Archive for April, 2010

It starts with the toilet paper.

You’ll find it has Mandarin on it once you go north of Luang Prabang. Then it spreads to the other random bits in your bathroom: the water heater. The soap. Then the food, and shortly thereafter, the vehicles — strange, olive-drab tractor-like jalopies running on single-cylinder motors that resemble generators, with belt-driven, primitive drivetrains. No seat, just a bench. Top speed is about ten miles per hour. The karaoke turns Chinese around Luang Namtha, and that’s sort of the point of no return: the border is another 2 hours North, but you’re pretty much in China… the faces and names and equipment and food and locals turn almost instantly. It’s dramatic and subtle at the same time…

Still, there’s a lot more to this than what meets my ignorant eyes… China has huge contracts with the Lao PDR to do forestry and other less-than-savory activities within their borders in exchange for ‘aid’, tons of road building equipment, and even labor. Even outside of Udomxai, you realize that basically every restaurant and guesthouse is catering to (or run by) the Chinese, and everything is written in both Lao and Mandarin, on every sign, in every restaurant, everywhere. Laos is not a particularly industrialized nation, and at 6.8 million people, it is a speck on the map in terms of labor compared to China. The hooks of the PRC reach far and wide, wider every day still — recently I read that Venezuela is shipping 460,000 barrels of crude oil to China every day, 180,000 of which are in exchange for $28 billion in loans in order to build infrastructure. If you’ve ever read ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman’ (which I would highly recommend) you know that they learned this type of economic strategy from us, notably the World Bank and companies like Halliburton and KBR… Colonialism has evolved, and China is at the front of it.

The decision was made rather suddenly to head for the border. Backtracking was afoot in any direction — it was either go back to LPB for Water Festival (expensive), try to book a flight from Chiang Mai or Vientiane (been there), or go north till I hit China, back-tracking through NW Laos. I picked North, almost arbitrarily — there are tons of areas I’ve yet to see among Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines… the list goes on, but I was getting tired of certain aspects of the tourism circuit, French Canadians notwithstanding. Plus, I already had my ill-deserved, horrendously overpriced Chinese visa in my passport. And the man who acted so nicely as my mediator in Huy Xai explained my loss to his travel agent buddies who offered to take me to the border for a mere 140,000 Kip. We stopped for lunch and the driver and his sidekick insisted on feeding me, even though I had literally no Kip left in my pocket — the generosity of Laos is almost old hat to me now but continually enlightening.

beer and communism: a short tangent

At some point while we were sitting, the sidekick asked

“Do you like Beerlao?”
Do I! The words flew out of my mouth:
“Dude, you shoulda seen me last night — I’m pretty sure LBC’s stock has doubled since I got to Laos, and that Bokeo will be a dry province until the proper supply chains can be restored and maintained..”

This was a bit of a misnomer, as the Lao Brewing Company was nationalized for a long time, and is currently still 50% owned by the PDR — they liberated it from the foreign investors back in 1975 (after what the PDR affectionately calls the – ahem – “National Liberation” of Laos) and independently operated it until 1993 or so. Eventually, foreign investors were let back in, and apparently Carlsberg owns the other half of it now (I’ve met a few Danish people who’ve told me they taste amazingly similar…)

The mission statement on BeerLao’s website is amazing:

“To move into the future with our consumers by ensuring that our brands are their preferred brands, providing them full bodies taste, total product satisfaction and identification with our products as an integral part of their success in life.”

That is just… absolutely wonderful. Maybe I should send them the story of my last night in Huy Xai, eh?

Anyway, an odd parallel to this ‘fermentation nationalization’ in China is Tsingtao, which holds about 15% of the domestic market share. It was founded privately in 1903 after Qingdao (which has an amazing history) was ceded to the Germans after they seized and occupied it. The British attacked the city in 1914 and afterwards the Japanese actually occupied it, as they were fighting alongside the Brits against ze Germans in the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. It was restored to Chinese control in 1923 or so, although the Japanese occupied it once more in 1938 in their failed conquests into China. Ironically, the KMT allowed the US to use it as a naval base for the Pacific Fleet in WWII, and a base remained there until the CCP-led Red Army marched in around 1949 and again restored control to the PRC, which it has held ever since. Tsingdao had survived through all of these failed occupations and conquests, and in a similar vein to the LBC, was ‘liberated’ from its previous (at that time, Chinese) owners as such to become the sole property of the PRC — until about 1993, when, in a similar twist to LBC, private investors were let back in to purchase shares, and Anheuser-Busch (now InBev) owned 27% of it until last year, when they sold off 19% to Asahi and the rest to some random Chinese tycoon, at a profit of around $900 million. The appropriation of stock and wealth over a mere 100 years in this company is laughably convoluted and quintessentially ‘Communist’ in nature. The beer does remain very similar to the original product: a light-bodied pilsner that does taste a bit hoppy and German in character… although after nationalization, it is no longer Reinheitsgebot, as they use rice to cheapen the cost of the mash, and one of the varieties even has Spirulina as an additive, which the Germans would certainly not approve of. I’m a bit of a German beer guy myself (as the good Poobah Stan once said: “Löwenbräu changed my life!”) and I shed a tear in my beer for this wanton disregard of the Purity Law of 1516… hey, Spaten Double-Shovel it certainly is not, but we take what we can get…

north

Lunch, my last meal in Laos and fittingly benevolent in its bounty, was great: sticky rice, a river weed based muck (surprisingly delicious) with local sausage and a fish based soup… it was more than enough food for the three of us, and we climbed back into the van with full bellies, my eyes eager to make for new ground…

Land borders are always fun. I like the idea of walking from one country into another, and the van driver must have sensed this in me, as when I grabbed my bag and said “khop chai!” to him, he pointed ahead, North, and simply said “China!” with a big grin. Yes! Over there! China! Let’s do this…

At the Departure window, I got my first taste of China once more. A Laotian would never cut his place in line, let alone ignore the damn line completely and push ahead as if all others were simply subservient. In China, though, there is no such thing as a line; there are no queues, no waiting, no “after you” gestures of seniority or chivalry or politeness… no, there are just people, lots of people, and if they can reach the front of the line, pushing and shoving and squirming through, well then, they are the front of the line. This departure window was no exception, and it took me a minute to remember my Chinese manners once more, in such a contrast to my Laotian manners: push, you bastard. Just push. Reach that lanky ‘ol arm out, past all the others, force your passport in to the guy’s hand.   Me First… the cornerstone of behavior in any Chinese ‘line’.

