A Lesson in Happiness from a Boatman in Laos
The city of Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos, stretches along the Mekong River. Not a single visiting traveler should miss the opportunity to ride a boat through the ancient waters, see the caves, and enjoy the pristine nature of the country, while enjoying the simple life of the Laotians. On the main street of Luang Prabang are dozens of boaters: some are sleeping, some are looking for new tourists, others reading. My friend and I want to walk along and find our own boatman in Laos, but he finds us himself, calling out to us:
“Good morning, ladies! Want to ride a boat?”
We tell him yes, we want to go to the caves. He tells us, smiling, that the tourist boats have already left, and advises taking a personal boat. Besides, there are many tourists in the large caves, and trips are unreasonably expensive, so he offers to take us to smaller caves and to a village where they make paper. He speaks with such kindness that, having reached the end of the embankment in search of a better offer, we predictably return to him.
Our boatman looks the same as the others: a T-shirt, breeches, rubber flip flops on bare feet. Of medium height, delicate physique, black-haired and tanned. But his aura, his mood — what made us return — felt instant. Besides, he is the only one who offered an alternative travel option, and the locals are the best travel advisors, right?
Happiness is a state of mind, and it comes from within. If there is harmony within you, you are not afraid of anything, you do not doubt tomorrow, and do not worry about anything.
His name is Leo. He leads us down to the river. A Laotian woman, Leo’s wife, waits in a long wooden boat with small benches in three rows. At the end of the boat there is a makeshift bed with a blanket and pillows spread out on it. On the walls of the small cabin are simple household items: a large wok, a smaller pan, a pair of towels, a guitar, spoons, sticks, knives in plastic bags. Next to the bed is a stack of neatly folded clothes on a small table, as well as dishes and fresh food. My friend and I look at each other: the boat is their small but comfortably furnished house.
Our trip takes three hours. All the way, Leo sits at the motor of his houseboat, smiling and hugging his wife while telling us about his native land. We’re curious about how he learned English so well. He tells us he was born in a village near Luang Prabang, in a poor family. His mother looked after the children and his father was a boatman. He tells us that he never went to school, but at 15 he decided to become a monk, which made it possible to study. He stayed in the monastery for five years, meditating, praying, and zealously studying science. He also had to learn English, hence his proficiency. After his time in the monastery, Leo decided to go to the city to work and help his parents.
Two years earlier, he often took tourists from Luang Prabang to the capital, Vientiane, by boat. The journey took two days, and he could earn a lot of money that way: $200 per trip. But times changed. Due to the construction of a new dam on the Mekong, boats are no longer allowed to sail in that area. He also got married a few years earlier. Now that he no longer goes on long trips, the family lives on this boat. Sometimes, when Leo manages to earn and save enough money, he visits his parents in the village.
Leo, out boatman in Laos, sincerely loves his job, finds happiness in the little things, enjoys life, does not try to deceive anyone, and remains true to himself and his principles.
Sharing his life story with us, Leo not only smiles but glows with happiness. For us—with a roof over our heads, who frequently eat out at expensive restaurants, and drive big cars—such a life is unthinkable. But Leo tells us he is very happy.
“I have everything I need: a home, wife, parents. I love what I do, and I only think about what surrounds me: beloved people, tourists from different countries, beautiful nature. I make money, and I can feed my family, but I don’t worry about the rest. Look, what a sky! And there’s a butterfly. Is this not happiness?”
Leo learned this truth in the monastery, through meditation and a concentration on the present. Happiness is a state of mind, and it comes from within. If there is harmony within you, you are not afraid of anything, you do not doubt tomorrow, and do not worry about anything.
“He knows English better than any boatman in Luang Prabang,” Leo’s wife proudly tells us.
For our three-hour trip we paid $12, and that were his only customers. Despite the difficulties of his life, Leo sincerely loves his job, finds happiness in the little things, enjoys life, does not try to deceive anyone, and remains true to himself and his principles. What a good example this boatman in Laos sets.