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Laos is about family, a whole family sitting on a mat in the evening, from the youngest to the eldest..just sitting…

…sitting on a mat with Meow Kan (great grandmother), Meow (grandmother), and Nang (grand-daughter)…and with the spirit of the fourth woman, ‘mother’, now at peace…

…sitting with Meow Kan whose eyes light up when she sees our maps and whose ability to mime experiences where words are lacking is pure artistry

..sitting with Meow…so tiny and so beautiful the whole room seems to gravitate towards her..the glowing heart of the extended stilted family structure…smelling of sticky rice and pumpkin soup, fingers tough from the loom…

and sitting with Nang, 12, the eldest child in the family….the epitome of the Laos I have come to know…enigmatic, unassuming, patient, intelligent…the Laos that sits head down accepting as her brother pelts rubbish at her, calmly waiting for some pre-ordained peaceful outcome…

…the first member of her family to learn to read and write, Nang is also future Laos…the Laos waiting to take its own photograph, to write it’s own journal and keep its own sketchbook, the Laos that will write it’s own commentary

Laos is about family, a blessing of white phi strings and a mouthful of sticky rice….

(Kong Lor village home stay)

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Mr Leng…caped crusader, ice lolly wonder…he appears out of nowhere and stays for as long as you entertain him…he asks you to ‘help me’ by buying an ice lolly from his polystyrene freezer on wheels and then gives you the lolly for free, ‘lovely jubbly’ and a hand made business card…all smile and paper thin

Mr Leng lives where the other half live…in the gaps…in the alley ways between the main streets, in the corrugated metal shacks between the buildings, in the mobile stalls running rings around the restaurants …

(Luang Prabang)

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Saturday is match day…the men crowd around the ‘ring’ of dismantled twin tub washing machine cardboard boxes lined with red towelling and the Laotian soundtrack of the cockerel call and response takes on a new urgency….Laotian men love to fight cockerels

..the men tend to the cockerels like boxers…..taping up claws and wiping down battered feathers and red raw chests between rounds….no longer silly loud mouthed birds dizzy with the exhilaration of declaring their territory in the early dark of dawn, scattering chickens as they go…these are prized animals whose vocal might must manifest in beak and claw

…watching between finger tips… excruciating and fascinating…too much, too cruel…

..and then cockerel looks man in the eye…the weakling refuses to fight the strongest and the strongest will no longer goad his contender….and the game is over

…under woven pens in the street the birds heal for a week, each morning calling out their rivals from a safer distance

(Luang Prabang)

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Ban Na Him….waiting in the dusty heat of a bus shelter for an open air pick-up truck…a cargo of grannies who have picked bare the bones of a skeleton market…skinny ageing cabbages, small fried fish and sticky rice… a million miles away from the round bellied displays of Cambodia, Vietnam, China…

…this small town waiting for tourism to hit evokes uncomfortable feelings …a new street of shiny empty guest houses and its first ATM…but no infrastructure, no market to support its current community and the surrounding villages …. cooks run out of cooking oil in the cafes and have to discount the already discounted cost of a meal…

..the old women wait for the truck to leave with Laotian patience…chuckling barefoot and beautiful…lips and finger tips ruddy red stained from a bark they chew…a bark they chew as if its a banquet and then roll up large green leaves dipped in a small pot of white paste for dessert

…the old women pay half fare on the truck…staggering back across fields to tiny stilted wooden shacks with their shopping….kicking up small trails of red dust…

tumblr_mhxjssRYIq1rwrgbko2_1280 tumblr_mhxjssRYIq1rwrgbko1_1280 the shade of stilted frames a grandmother sits mending clothing…a cigarette hanging from her mouth…her body never changes position save for the movement of her arm extending needle and thread….the thick black stitched marks of careful mending visible on her pale pink now greying bra…

…little children run in and out of the Mekong naked and screaming high pitched with laughter ….

…a tiny tourist infrastructure threads itself in and around this stilted framework…small-scale…local…in-house…rules decreed by village elders…

Laos writ small, this island is marked with a question…which direction to develop in…

(Don Khone island, Laos)

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….waking before sunrise…the cockerels competing to out-cry the prayer song…a glowing world…

…waking before sunrise to find four generations of women working before school to ensure we wake up to a perfect world…

…waking before sunrise we are back in a land of multiple generations of family, the oldest looking after the youngest …grandmothers tending to the children…the tracing of knowledge passed through a family

(Don Khone island, Laos)

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…the father sits crossed legged at the low table quietly inspecting the chicken…measuring the thickness of its neck with his looped finger…pinching the meat on its body…Akamu and his siblings wait proudly…hair still glistening from the river swim after school…white phi strings bright on their wrists…is the animal ready for eating?

….the chickens sit so quietly in the children’s hands….

…transformers rampaging across his t-shirt but such calmness in his eyes…the way Akamu shepherds both his siblings and animals seems so far removed from a diet of robots and kids TV…

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child vendor’s story part 4….an alternative Disneyland…Banteay Srei, Angkor

Banteay Srei….’the lady temple’….a place built for princesses…beautiful pink sandstone towers…a narrative of carvings…a magical imagining of legend and history…

..but in its modern guise, this Disneyland is subverted….the kids are on the outside selling merchandise…and the adults are on the inside being entertained…

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child vendor’s story part 3 – the litter kids…

…sunrise at Angkor Wat, otherworldly beautiful…bright pink waterlilies and the silky tones of darkness receding…strong horizon of towering shapes, iconic proportions…

…in the rising light mothers and tiny children move across the space with huge garbage bags in tow…the women take their smallest children with them to squeeze into the gaps of public bins to salvage recyclables…

Kiri, 14, and Caw, 11, are sent to pick through the litter in the less picturesque streets of Siem Reap…Caw used to go to school in the morning…he can spell his name and count to 10 in English…he shows me in a whisper on his fingers

Kiri is shy, he stands back…the word Angry stands out on his t-shirt…

…Angry Birds are the cartoon of choice adorning all cheap children’s merchandise in Cambodia.

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child vendor’s story part 2…child vendors at Ta Som (Angkor Wat)….little children dance around us like butterflies…simultaneously shy and bold…selling baskets of bracelets, magnets, postcards…

when you catch sight of the children resting in the shade of a ruin, they look childlike, chatting, playful, a gang of friends…but when they are selling they are old beyond their years, in competition with each other, masters of both verbal and body language

“How old are you?”
“12 years old”
“12 years, no!”
“Yes, Cambodians are very small”

“Why you no buy from me, you fly to Cambodia so you have money”
“Buy book, you never read you never know”
“No money no honey”

…at night it’s the children not the grandmothers rummaging through the litter for recyclables in Cambodia…working so hard, the children fill the invisible gap in a family’s labour to survive

To see my most recent drawings and my sketchbook blog through China and South East Asia please click here

sequoia (photograph of image) ©joannalaylaforest (photograph of image) ©joannalaylaVinales, CubaShanty, Trinidad

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