Making it over was fun, and suddenly the contrast of SE Asia to China was in full effect. A very polite border officer in the Chinese office scrutinized my passport and entry form for quite some time, and the fake-looking pages that had been added (somewhat stitched, but literally cello tape holding the outside page borders) were very, very foreign to him, and he was quite displeased that the inner border of this cello tape ran over the top edge of my last Chinese visa. After a lot of silly questions, I threw him a curve-ball to see what would happen:

“I see your passport was issued in New Orleans, although this says you live in Wisconsin – why is that?”
“Well, New Orleans is in Wisconsin…”
“Oh. Okay. Thank you sir; enjoy your stay in China.”

I was going to fess up, but I figured perhaps we were inadvertently speaking the same language (The International Language of Semantics?), so I just let it roll… I’m sure some are shaking their heads at this joke that may have possibly threatened my entry in to China, but hey, sometimes you’ve gotta push the boundaries just to see where they really lie…

Customs was fun too: forms, but no one there to take them, just empty lanes. As I crumpled up the form and tossed it in the garbage on the way out, I thought back to the CN Embassy in BKK, with its arbitrary, capricious use of the metal detector in the lobby. Ahh, China…

Eventually I make it to the bus station in Boten, just across the border. Obviously, no one there spoke English, and when I tried to get a ticket to Mengla, it was simply not getting through… eventually I submitted to her offer for a ticket all the way to Kunming, which is quite a bit further North than I wanted to go initially but for the destination of which will quickly end this awkward exchange — she’s yelling the same sentence over and over, louder and louder, as if the volume itself will show me the light and I’ll suddenly speak Mandarin, which is what a lot of Westerners do over here with English, whom I never miss a chance to chide a bit; “Oh yeah, if you say it LOUDER, then they’ll totally be able to interpret a language that they don’t speak! Good idea, professor!”

I’m the only westerner on the bus, which doesn’t really surprise me. After about an hour, the bus stops in what I assume is Mengla, and everyone empties off. A nice Chinese woman with her husband, who had crossed the border about the same time as me, explained “one hour for dinner”. I asked if I could accompany them, though I wasn’t even hungry. She smiled wide, grabbed me by the arm, and said “Yes! Yes! Please!” and we wandered off into the city, in search of food…

I always forget to tell people I’m vegetarian over here, probably because I’m not, really. I’m just sort of picky about meat. I’m chatting with the lady, going over our recent lives: she’s been teaching in Thailand for six months and is going home to Kunming for a while. She asks where I’m heading. Usual response comes out: “I have no idea.”. She smiles. Her husband gets up to gaze at a wall full of bottles and returns to the table with two, 100ml each, filled with clear liquid. I recognize the stuff immediately: it’s baijou, basically moonshine made from rice, maybe even watered down so it reaches a ‘reasonable’ 56% alcohol. I hate this stuff; it’s technically distilled in the same manner as Lao whiskey but is inexplicably about 100 times more disgusting. He walks over smiling, and he can see the look in my eyes, the slight shake to my head, but he continues anyway: he pours the whole damn bottle into a glass, then repeats for himself, holds his up, and smiles wide. I can’t refuse — I clink glasses and we sip, and I remember the taste, that foul after-burn in my throat, the feel of the stuff. There is a reason it only costs 30 cents a bottle. Dinner comes. First round is short-ribs, breaded with a moist rice-flour. Not bad. Next plate comes out: odd, unrecognizable white blobs of fatty tissue floating in a brown broth with peanuts. “Pigs feet!” says the lady. Pretty hard to chew, and almost flavorless — why do people eat these again? I refuse nothing. It’s insulting, not just to my hosts, but to my own silly sense of immersion; if you wanna be here, than just be here: jump in, chew the damn pigs foot, drink the foul moonshine, try it just to try it.

One of the next dishes tested this mantra with full-on abandon: it was fish, but these were some sorry-looking fish, the size of which we wouldn’t use as bait to catch Northern Pike in Door County, and the thought of how far we are from a coast, combined with the memories of how ‘river’ is basically synonymous with ‘cesspool’ in China flood into my head. They are pan-fried, heads-on, and it’s a challenge to chew the little flesh clinging to their frame without taking in a mouth full of bones and fin. The lady demonstrates: first, rip the dorsal fin off with your teeth and chew. Chew the dorsal. Yep… I don’t have a lot of experience with that one. It’s pretty awful but the baijou is tempering my nerves and possibly my taste buds with the gentle stroke that a blowtorch might temper a piece of iron. I keep spitting out bones, and of course the stick-of-gum sized portion of flesh attached to them often follow, the taste of which is too foul to describe even for these crude transmissions. She tries to correct my ignorant chewing skills, and I apologize for wasting food, but hey: it’s just rather hard to eat these things. She seems impressed with my ability to use chopsticks and at one point asks if I’d like some rice, possibly enamored with the fact that I’ve eaten (well, chewed) a good portion of food that I’m clearly having trouble actually ‘eating’. Ahh, new things…

We get up and, predictably, they refuse to let me pay my share. “We host you”, she says. If only you knew, honey…

Kunming was… a place of rejuvenation for me. Some recent events, my own dark thoughts, and the typical fatigue from crossing almost a thousand kilometers in 26 hours were swept away by noodles, dumplings, brandy, new strangers-turned-friends, friendly locals and their benevolence and smiles and patience, and just the atmosphere of the place: Trees! Sunshine! 74 degrees every day! Fewer stuck-up French people roaming around! Birds in the sky! What a contrast to the grey, freezing Beijing I’d last seen two years ago… I could tell that this time, China was gonna be the witness. I’m going to love it here.

