The Women Behind the Wat

Asia, Laos, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Spa & Beauty, Spiritual Travel — By on January 29, 2007 at 9:51 am

After Jen and I melted into rosemary and lemongrass-scented puddles at the forest temple (called Wat Sok Pa Luang), I decided that I had to meet the pleasure-loving mind behind the herbal-infused steam baths and tropical group massage sessions. I was actually somewhat surprised to learn from Noy, the vociferous gal coordinating treatments and handing out brightly patterned “modesty” sarongs, that a Buddhist nun had created the spa, and that this devout sixty-something holy woman was actually her aunt.

Somewhat impulsively, I asked Noy if it would be possible to chat with her aunt to in order to learn how to recreate the intoxicating steam experience back home.

The skeptical New Yorker in me was pretty sure that Noy was putting me on when she immediately agreed to meet me for breakfast at a café the next day and whisk me away to the countryside on her motorbike. Oh yes, and since her Aunt didn’t speak a word of English, she’d be translating the whole conversation.

Eight-thirty is okay then?” she asked, writing down the name of my hostel so she could find me the next day.

Of course. Sure thing. I quashed my suspicions that she might try to charge me some exorbitant fee for this whole experience and instead wondered how she could take a morning off from running the spa to shepherd some tourist around town.

“Easy, the place doesn’t open ‘til 2:00 in the afternoon,” she laughed as she broke the yoke on her eggs at breakfast the following morning. Noy seemed in no rush to get moving so we sipped a few more cups of steaming Lao coffee and let the conversation drift from business to family to the topic all 20-something women seem to care about around the world-relationships.

At 27, I learned that Noy considered herself way, way over the hill, but loathed the idea of arranged marriage (for herself anyway) and hoped, someday, to meet a guy who could keep up with her modern sensibilities and ambition. I told her lots of American girls could relate.

Noy grew comfortable enough that by the time I hopped on the back of her “moddah-bike” two hours later, she’d started to delve into Cosmo territory. I soon learned that she’d lost her virginity to a long-term boyfriend at age 24, but things between them hadn’t worked out. Since then, she’d had a small string of affairs with men she’d met at her job and was currently pining away for a young American guy who’d promised to email her after he left town two weeks ago. So far, he hadn’t.

Again, I told her American women could probably relate.

We quickly breezed out of Vientiane’s touristy historic district and I could see that Lao’s capital looked a lot like a small mid-western city in the US. Car dealership and repair shops lined the main road. Traffic was bad. Entire families were perched like circus performers on the backs of mopeds, with Dad driving in the front, Mom cradling an infant behind and a toddler sandwiched in between both parents. Pseudo-tough guys turned to stare at me as they zipped past. Noy shouted that I should keep my purse situated between us as locals had a bad habit of snatching them.

I followed her instruction and we spent the next 45 minutes or so in the comfortable silence that occurs when the wind makes it impossible to have a real conversation.

We passed acres of recently harvested farmland before finally reaching Wat Pahakounoi, where Noy’s aunt Meekow Koe Moungsen was there waiting. She only had about twenty minutes to spare, as it was nearing mealtime and she had hundreds of monk mouths to feed.

As you can see from the photo, Auntie wasn’t big on smiling and I suddenly felt awkward about grilling her on the various healing properties of herbs. Would she wonder who the heck I was, poking around her monastery and trying to poach the steam(y) secrets she’d accrued over a lifetime of practice? Was she staring at my sleeveless shirt and Capri pants and thinking what an American tart I was? Would she tell Noy to put me right back on the motorbike and take the disrespectful Westerner home?

Clearly, my neurotic New York sensibilities had kicked in again.

Despite the language barrier (as well as my bare shoulders and shins), Auntie made me feel right at home on her lovely tree-shaded meditation platform. With Noy’s help, she answered all my questions about the therapeutic benefits of lemongrass, rosemary, mint and citrus, and made some suggestions for a do-it-yourself herbal steam treatment.

After my twenty minute interview had passed and I’d snapped a few requisite photos, I stood up, prepared to let my conversation partner return to her tasks at hand. I was startled when she took my hand and gently pulled me back to a sitting position. She stared at me, intently, and said something to her niece
“She says that this not the last time you come here,” translated Noy. “You come back to learn meditation, learn about plants and you study with her, in this place. She says that she knows this and it will be in a few years.”

I turned to look at Noy, surprised, but determined not to let me inner city skeptic get the best of me this time.

“Kop Chai. Thank you,” I said, looking at Auntie who finally cracked a small smile.

I had no intention of studying Buddhism in a rural temple in Laos anytime in the near future, but who the heck knew? Maybe I’d have some Eat-Pray-Love style midlife crisis which would propel me around the world a second time to seek answers and absolution through intense meditation, 24-hour silence and self-denial.

When you’re a Lost Girl, anything can happen.

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    3 Comments

  • Lynn says:

    So . . . any chance that you’ll be posting what you learned? Maybe a do-it-yourself spa thing?

  • adam says:

    I went and got a massage there too. Free tea? I was so confused at first but then this little monk lead me to the massage area. It was awesome. Have an amazing time. Make sure you go tubing in Veng Vien and Luang prabang is one of my favorite cities in the world. Le Estranger the book store is really cool. Check out the upstairs chill area. They show movies every night as well. Also the bar next door is fun too Keep Traveling. Go to Pai as well in Northern Thailand. Amazing place.

  • Schmanders says:

    Hi Lynn and Adam,

    Thanks for the comments. Stay tuned for the recipe…I’ll be posting it shortly!

    -Amanda