The Merit Birds – Vientiane, Laos – Kelley Powell

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Why a booktrail?

A journey into a new culture and a new awareness as one boy moves with his family from Ottawa to Laos..

Story

Eighteen-year-old Cam Scott has a lot to deal with at the moment. His dad is not around and his mum has just accepted a job posting in Vientiane, Laos which means a move halfway across the world.  What about his dreams of playing basketball for Ottawa not to mention the strange new culture and life he’s about to have forced on him.

His new life however has some strange effects on him as he begins to make friends and even finds love. There’s a way of building good faith here – you buy a caged bird –  a ‘merit bird’ and that gives you good karma. But when tragedy strikes, Cam finds himself needing a lot of good faith from a culture and people he realises he knows little about.

Place and setting

Laos - Vientiane - Talat Sao morning market Talat Sao is a morning market in Vientiane, Laos. Located at the eastern corner of Lan Xang Rd. and Khu Vieng Rd. in the heart of Vientiane, the morning market is open daily from 07:00 until around 16:00 Mekong River Seng must travel across here and hope that Mother Water saves him. It separates Thailand and Laos Laos - Vang Viend Where Cam says he was on the night of the party Laos - Vientiane  - Patuxai Traffic circle Where the merit birds are captured in cages. Patuxai is a war monument dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. Khang Kok Prison ( fictional)  One character ends up  in here - only foreigners go here. Apparently the prisons for Lao people are worse
Laos – Vientiane – Talat Sao morning market
Talat Sao is a morning market in Vientiane, Laos. Located at the eastern corner of Lan Xang Rd. and Khu Vieng Rd. in the heart of Vientiane, the morning market is open daily from 07:00 until around 16:00
Mekong River
Seng must travel across here and hope that Mother Water saves him. It separates Thailand and Laos
Laos – Vang Viend
Where Cam says he was on the night of the party
Laos – Vientiane – Patuxai Traffic circle
Where the merit birds are captured in cages. Patuxai is a war monument dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France.
Khang Kok Prison ( fictional)
One character ends up in here – only foreigners go here. Apparently the prisons for Lao people are worse

The journey to Laos was ‘first happy Millennium, then welcome to the dark ages’. Everything seems in slow motion, everyone is sleepy or relaxed and from the moment they get into a tuk tuk, Cam’s impression is clear

During the drive, I saw that Vientiane wasn’t even a city. It was just a bunch of grubby villages that grew into one another”

The Laos culture, seen through Cam’s eyes is a brutally honest, yet still colourful snapshot of life here. This is no paradise, the palm trees are skinny and the ponds stagnant. A  young woman kills a chicken at the side of the road – the palette of beauty and death mixing in to a glorious ruby red on the street.

From first impressions to some that linger 

They lived by the saying ‘boh penyang’ – ‘no worries.’ They saved their energy for telling jokes and helping out friends or family. It seemed kind of simple, yet profound at the same time. Weird how a poor country like Laos can be so rich.”

The Merit Birds are a way to build up merit and karma in one’s life and so when Cam is sent to Laos prison, the messages of Karma. Buddhist faith, the cultural differences in the country are all explored. How free was he really in Canada? How trapped is he now in Laos? As free as a bird?

Then I came to the last trembling bird. “Go!” I urged him. “Get out of here”. But the bird stayed – so used to the cage and so fearful of the unknown.

The sights, sounds, smells, faces and everywhere from the market stalls to the flashy clubs to the brown paddy fields and of course the inside of a Laos prison all stunningly evoked so the reader gets to experience it as Cam does. In vivid coulour. And those merit birds continue to flap their wings in your mind.

Bookish musings

Not having read much YA before – I know shame on me! I wanted to read this as it sounded very impressive from the outset. The locations were a particular attraction but as soon as I started to read, it was clear how this was going to be a mix of stories -an angry young teenager taken out of his comfort zone, a cultural shock to contend with and one heck of a misadventure. There’s a romance and  a search for the truth and that combination made for some interesting reading.

I felt completely transported to Vientiane and through Cam’s eyes, I felt a confused teenager in a new land with every noise, smell, sight –  even the weather was so very different to those in Canada.

It’s a coming of age story and there were times I could have slapped some sense in to Cam to be honest, but then that’s just me. The whole story is more important than any quibbles I had about him. Might be different if I were a teenager.

A really good blend of cultures, landscapes, teenage emotions and life lessons to be learned. Oh and the idea of Merit Birds was a particular highlight for me. What they are and what they stand for  – something to take away from this book no matter where in the world you’re from.

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