China simply doesn’t have the same tourist draw that the rest of SE Asia has… there is tons of history and countless landscapes and I consider it pretty easy to get around, but it’s not as ‘open’ or easy as one might want, and while I still felt some of that same culture-shock as I did two years ago, it’s exactly what I’m looking for after a month in a place where many visitors wind up ignoring the greater aspects of traveling and immersing in favor of sticking with each other and partying, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I recall something a nice British guy had mentioned at the posse bar back in LPB:

“The guidebook says you could easily spend a week here, but I can’t imagine how, or what you’d do..”
“Well, have you visited any of the Wats around? There’s over 30 of them; a lot of them are really amazing…”
“No…”
“Have you climbed up Phousi? It’s great to see the sunset or sunrise from there…”
“No.”
“Have you done any trekking or kayaking or biking?”
“No.”
“Have you gone over the river, or even gotten out of the Old Quarter?”
“No.”
“Well what the hell have you been doing, man?”
“Well, we went to see the waterfalls one day… and other than that I’ve just been drinking a lot with you guys.”

Obviously, I’ve done the exact same thing and am certainly no holier, but this illustrates my point, at least somewhat. It’s much harder to feel truly out of your own element in Thailand or Laos or Vietnam… there’s a small language barrier, sure, and there are troubles and trials and scams, but it’s just so easy to be there, there are so many of us there at any given time, taking the same ride, and to some degree they cater to the vices and the manufacturing of experiences that too often sum up the bulk of peoples’ trips to the region.

We have only ourselves to blame for this; we didn’t trample the place in a day, but in cycles, in generations of past tourists going home and raving about the beaches and the prices and the buckets and the oh-what-a-great-times… I don’t think it is a given to have a manufactured experience, but if there’s one place above all others where I’ve been that exemplifies it — and bear in mind that I haven’t been to many places — it’s the regions of SE Asia that breed the most sophomoric of wants in us, that cater to the Europeans who just graduated Uni, or the Israelis who just finished their IDF stint, or the Aussies who treat it as their backyard, their own little Cancun or Tijuana, or the North Americans who come because they’ve already been to Cancun and Tijuana… to all of us, all who’ve heard tale of full moon parties on the beach, and sixty-cent beers, and three-dollar hotel rooms, and tubing down rivers of beer, weed and spring rolls… We are the people who’ve manufactured this place into catering to ourselves, and the ramifications of that are transparent only to a point, and still opaque and fuzzy to me.

We are the reason that sleepy towns become party spots, that cops turn to bribes, that village boys turn into tuk tuk pushers, that girls from slums in Bangkok turn to selling their flesh on the street… and who could blame them? Is a life of taking the Euro or the Dollar not superior to poverty and toil? Is prostitution a better life than sweatshop labor? Is the cop who takes a $300 bribe from a punk 20-year old with a joint not feeding his family with it? Is the tuk tuk driver not pushing his wares so he can afford the most basic of luxuries, running water and electricity? What have we given to these places though our tourism, exactly? What is the cost of a 14% growth rate in GNP? What is the phantom nature of that 14% in the first place?

The interconnectedness of everything is impossible to see and at the same time impossible to ignore, and while I probably bring more negativity into the situation than is warranted, I feel I can’t ignore the writing on the wall…

We are the manufactured and the manufacturers. Just because you can see the cogs turn doesn’t mean you aren’t one, in that same machine…

…and there are a lot of machines out there.

China. Holy shit. I’m ready for you, China…

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Northern Laos is a great place to dry out.

For starters, everything closes by about 10:30pm. Many smaller towns are isolated enough to only have electricity for a few hours each night, or maybe not at all, and warm beer is not an acceptable beverage when it’s 95 degrees out. To cinch it, most people come up here to do trekking, 1 to 3 day hikes, in which you stay in villages overnight… not the most conducive surroundings to drinking, although there is a lot of rice whiskey around, and the locals love feeding it to me, which of course I never refuse. You wouldn’t insult a host, would you?

After spending about a week meandering about and trekking around Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi, and Luang Namtha, I met a really nice Canadian bloke names Ara who regaled me with tale of something called The Gibbon Experience. He was raving about it, talking about monkeys and tree houses and zip-lines and such. Basically, it’s a 3-day 2-night stay in a nature reserve in Bokeo province where they’ve built tree houses you stay in, only accessible via zip-line, that rest between 20 and 60 meters off the ground. The whole place takes you along paths built along several ridges, where zip-lines connect across valleys and from land to platforms to tree houses. I did some zip-line stuff in Costa Rica with some friends and it was tons of fun but kind of rushed along, pushing from platform to platform in a large group. At $250, this is probably the most expensive way you could possibly spend three days here (that amount is a very comfortable week or more in most places, and could buy you a six-day trek with home stays in Muang Sing) but Ara made a hell of a pitch — it was my birthday after all, and after his wide-eyed description of the place, I figured I’d splurge, try something new, or at least different — three straight days of zip-lines over the jungle sounded pretty unique…

dear diary: I seem to be ageing

A quick rant: 25 is a silly age. It’s silly because it seems somehow much older than 24 to a 24-year-old, like there’s this line in the sand, and after you cross that line, like bam, there’s half your mid-twenties, gone… now your age can be measured in quarter-centuries. It’s really nihilistic and dramatic in a way that makes you laugh. Oddly enough, two of the other people who Ara successfully pitched the tour to had their birthdays just before mine, that I got to share with them. Beth turned 26 on a bus from Nong Khiaw to Luang Namtha that I was on, a pretty hellish bus ride even by Laotian standards (she thought it was funny that I was using the collapsed, mangled seats in front of me along with a sack of rice as an ottoman). I bought her a beer afterwards but we think a Frenchman stole it. Matt turned 23 the day before we went into the jungle, in Huy Xai. I won’t bore you all with the semantic ballyhoo in my head about how insignificant I feel about myself at this particular age… the more I know, the more I know how absolutely little I know, and while I’m not sure if that’s the age talking, I’ve honestly never been more clueless about my life or my future than I am right now, at this moment, sitting on this bus to Kunming in Yunnan, that smells so completely awful, of stale food, feet and vomit, that I’m actually thankful when the Chinese guys lying on both sides of me chain-smoke… you should see my smile right now. The Chinese guys must be wondering what the hell I’m writing to make me grin so much. I offered one of them an orange earlier. He refused, with what might be construed as a smile, then hacked up something deep from his gullet and spit on the floor of the bus between us. But I’m wandering here — more on that sort of thing later…

