and how can anyone here go hungry? and what happens to the part that doesn’t sell? so many wonderings….

    1. I’ve been turning these questions around in my brain since you posed them here (thank you very much for adding to my general confusion!). Any readers out there who can answer?

  2. The East Side of Saint Paul, Minnesota, where I worked for 10 years, is home to 40,000 Hmong refugees. Not far from work, the city converted a large warehouse into a flea market, farmer’s market and restaurant space for the local residents. It looks remarkably like your photos and is great place to find something to eat.

  3. You should link up with your new blog because the link on my blog goes to the old one. I have enjoyed looking at the photos and the myriads of produce from the market. How exciting!!!!!

  4. What an amazing encounter. I love these kinds of markets, and frequently wish I could have someone with me who could explain it all. Something obviously resonated for you. It’s a good thing you had an interpreter. I know sometimes I feel like I’m just bumbling along hoping not to offend anyone.
    Alison

    1. I agree! We go out of our way to explore markets! Though with this one I almost got more than I bargained for (literally….) My husband says it was like I was hypnotized by the figures; he’d never seen me respond like that anywhere we’ve traveled. But once I realized they were sacred I knew I couldn’t ‘buy’ them, and that I was going to apologize.

  5. We visited Laos once, but only for a short time and didn’t come across anything like this (or the glorious waterfalls in your previous post). Thanks for visiting The Glasgow Gallivanter.

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