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Lao Sabai

I remember the very first trip. It was August, which meant sticky days and a heat that swelled until the skies opened with a gush of rain. The rice paddies sparkled in a light I still can’t adequately describe. Radiant. Brilliant. Electric. Cliché. They were the very definition of green.

It was our first anniversary. We’d been working in Phnom Penh, and Jerry surprised me with tickets to Laos. We had just a few short days. We stayed first in Vientiane, visiting Buddhist temples trimmed in gold. We drank wild fruit smoothies at a mom-and-pop shop with a blender out front and a concrete picnic table where we could sit and watch the life walk by. Breakfast was homemade noodle soup on the Mekong with thick Lao coffee and sweet, condensed milk. The pace was slow, and there were no smartphones or Facebook or Twitter to detract from the moment.

Mid-trip, we flew to Phonsavanh on a tiny plane. When we landed, the airline staff informed us our return flight would be canceled because government officials had fully booked the next plane out. So even before we made it to town, we were forced to stay an extra day—and I called the office in Phnom Penh to say I’d be back late.

We trekked through mud at the Plain of Jars, and stayed at a little guesthouse with an en suite bathroom and a broken pipe. Our shower was a bucket. An old mosquito net covered the bed. And I’m pretty sure we had rats in the room at night. There was no 24-hour electricity at that time, so we spent the evening on the guesthouse porch, drinking lao lao by candlelight with another guest. We ate at a little restaurant that served a heap of fried noodles on a giant plate with a military spoon marked “U.S.” I bought that spoon. I still have it today. I had no idea then how much of my later life I’d dedicate to the investigation of the US military role in Laos.

There is a limitation in the work we do as journalists: our audience sees the end report, but it doesn’t see the everyday in between. It doesn’t see sunset on the river, and it doesn’t taste fresh mango with sticky rice at the end of a spicy meal. Our readers don’t see all the little things that feed us with the intrigue that propels our story, makes us want to go back again and again. And again.

As many of you know, we’ve been working on a documentary film, the extension of our book. But even films and books have these same limitations. The story centers on problems; the dramatic question never rests on “a day in the life.”

So Jerry created this: a day in the life of Laos as we have seen. From sunrise to sunset, with rivers and monks and children at school; markets and temples, motos and boats.

It’s Lao Sabai: happy, healthy, relaxed. It’s the underlying story we experience every day that makes us love a place.


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