buy the ticket, take the ride

And so, another posse formed. Three random Brits, a French Canadian, an Aussie and myself went hiking into the forest on April sixth in search of Tree House #1. In the true spirit of travel (and, I should like to think, life), six strangers with seemingly nothing in common will all instantly become friends if simply given the opportunity. We went out with our guide, Nuon, who showed us the basics of zipping (the equipment here was a bit nicer than the stuff I’ve used before but with some interesting details) and then left us to ourselves. Our tree house was inhabited by a cat (we named it Bud) so as to kill mice and such, but Bud wasn’t interested in hunting the odd bugs that kept falling from the top of the tree house onto the lower level, near one of the beds. We thought they were maggots, as this logic played into the scenario of “perhaps there’s a dead bird up in the thatched roof” which seemed reasonable (cat + thatch roof = dead birds = maggots?). Matt and I swapped beds for the “bug bed” based initially on its size, not that it actually fit us any better, and we sealed off the mat with a mosquito-net like enclosure hanging from a branch. Seemed like a good fit. The very last thing to go through my head that night before drifting into a sweaty, buggy, noisy sleep was “Christ, please don’t let me wake up with maggots in my bed…”

…So at dawn, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I woke up 125 feet up in a tree, in the middle of the jungle in NW Laos, on a mat so worn down that it wouldn’t be used in a barrio in a bad neighborhood in East LA, with some toxic caterpillars sharing my pillow (although at the time I thought they were maggots or some such thing).

Still, for all the apprehension I felt about the money, and the caterpillars, and all the other less-than-awesome aspects of the trip, it was completely incredible and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. You’ll go out around six in the morning (and by “go out” I mean “strap on a harness and jump onto a zip-line that dangles above the ‘living room'”), looking for Gibbon monkeys who sing this amazing, almost synthetic sounding song, and you’ll just run as soon as you start hearing them, ’cause they only sing for eight or ten minutes before disappearing. We got lucky and saw them both mornings — they’re somewhat afraid of the ziplines (they vibrate the trees alot, not to mention the natural inclination to holler out like the Cisco Kid while you’re riding one) and pretty much hold to the canopy, so if you don’t really haul, you’ll miss them. Then in the afternoon, you’ll just go out, trekking and zipping, trekking and zipping… I’m sure it sounds like this would get old, but it just doesn’t. I swear. You’ll do it all day and then pop back to the tree house for lunch, and look around at everyone, and say “Wanna go back out?” and as soon as you hop back on the line it’s fuckin’ brand-new again. It’s really very independent in that you don’t need the guide to go zipping (which explains the huge release form you sign) and it’s just fantastic… and to top it all off, I never even got bitten by the caterpillars! Which is a very good thing, apparently, as one of the volunteers explained a bite can make your thumb swell to the size of the fist (they shrugged when I asked for the species’ name — can I get an entomologist, please?)

That night, half of the native guides and Drew, a volunteer from Green Bay, zipped into our tree house with our guide, Nuon, balancing a tray with my birthday surprise: a pumpkin, filled with ovaltine and condensed milk, surrounded by sliced pan-fried potato. Pretty awesome cake considering the surroundings and what’s available (which is, ummmm, pumpkins, ovaltine powder, condensed milk…). He had carved me a few flutes out of young bamboo, and we sat around and passed the Jim Beam I’d lugged up from the base village (they discourage drinking for obvious reasons), because, let’s be honest here, even the bleakest birthday I can possibly imagine still has whiskey and friends in it. It was great… we made a sort of rice-pudding thing out of the pumpkin filling and the rice leftover from dinner that was quite delicious and filling, and after a day of trekking and zipping, everyone crashed around 9:30 (in order to wake the next morning by 5:30 to catch the Gibbons) which makes quite a lot of firsts for this particular birthday…

then…

coming back to Huy Xai the next afternoon, after another morning of zip-binging and mild exploring, we re-discovered cold beer and grilled meat, among other things — it was like flying into New Orleans from Saudi Arabia . After a shower, I climbed up the hill to Wat Huy Xai to watch the sunset. Striking. A monk with some interesting tattoos on his shoulder sat down and started chatting. Turns out we had a lot in common, if you overlook the whole “I’ve-been-a-monk-for-five-years” part. I told him it was my birthday and he said “I have a gift for you!” then ran off for a few minutes. He walked back up to the bench with this huge spliff in his hand….

“Woah man… aren’t monks… umm… not supposed to smoke?
“No, just alcohol. My friends and I smoke everyday.”
Sounds like some monks I know back home!

“Uhhh… okay. Thanks!”

I blazed with a five-year Theravada monk on the top of Wat Huy Xai watching the sun go down, chatting about life and weed and tattoos and family and fishing and China. On my way down the hill, about half-way down the steps, three Laotian guys were sitting around a small table with their shirts off, passing the glass… they waved me over. I sat. They had a basket full of small snakes, just burned to a crisp, that they were pulling the spines out of, dashing in dried red pepper, and popping in their mouths. They were rather disgusting but with enough red pepper you couldn’t quite taste the flesh or the carbon surrounding it… we passed the glass around a few times and I thanked them. It was only 7pm or so but the gifts had been flooding into my system… at the bottom of the hill, I ran into some tree house friends patronizing this fantastic grilled-meat stand, where the barbecued chicken inexplicably tastes just like home. We had a few. I told them about the monk and the guys on the hill. Eventually the whole tree house was there again, plus some new friends, a nice girl from Chicago whose brain I thoroughly picked about Myanmar and another Canadian who was in a different tree house. I couldn’t help but say it: “Damn! Beer tastes good today…”

In “The Book”, April Seventh is “The Day of Enthusiastic Belief”, which may or may not explain the next part of this story…

I wound up drinking much too late and much too much, considering I hadn’t been drinking anything recently… we drained the rest of the Beam, then some Thai guys bought a bunch of Lao whiskey and we started drinking that, punctuated by cold beer (did I mention it was cold? Good Lord the beer tasted good that day!). It got late, real late for a small border town in Laos, and we swaggered and stumbled back to our guesthouses shoulder to shoulder, talking and laughing and telling stories…

It was only when I was back in the guesthouse that I realized I didn’t have my sidebag with me. This was a catastrophic mistake — my sidebag has… well, basically everything important in it. Now, I bet you’re asking yourself, “Why in the hell would you take the bag with everything important in it with you to the damn bar?”

