I thought you went to Laos, I hear you say. (Well, I don't, but you know what I mean.) My recent book, Bombs and Butterflies, is all about my trip to Laos last winter. So why the chatter about Cambodia?
Well, the cobra came up, so to speak, so I wrote about that. And I couldn't do that without pointing out that there was so much more to Cambodia than snakes and temples. But you're right - so here are some thoughts about Laos.
Laos and Cambodia are neighbours. They both wrestle the dialogue between ancient ways of thinking and the urgency of western ideas. They have both experienced trauma in living memory - trauma that runs far deeper than most of us could possibly imagine.
And yet, in spite of all that, Laos is hugely different. To begin with, Cambodia has had to come terms with Khmer murdering Khmer. They slaughtered their own people in their millions. Some of those who survived are traumatised - but they have had many children. And it is the children, young people now, who work their socks off to rebuild the country. Killing fields, they say - pah! Look to the future. I was in Phnom Penh for Independence Day and every young person in the city was in the central park, speakers blaring, dancing, singing, Rocking all over the World. It felt like a joyful two fingers to the past - they have a country to rebuild and no one is going to stop them.
In contrast, the devastation in Laos came from the air - from American bombing. Raids were sent into to Laos every eight minutes for nine years. (Can you begin to imagine that?). They responded by closing their borders, for forty years. Why wouldn't they? Who was there left to trust? Slowly, with the support of China, they are beginning to allow the rest of the world to peer through their doorways.
As a visitor (I hope I was a visitor, and not simply a tourist), it takes time to meet people, to find a language we both understand, to begin to engage with their experiences - which makes sense in view of such recent devastation. I found them to be kind and generous, and quietly welcoming. A young woman at a Homestay, who carried my luggage and helped me up and down the steps (I'm ancient by Laotian standards) even offered to wash my feet. It was humbling, when she knew nothing about me other than the colour of my skin, that she should go to such lengths to show hospitality.
And the countryside is astonishingly beautiful: mountains, rich with heavy green, impenetrable to the likes of me but no doubt a metropolis of wild life. There are villages reachable only by river - what better way to travel. And so many quiet corners to contemplate this lovely country and its brave people.
As some of you know, my camera was stolen just before I left, and so I have no pictures. But Laura Zera has also been to Laos, and came back with some wonderful photos that are on her blog - over two whole posts!! Here and here. She has given me permission to use her pictures on this blog - but that feels unfair, given that she took them and has been so generous. So do go and have a look. (And you can find Laura on twitter - @laurazera - she's some fascinating mental health stuff as well as the travelling. What a woman!)