Sadia Ali is a National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee who seeks to unravel the conflict between “Western” and “Eastern” medicine, and to illustrate how their intersection can be beneficial to everyone in providing more treatment options and lowering costs. Her project, “A Healer’s Meridian”, focuses on reporting healthcare conditions and practices in Laos, where medicine is both new and traditional.
Our latest destination was reached by another four-hour trek across Laos to just North of Vang Vieng. The main road that began our journey tapered off as it gradually led us up to the mountains. With two hours of motorcycling under our belt, we agreed to take a respite before the sun set. In the distance, I could see a narrow dirt offshoot from the main road. The passageway was engulfed by trees, but fresh motorcycle tracks previously left by a biker assured us that this was an appropriate place to rest.
We followed the dirt passageway with cautious eyes and came to find that it was leading us to a village. There, at the entrance, was a large banner propped up spelling out the name of the village in bold Lao letters. The banner was embellished with plated gold and adornments similar to those found on Buddhist temples.
We cautiously entered, excited to have stumbled upon a treasure in our long journey, but concerned that we were intruding on the locals’ home.Following novice monks into the depths of the Mekong jungle. (Photo by Sadia Ali)
As we made our way in, a stillness settled in the air. There were no locals there. It seemed to be completely empty with only the stiff temple at its center. We got off our bikes, curious to explore this small village and make sense of its vacancy.
We approached the Buddhist temple, which was more simple in design than others we had visited in Thailand and Vientiane. It still had the winged roofs, plated with gold edges, but it had an open space where people could sit inside it and still be immersed in the greenery of the village.
Suddenly we hear giggles coming from the trees near our parked motorbikes. We turn around to find a group of boys just shy of seven years old adorned in traditional monk garb. They laugh at our confusion and our Western awkwardness around the village. We poke fun at ourselves in the hopes of seeming friendly and unthreatening. And within time, they begin to warm up to us and walk towards us as we pull out our cameras. We show them quick snapshots on our camera and they curiously watch as we play with the gages to take simple photos of trees and plants.
We motion to take photos of them and many boys smirk and shy away, but some brave souls congregated for a group photo. We take a couple of snapshots and show them the photographs. They laugh hysterically at their own image, but were curious to see more of what this contraption can do. More boys joined in on the photographs and it soon became a photo shoot with the whole group chiming in.
After a good ten photographs, the monks motion to us to follow them into the outskirts of their village. Curiously, we follow their lead as they take us into the shady ends of their home. At this point, the dirt road leading us to the village narrows off and is covered in wild plants and trees. Some of the boys turn around with stern looks on their faces, but immediately break out in laughter at our perplexed expressions.
We turn to our right and amongst the jungle of wildlife are Buddhist monuments completely covered in gold. They sit in a circle with both hands raised in prayer.
We continue to follow them and push through the trees along our pathway. Within minutes we find ourselves on a small cliff overlooking the Mekong River. The kids suddenly take off their traditional garb and jump off the cliff into the river. They invite us in with smiles and laughter, so we follow suit. With all of my clothes on, I run and jump off of the cliff. I am thrown into the river and immediately get pulled by the current. They laugh as I pathetically struggle to find land and grab on tightly. I take hold of a root as I watch this group of kids begin to climb up the trees and flip into the water.
In the adventurous spirit, I decide to join and begin to scale up this large tree overlooking the Mekong. I stretch my limbs across the branch and a sharp twig catches onto my pants and rips my bottom open. Immediately, the whole lot burst into laughter at my pitiful attempt to climb this labyrinth of branches. Despite the large gash on my pants, I take the leap and once again thrust myself into the Mekong current.
After repeated leaps and flips into the water, my team and I begin to pack our things and hit the road for the remainder of our trek. We hop back on our bikes as we say farewell to the young monks, who were the only residents we saw in this small village.
This experience was not planned, but it spoke to the preservation of culture and beliefs strongly held by Buddhist tradition. In Laos, Buddhist culture is held firmly by the majority of people. These boys represent the importance of cultural preservation in a world of Westernization. Although not quite monks yet, they are novices. When they reach age twenty, they are eligible to become monks for however long they wish. From my experience, these novices can still live a normal childhood, but have a strict regimen of waking up early in a dormitory, washing with cold water, and studying with strict discipline. Usually novices remain in small villages. When they grow older, many leave their villages to go to bigger religious sites and continue their studies.
Many of these admitted novices move to urban wats, or temples where they become well-versed in traditional medicine. Many wats house gardens where medicinal plants are cultivated to treat patients. Among these teachings, Buddhists traditionally have no problem taking Western pharmaceuticals as long as the drug does not disobey the fifth precept-altering their emotional state or clarity of mind. Their teachings and acceptance of modern pharmaceuticals is a good example of the fine balance between preserving traditional practices yet leveraging Western medicine to improve the well-being of their people.