Well, I needed something to carry the whiskey in…

Anyway, I make the mad dash, barefoot, back to the bar — no staggering to speak of; I’m suddenly as sober as a Turk and something greater seems to have sucked all the alcohol out of my blood, just like the alcohol had sucked all the brain cells out of my head. The bar is locked up. I knock, quietly, several times, at various doors. An older, pot-bellied man with limited English understands my pantomimes very quickly and offers to tuk tuk me to the house of the bar owners. Lots of dogs in this neighborhood, and they seem averse to random barefoot westerners meandering about at odd hours. We fail to rouse the owners. He takes me back to the bar and a feeling of hopelessness washes over me… what a stupid mistake! Why the hell would I bring the absolute most crucial items with me to the damn bar!?! I deserve this, this loss…

He pantomimes a gesture that says “Be sitting here, at that table, at 8am tomorrow morning, and we’ll find your bag. Everything will be okay.” I offer him the last of the Kip in my pocket but he refuses. Obviously, I didn’t sleep very well that night… I woke up at about 5:30 and sat there planning out the worst-case-scenario. It was looking pretty bleak… without that bag, I am utterly and completely screwed.

At 7:30 I walk up to the bar, and there are three older Laotian women and a young boy, sitting drinking tea… and there it is, my bag, in the middle of the table. I got on my knees and kissed the ground — I love this country. I walk up almost in tears, and it’s clear they can see how important this bag is to me… They invite me to look in it and make sure everything is there, to which I almost flat-out refuse but eventually decide is, in fact, a good idea. Passport is there, though not where I left it. Money clip, with all the cards present but re-arranged in a different order, and about $90 USD missing. An amount of Kip that I am unsure about. My headlamp is gone but my camera, iPod and other random tidbits are intact. Someone has gone through this thing pretty hard. I sort of gesture “there’s some stuff missing” to them, and they kind of scoff, then run off and fetch a man from across the street. He speaks very good English and introduces himself as to be a translator/mediator for us. I explain that I don’t want to cause any trouble and am extremely grateful for just having the bag (and the most crucial contents) back, but that $90 is a lot of money. At the mention of $90, he sort of raises both eyebrows… “that’s about a months wages”. “Yeah, I know.” Suddenly other random facts start running through my head: $90 is about what I’d take home from an eight or ten-hour shift wrenching bikes. $90 is the exact amount of the 2 night stay in that swanky guesthouse that Nan comped me back in LPB. $90 is, back home, perhaps a night on the town with some friends, or a dinner with drinks for two at Murimoto or Harvest, or a weeks worth of groceries… $90 can be a life changing amount of money here. The owner of the bar walks up and explains to the mediator that he did, in fact, go through the bag and the cards, trying to figure out who’s bag it was, but then left it at the bar overnight and gave it to the family behind the bar (the three older women) that morning as he doesn’t open the bar until 5pm. So by this point, the bag has passed though the hand of at least four or five people. Eventually it’s insisted and translated that no one present took the money. The mediator explains:

“This happens sometimes. Usually, there’s no theft here — they say you were drunk last night and maybe you spent the money, maybe you put it somewhere else, something like that. Since no one agrees, the only thing left to do is call the police.”
“Well, I certainly was drunk last night… but there is no possible way to spend ninety US dollars in a bar here in one night. I hate cops. I don’t want to cause trouble for these people and I’ll probably never see the money again anyway. What do you think?”
He smiled and said, “Yeah, I hate cops too. They probably take three or four hours, write down everything from everyone. Maybe nothing happens, maybe someone is lying. It can help, maybe… it’s all that’s left to do, and I have to go to work.”

In my head, it all sort of clicked: the booze, the karma, the luck of getting any of it back, the little boy hugging his mother on the table in front of me after I gave them 50,000 kip when they handing me my bag (this was before the discovery of the missing stuff), the straight-forwardness of the very nice English-speaking guy who helped mediate this whole thing (“I hate cops too”: pretty epic), the fact that in spite of the surrounding nations and the constant trampling of tourists, Laos is still one of the poorest and most remote countries on earth (the GDP per capita is just $2,100, although Lao currently has the 14th highest growth rate in the world), the fact that the US spent $2.2 million per day for 8 years bombing the hell out of the place but only contributes $2 million per year to the removal of UXO, the full removal of which (at the current rate) may be possible by around 2110 or so…

Well then it’s settled. I really do hope that family has my $90 and can make use of it; I’d have paid much more to simply get my passport and cards back. I am, put simply, rather stupid, and the pure joy and fun of the evening brought out some lackadaisical comfort zone in me that made me lose the one bag full of shit that I absolutely positively must not lose. Sometimes I really suck at this whole traveling thing. My own negative, self depreciating thoughts drifted back to Orwell’s supposed self-written eulogy for John Flory, the main character in Burmese Days:

Goodness knows where they will bury me – in their own grave yard I suppose, two feet deep in a painted coffin. There will be no mourners, and no rejoicers either, which seems sadder still, for the Burmese celebration of a funeral with music & gambling [seems] nicer than our beastly mummeries. But if there were anyone here whose hand could form the letters, I would [like] him to carve this on the bark of some great peepul tree above my head:

Here lies the bones of poor John Flory;
His story was the old, old story.
Money, women, cards & gin
Were the four things that did him in.

He has spent sweat enough to swim in
Making love to stupid women;
He has known misery past thinking
In the dismal art of drinking.

O stranger, as you voyage here
And read this welcome, shed no tear;
But take the single gift I give,
And learn from me how not to live.

