As a young man, I can still remember sitting in the auditorium of my medical school listening to the Dean calling out our draft numbers for the war effort in Vietnam based on our birthdays. Mine was 315-whew!!! Little did I know at the time that I would develop a fascination with South East Asia.
The War in Vietnam (The American War as described by the Vietnamese) lives vividly in my memory as the horrors of this conflict were shown on the nightly news. In 1979, the movie Apocalypse Now came into the theaters. In this movie, Special Operations Veteran Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is assigned to go down the Nung River (in reality the Mekong River) from Central Vietnam to Cambodia to seek out and kill Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kuntz (Marlon Brando), who has gone insane. Scenes from this movie became indelible and made a trip down the Mekong an important destination for me.
In 2000, we made our way from Bangkok, Thailand to Champasak, Laos and headed south on the Mekong River. We embarked on a narrow boat that could only hold my friends Cliff and Mark, our guide, the boat driver and me. There was no infrastructure in Laos. Travel in the country was by boat or plane only, as a highway system had not yet been developed.
After 6 hours of travel in very warm conditions, we made it to Muang Khong where I saw my first open air market in an Asian country.
It was amazing to me that I was born and raised in a country where we wouldn't think twice about going to a large, clean, air-conditioned grocery store where fresh produce is brought in almost daily. In Laos, the grocery store is an open air market, as shown above, selling rats, frogs and pigs heads.
One of our stops was on the Bolaven Plateau where we came across the ethnic minority village of Nge. As a physician, I was amazed at the sight of a woman with a goiter the size of a grapefruit on her neck. While a goiter can be due to either too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) or too little (hypothyroidism), the most common cause is low thyroid from an iodine deficiency where iodized salt is not readily available.
I'll never forget one of our next stops in Luang Prabang. At 6:00 AM we got up in darkness to see the monks standing in line to collect alms, balls of sticky rice for their morning meal.
After seeing these young men living a monastic life, being fed one of two meals daily, I became consumed with the culture in South East Asia. Outdoor markets, women with goiters, monks dressed in orange about to eat in silence...I wanted more!