Making friends in Laos by "11 Bus"

I was walking along the bricked sidewalks at corners Chao Anou Road and Rue Setthathilath in Ventiane, Laos, when I met Hee Su Jung, a 29-year old Korean lady who was completing her 15-day vacation here all by herself.

It was an ordinary Tuesday afternoon (May 7), my fourth day in Laos, and I had been interviewing foreigners for the newspaper column “Streetwise” of Ventiane Times about what they can say about the World’s Best Tourist Destination for 2013 title that the European Council on Tourism and Trade (ECTT) officially awarded to Lao People’s Democratic Republic on Thursday.

ECTT chairman, Professor Dr. Anton Caragea, said among the reasons for awarding Laos the title the preservation of its historical and cultural patrimony that comprises wonderful sites, including religious sites of world significance and value; and, promoting a new concept of community-based tourism.

I was looking for my third interviewee when I saw Hee Su, curly blonde hair, spaghetti-strapped blue sleeveless top that matched those loose cotton pants, donning her sunglasses and earphones on. I was hesitant to approach her at first as she seemed to be enjoying her moment in a sunny weather with temperature over 30 degrees Celsius.

Surprisingly, she agreed to be interviewed. And, that was the start of our friendship.

The interview was only brief, but I learned more about her when we met later for dinner.

Her trip to Laos, particularly 12 days in Vangvieng—a small town in Vientiane province that she reached by bus for four hours from the city—had been a therapy for her.

She said Laos is a place for healing, for people to spend time by themselves and think deeply. She read about Laos two years ago from New York Times but at the time she could not decide to give herself a break. It was only last year when she began preparing for the trip after making a major decision—quitting her job as an English teacher to pursue her passion for music.

She played Surdo 1 in a band, Rapercussion, which had several concerts in Seoul and some provinces in South Korea for five years now. She said doing what she loves is liberating for her despite her parents’ worrying about her financial stability. Since her vacation here, she has taken rest from the band to think about what she really wants for her life.

She said people tend to miss the target and make themselves busy getting rich or accumulating material things. “Most people complained about their jobs everyday but never dare to quit because they need money,” she continued.

She said most of them don’t know how to find peace of mind, and instead they indulge in travelling or sports. “Life is good and a gift from God,” she said, adding that everybody has the choice to live and think freely.

Hee Su told me about her Facebook page, “11 bus” (spelled in Korean), which she started last month. In search for her life’s meaning, she decided to talk to strangers and listen to their stories, then share them in her page. She treated all the people she interviewed as her mentors.

She said most of the tourists she met in Laos also went here for soul-searching and to find peace of mind.

She explained that “11 bus” means her two legs, which resemble number 11 when standing, and walking as a form of transportation. By walking, she said, one can meet a lot of people who have their own struggles and stories of success. It only takes one’s willingness to approach a person and the latter’s openness to create a connection and learn from each other.

Actually, she interviewed me in return to talk about my purpose in Laos and how I became a journalist. I told her that maybe my stay in Laos has a stronger purpose than simply completing my assignments under the 11-month exchange program. I’m looking forward to discover such.

I had been walking from my apartment to the office since Day 2, and indeed, I met a lot of strangers, both Lao people and foreigners.

Although I have my officemates at Vientiane Times, which is my host organization in an exchange program of the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists, making friends outside the work place takes confidence and openness to talk to strangers.

On my way to work last Wednesday, I met Sara Holcombe, a photojournalist from Alabama, USA. She introduced me to her friend Dave, an American freelance journalist in his 50s, who has lived here for years. He promised to show me good places here and share some points about journalism.

That was a good start with my own “11 bus.”

Hee Su planned to visit Gangjeong village in Jeju Island, south of Seoul by May or June this year to take part in the protest of residents and activists against the construction of a naval base. Jeju is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.

She said she realized during her stay in Vangvieng that she can show support for the people’s fight to protect the natural beauty in Gangjeong by simply visiting the village and be together with them.

Getting updates from each other through Line (an online social networking I registered in only when I arrived here), Hee Su and I continue the connection we began when we were on our “11 bus”.

My budding friendship with her reminds me of a journalist friend in Davao City, Philippines, Mick Basa, who taught me a quote from William Butler Yeats that goes “There are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met.”

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