Now, I’d like to think that I don’t work (or live) for the essence of money, and I certainly don’t sleep with women I find trite or stupid, and I don’t gamble, and gin is generally the last thing I’d possibly order… but I felt just like John Flory that morning. I ain’t Nixon but I sure ain’t Robin Hood either; I’m a rather simple 25-year-old guy and I’ll be the first to admit that I make a hell of a lot of mistakes, and if it weren’t for the good will of others — even if that good will is used with some amount of grey, some fuzzy logic — I’d be completely under a sea of shit right now… so I thank my thieves, those I drank tea and broke bread with. Count yer blessings, kids… keep it in perspective.

coming soon — Return of the White Devil to the Glorious Motherland of Red China…

cheers, and thanks to everyone for the birthday blessings…

Sabai Dee,

I got the hell out of BKK with a swiftness. The protests you may or may not have been hearing about are perfectly safe, even inviting demonstrations (it’s kind of complicated — you can read up on them here) and I ran into them on my last day in town, cruising the Skytrain. About a hundred thousand people lumbered up Sukhumwit road, honking and waving and smiling and yelling and singing. Basically, they just want a fair election and a more openly governed state, or, according to some, simply the reinstatement of Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed prime minister (though not all support him, and there are huge paper trails of his own corruption as well)

In Luang Prabang, I found myself in some very interesting situations. I took the slow-boat in from the Lao/Thai boarder, which cruises down the Mekong from Huy Xai and Pak Beng, winding up in LPB. You meet a lot of people on this boat, because.. well, it’s a boat, and being stuck on any vessel that serves beer for two days is a guaranteed way to meet everyone. By the time we got into town, a multi-national posse had formed, the kind of people who start drinking at 11am because there’s nothing to do but drink and play Rummy 500.

I had been here 2 years earlier (almost to the day, actually) and simply loved the place — it’s where the Mekong meets the Nam Khan river, there are 30-some Buddhist Wats to visit, and generally fantastic food and friendly locals. After Dalat, it’s probably my favorite spot in SE Asia thus far. But it seems to have changed a bit… or maybe it’s just me that’s changed. At any rate, I found an atmosphere different than what I remembered from ’08 — many, many more tuk tuk drivers, all offering weed and opium, or to take you to the bowling alley, the only bar you can drink in after curfew (11:30). On the 3-block walk back from the posse-designated bar (they were there almost every day) to my guesthouse (posse went bowling — I wanted sleep), I had maybe 9 offers to drive me to the bowling alley and 6 offers for drugs. Don’t get me wrong — I like bowling and drugs as much as the next guy, but this ain’t Thailand, nor is it Veng Vieng — it’s one of the holiest places in Laos (32 Wats don’t just spring up overnight, ya know?). Finally I badger one of the tuk-tuk drivers after he offers “Bowling?”

“What is this bowling alley I keep hearing about? Is it new?”
“Only place open until 3 am. Many farang, many locals.”
“I was here 2 years ago and never heard about it…”
“It’s been here 4 years I think. Only farang for the last year or so”
“How can it be open till 3am? What about the curfew”
He smiles at this. “Very far… far from old quarter. No wats around.”
“Thanks.”

Over the next few days I heard the question “Dude, what’s with this curfew? It’s such bullshit!” about a thousand times.. I tried to explain it with a mix of basic facts and light sarcasm, designed to instill at least a vague sense of humility:

“Well, you’re not on Koh Samui anymore. LPB in particular is one of the holiest places in Laos… about 70% of the population here is Theravada Buddhist, and most youths are expected to enter Sangha at some point before they are 20, which is like the monastic order. The Wats here all have ‘monasteries’ for monks in training. The monks wake up at dawn to collect alms from the locals, which is how they eat.” (I neglected to mention that most of these monks have cell phones fancier than the one I use at home, and many Wats have A/V systems and such) “The basic idea of the curfew is to get the tourists to shut the hell up at a reasonable hour so people can wake up and give alms. This is all in the guidebook, by the way…”

On my first morning there, I mostly just wanted to find my friend Clara. I had her number but it didn’t work on skype, so I went to get a cup of tea, catch up on some correspondence, and send some more resumes out. I had been sitting there for a while when a local woman who was meandering about the garden walked up and asked “what do you do when you have problems?”

Well there’s a helluva question! “Try to solve them. Or ignore them, I suppose.”

We chatted for a little while, and after five minutes of lopsided conversation, I sigh, shut the laptop, and invited her to sit down. For the sake of anonymity, we’ll call her Nan. To make a long story short, it turns out she owned the joint, and after listening to quite the sob story about her past husbands and ex-boyfriends (culminating with her previous American boyfriend’s suicide), she offered me a room in their guesthouse for free. I declined, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall — it was obvious she wasn’t looking for sexual favors or anything, but she seemed abrasive and bossy to her staff… probably a hard person to be friends with, possibly explaining my somewhat random installation as a farang confidant. Plus, from the stories, this woman had issues, not the least of which related to attachment. Also, the guesthouse was WAY too nice for me — I think rooms rent for $45 per night, which is about ten times more expensive than the average guesthouse I stay in here. But she wound up basically insisting that I stay for a night or two, as a way of thanking me for my time and advice (advice? what advice?), “until you find your friend”. I hesitantly accepted… I mean, what’s she gonna do when I leave? Stalk me?

I found Clara that day. We met at the posse’s bar for drinks and caught up — it was great to see her. Ironically, it turns out our travel plans are not so similar for the time being, and she’s going to go to Vietnam for a bit while I tour around Northern Laos, an area I didn’t really get to see my last time here but have heard fantastic things about.

I went to drop off my stuff at my free room and found Nan there, washing her car, which I thought was a tad odd given it was 11pm or so. She chided me about my friend, who she kept insisting was my girlfriend, and while I’m not sure what her actual social intentions were, I chalked it up to phantom empathy. “Your girlfriend no love you no more! It’s okay, we go get drunk now.” Ugh…

You may already be wondering by this point why I was tolerating her chiding, her behavior, her lopsided friendship mentality. I think in a way I simply felt sorry for her, but in another way, I was kind of just hoping to hang out with more locals, and the ‘posse mentality’ of my shipmates, nice as it was, was feeling a little fabricated. You see a lot of this particular social construct while traveling over here — I won’t say it’s necessarily an aversion to meeting locals, and I’m certainly not Holier Than Thou (as this story will illustrate) but Westerners tend to hang out with Westerners, myself included. This is nothing against our character — all the people I met in that posse are fantastic people… but I was looking for something different, something new.

