Saibai di is the sound of Laos.  Said with a smile, it means hello, or welcome.  The smile is part of the word – it lights up the Lao face and lights a smile in the recipient as well. Sabai di baw means ‘how are you?’  The answer ‘I’m fine’ is also sabai di.  So basically the sabai dis just flow back and forth, and the smiles and relaxed good feelings of Laos fill your heart.

From there, the language grows more complex, at least to my ear, and I am totally lost.  Except for the basic numbers, which mercifully are the same as the Thai I had learned a few weeks ago.  The Thai greeting is sawatdee, but the broad smile is not an integral part as it is here.  Not that it is cold, just more quiet, often slightly more gentle.

Many other words in Thai and Lao are the same, or very much so, yet others have quite different meanings. In Laos, thank you is kok jai.  In Thailand, that same form implies that the person you are talking to is of inferior status.  So careful, careful, lest you offend.

The languages here are all tonal which means that the same word might mean five (in Thai) or six (in Lao) quite different things depending on whether spoken at the low, middle or high range of the speakers voice, or with rising tone, or with low or high falling tone.  Our bumbling efforts may give the native speakers either puzzlement or hilarity, depending on how far wrong you might be.  Still, most appreciate our tone deaf tries.  Learning the tones takes time and careful hearing.  I understand that eventually it suddenly clicks and you can hear it too.  I would love to be here long enough for that to happen, but this whistle tour of four countries does not permit that.

While in Luang Prabang, I went on a day trip to the very lovely Kouang Si waterfall.  With flip flops tied to my belt, I climbed barefoot to the top, as most reasonably fit visitors do.  And strangely enough, when I reached the river above, I heard in the trees a remarkably familiar sound.  A bird was calling over and over, and what he said sounded to me all the world like sa bai dee, sa bai dee.

Hello he said.  Welcome to my forest.  And I wondered, could that have been where the word of welcome truly was born.  Welcome to my jungle.  How are you?  Yes my bird friend, I am fine.

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