We went to the bowling alley. It wasn’t that bad. She introduced me to a score of other locals, which I was happy to see. At one point a group of guys walked up and greeted her — she introduced me as her friend, and said “That one used to be my manager [we’ll call him Sam]. He owns farang bars here. He gay, all his employees gay.” It clearly wasn’t mentioned as derogatory, but simply a statement of fact. They invited us to his bar. “We’ll be there drinking all night — come by.”

We went to his bar, a place I’d actually been to two years ago, and a popular joint for westerners and Lao alike. It was, obviously, closed, and having a westerner in your place after curfew can be a big deal — not just fines, you can lose your business license, although more than likely the cop will just take a bribe. They were drinking BeerLao and playing the most ridiculous drinking game I’d ever seen — a playing card is flipped face-up in front of each person at the table, and if it’s 10 or higher, you drink your whole beer. 9 or lower, you just drink. At one point I notice a bottle of Jameson on the wall, and point to the bottle, giving a thumbs up, and Sam just pulls the damn bottle off the wall and hands it to me. “Here you go! What you want with it? Coke?” I tell him I can’t really afford to be drinking Jameson, and he just smiles and says “I don’t give a shit about money. Enjoy yourself.”

We were having a great time, but at some point the night suddenly took quite a turn — somehow, Nan’s ex-boyfriend came up in conversation (the suicide) and Sam says, very matter-of-factly, “He’s not dead. My friend saw him recently. He’s fine.” Huh. Nan had gone pretty in-depth with this particular situation, and was shocked. “American embassy call me two weeks ago! I even call his family!” Sam was pretty confident that the rumors were false (or true, depending on the rumor) — the guy is alive and doing fine. Strange vibes float about the table, mostly shrugs, but suddenly Nan starts drinking much more heavily — she pours herself a whiskey, easily three or four fingers, and just drains the whole thing in one gulp. The rest of the table glances at each other with wide eyes — it seems they’ve seen this behavior before. Not a good sign. Not long afterwards, she’s getting into her car, dead drunk, and I’ve got my hand on the shifter, preventing her from getting out of ‘Park’ while trying to talk her out of the car. She’s sobbing uncontrollably and the situation is looking pretty dark. It ends with her literally kicking me out of the door, into the street, shifting into ‘drive’ and just flooring it down the street, door still open, flapping shut… face-palm. Sam runs out, half-laughing, half-gasping. I made my way back to the guesthouse to catch Nan being dragged up to her room by her son (who happens to be the night clerk) who’s apologizing for her actions. I shrug… and get some sleep.

The next day I tried to arrange the future in my head, and really, I should have just checked out and disappeared… but I didn’t. I felt really bad for Nan and wanted to give her some kind of comfort, some kind of closure to it all, explain that she needs to let go of the past and focus on the now. I met up with Clara and her friend again and we chatted for a few hours, giving me time to explain the night to them.

“So what are you going to do?”
“Change guesthouses. Tell her to chill out, try to get her to look at things a bit differently without getting so attached to the past. Or maybe just bolt.”

I went back to the guesthouse around 4pm but Nan was still not up, according to her son. I start packing. About 2 hours later one of her managers comes up to my room.

“Nan wants to see you. She’s very angry — just be calm with her and talk slowly” (he must have said “talk slowly” about three or four times)

The conversation was pretty boring; I tried to give advice but she wasn’t having it — she kept saying I was too young, that I couldn’t understand. I told her I was checking out, going to another guesthouse, then up the river to Nong Khiaw to chill out for a bit. She chided me constantly, insulting my friend Clara some more and insisting I was in love and was brokenhearted, “like me! That’s why you leave!” I rolled my eyes a lot. She insisted on taking me out to dinner to a local place, Laotian barbecue, where they set the grill up in the middle of the table and you cook the stuff yourself, with a little canal at the bottom of the grill for making soup. It’s kind of like hot-pot in China, except it’s actually delicious. Another sob-fest. I think while chewing my guilty, almost quid-pro-quo meal: you came here to meet locals, and here we are: you met one. She’s depressed and maybe a bit of a sociopath, and if she weren’t paying for your lodging and food, maybe you’d just ignore her. This isn’t you. You don’t act this way and you don’t need her charity and you’re probably taking advantage of her as much as she is you. Good work, you bastard… At some point, I mentioned that I grew up pretty lower-class with a single mother, which opens her up even more — she raised four kids by herself. When we get up to leave, a swarm of children descend on the table, just sprint to it, and start stuffing the leftovers into bags, literally grabbing the meat off the grill with their bare hands, all of them sharing the bounty, working fast before the manager walks over to shoo them away. Heart-wrenching stuff… I may have grown up poor, but we were never hungry — I love my mother and she did the absolute best she could and under the circumstances she was a goddamn knock-out. Thanks, mom… thanks for not being like Nan, at any rate.

I say I’m going to meet some friends at the posse’s bar. She asks if she can come along. The imprint of the car incident from the night before is still fresh on my brain and the writing on the wall is suddenly in bold, but for some reason I can’t say no — maybe I’m too nice, maybe she’s too lonely. I say “sure, let’s find you a boyfriend, a new farang for you. Just don’t drink so much.”

Second verse, same song. The posse is wondering why I’m bringing a Laotian woman the same age as my mother into the bar… I make the somewhat awkward introductions and my Argentinian friend Nico keeps her company for a while — hey, there’s a good strategy! Introduce them to the craziest local you’ve found… that’ll open ’em up a bit. She goes over to Sam’s place after a bit (presumably to pester him more about the suicide thing) and I stick around and hang out with Clara, her friend and the posse. After what I feel is a safe period (a few hours), I tell Clara and her friend that they should meet Sam. We walk over and there she is, half-drunk. I can see that Clara and her friend feel a bit awkward and after my descriptions of her and her behavior they’d have every right to bolt for the door, but they’re handling it like champs, given the situation. Sam gets the bottle of Jamo and I’m shocked, absolutely shocked to see how little is left in this bottle that was full the night before. We kill it. Clara and company excuse themselves after a while and it’s just Nan, Sam, myself and some of Sam’s staff sitting around drinking. Nan is getting drunk again and chiding me constantly, again in a rather insulting tone. I take off in a bit of an “I’m done with this shit” way, thanking everyone for their hospitality. Then the calls start coming…

I don’t even know why I have a cell phone over here… I guess because it’s cheap and it’s nice to keep in touch with people in a more organized way than just random sightings. Three calls come from Nan and I turn the phone off. Sam rides up on his motorbike a block from the guesthouse, asking what’s wrong. “Nothing, man, I’m just done taking shit from her. I’m leaving tomorrow.” Nan rides past, on the back of her manager’s bike and we exchange somewhat icy stares. I tell Sam I’ll call him tomorrow.

When I wake up, there’s a note under my door. It basically says “thanks for everything, you are a good friend, but I don’t think I ever want to see you again.” Well shit! I can deal with that! I pack up my stuff and lumber downstairs. She’s in the lobby, arranging flowers.

“Where are you going? Why you check out?”
A puzzled expression comes on my face. I show her the note, which she studies carefully, almost as if it were completely foreign to her.
“I’m leaving. Thank you for everything, but I don’t think I can be the kind of friend you need, and your kindness seems mixed with bitterness. I don’t want to accept your charity because it’s unfair I’m leaving tomorrow for Nong Khiaw.”

“No, you stay here… we’ll go see my resort today. I’ll show you the flower farm.” (she’s enthralled with the fact that I used to help run a flower shop.)
“No, I think I really want to be alone today… I thank you again for your kindness, but I’m going to check out. I’m even happy to pay for the room if you like; I’m not sure what you were expecting, but I see that the gesture wasn’t entirely earnest.”

This was a poor choice of words, as I have to explain what ‘gesture’ and ‘earnest’ mean, compounding the awkwardness of the entire sentence as I break it down. All this time she’s still chopping and arranging, chopping and arranging…

random useless fact I learned later that night: the Lao word for “chop” sounds just like “fuck”, as does the word for “pumpkin”… at Sam’s place, for Christmas they give out free pumpkin desert, which means everyone can go around saying “free fuck! free fuck!”.

aren’t you glad we had this little interlude in the story?

I say to her “I’ll come by tomorrow morning — we’ll have breakfast or something before I leave.” I’m trying to be an adult here — ya know, give her some closure while still backing away quietly from the woman with the knife in her teeth. She responds with “I never want to see you again.” Okay. No problem. “Thanks for everything.”

I walk down to the river. Why do I feel guilty? I didn’t do anything… my only crime is that I’m too damn kind. Sure, I might have stretched the limits of said kindness by accepting her generosity, but I wasn’t expecting what followed… I check into some flea-bag guesthouse and meet up with Clara for a walk. At 4pm or so Sam calls and says we’re getting massages. Lao massage is basically the best thing ever, and my back is in sad shape after that boat ride, so I’m not complaining, even though he goes to a spa where it’s over twice as expensive as most places in Old Quarter, even after his discount — I walked out 70,000 kip poorer but in fantastic shape. Sam even offers to let me use one of his motorbikes and stay at his house, but I’m pretty apprehensive at this point on that particular form of charity. Nan calls at about 5pm. I don’t answer. Clearly, I need to put the last nail into the coffin, drive home that closure forever. I write a short letter thanking her again for her kindness but confronting her on the fact that in only two days, she’d succeeded in treating me more like a pet than a friend and that her conniving, know-it-all attitude is perhaps the reason she has trouble making friends. Oh yeah, and that the words “I never want to see you again” are pretty clearly interpreted and generally not taken lightly. I drop off the note, put it in her hand, and when she tries to get me to sit down, I explain I’m in a rush and will stop by one last time before I get on the boat. It seems some small closure to the situation is at hand.

Sam and I grab dinner later with another mutual friend of his and Nan’s, a woman named Peng who I’ve hung out with before. I explain everything that happened. They agree that Nan’s “kind of crazy” and apparently has a thing for latching onto farang. It’s also mentioned that if I hadn’t met Nan, I never would have met them… so there’s that. We clink drinks.

…And the calls start coming. Five. 10. 20. 25 in the first half-hour. Holy shit, I have a Laotian stalker! I told her I’d stop by but it seems a poor choice in this light… “Change your SIM and get a new number”, says Peng. “Yeah! Good idea! I’ll do that in the morning…” Sam pulls his phone out and makes a brief call, and 5 minutes later a guy walks up and hands me a stack of SIM cards as thick as a phone book. “Pick a number.” I feel like I’m in the mafia or something. New number, crisis averted…

I didn’t wind up leaving the next day, or even the day after that. Mostly, I wanted to spend more time with Clara and Sam, both of whom are truly good friends and who I might not see again for a long time. LPB is small enough that Nan ha some idea of how much time I was spending with Sam, and then it happened: she somehow got a hold of my new number. She calls from some number that isn’t hers and I stupidly pick up. She starts screaming, yelling that I’m gay and Sam is my boyfriend and I’m a liar and a cheat and a coward and all sorts of other shit. I hang up and turn the phone off. Let her think whatever she wants; it makes no difference because it’ll all be distorted anyway. There is no closure for her in anything — it’s part of why she focuses with tunnel-vision about the past and latches on to pain so much…

Terrible vibes, Fear and Loathing... In a way, maybe Nan is kind of right: I acted like a bit of a coward in the face of someone in pain (someone rather crazy, but still) because the circumstances were too convoluted and frustrating for me to see any other way to act. I am ashamed of myself in a certain way for even accepting her ‘kindness’, but hey, hindsight is 20/20. For a while I was not going to send or publish this story but simply write it down… but I think if there’s any way to bring a somewhat selfish closure for myself to my own sad, stupid choices, it’s by sharing this with others — tell me what you’d have done.

Keep your chin up. Go with your gut. Be true to yourself and speak that truth, even if you’re not heard. And for chrissakes, be a better judge of character than I was.

I’m going North. Gonna dry out for a while. Too much booze, too many cigarettes, a lot of strange happenings… time to slow down and sip some tea, do some trekking, see Laos in a more organic light. Sam says I should come back to LPB for my birthday next week. I’m somewhat apprehensive but equally tempted. He’s a great guy and makes me wish I was in to boys. Seriously — they would eat this guy alive in Madison (a fact that I told him warrants a visit — “drinks are on me”).

I spoke the truth, but they didn’t understand me, because not many people speak that language…

~ some random graffiti artist / poet whose name I can’t recall, and whose advice I tried to heed, failingly…

cheers…