Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Misguided Speculations of a Two-Week Traveler: Lao Part 2

After spending the better part of a week traveling along the beaten tourist track from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, I was overcome with surprise at how similar Laos was to Thailand. This made sense, in a way, considering that all the territory we had just covered used to be part of Thailand until the French colonized the area. Thailand used to be quite a bit bigger, but traded land to the French and British in exchange for their continued sovereignty. I wonder; if Thailand hadn’t been the only country to accomplish this feat, would it have followed the same pattern as its Southeast Asian neighbors- colonization -> oppression -> exploitation -> poverty -> resistance -> communism -> more poverty. The second half of our trip revealed to me the real differences between Thailand and Laos- real poverty and, what I speculate being, the residual effects of colonization.

Luang Prabang was the last stop on our trip that was assumed for us. When you arrived at any bus station in Laos before this point, they would immediately point you to the bus making its way to the next tourist stop on the path. After Luang Prabang, you had choices to make. We chose to head Northwest towards the Chinese border, probably because basic proximity to China made us feel like we were accomplishing more on the trip. No matter what direction you chose, the ride was similar. Our bus would periodically rise above and dip below the wispy clouds that capped the lush mountains. Unlike Thailand, rice patties were rare, but the little huts that served as refuge from the rain or lunchtime hangouts periodically speckled the landscape. Take the beauty of a Bob Ross classic, but take away all his colors except green and brown (Van Dyke brown, of course). Then exchange the jagged Alaskan mountains for round, rolling ones, and the crystal lakes for burgundy rivers. Then with five minutes left in the program, he’ll tell you, “Now if you want to, you can put a nice little thatched hut here in the middle of the field. Yeah, that’s nice. A happy little hut there for you to lie down in. Because remember- It’s your world, you can do anything.”

When we arrived at our next stop, Namtha, the bus dropped us off at one of the town’s three guesthouses. The woman at the desk proudly brought us up to the fourth floor rooftop to see the town from the top of its tallest building. During the next 48 hours, it would rain unceasingly, and this small town famous for being on the way to other small towns would fill to its brim with water.

As we ate dinner at the restaurant downstairs, we were approached by a pair of women wearing formal pasin skirts, black cloth on their shins, t-shirts, and black hats decorated with coins and metal beads. They approached us with handicrafts and we politely said, “No thank you, we don’t want any.” To which they replied, “Want!” Josh, the more enthusiastic Lao speaker of the group, attempted conversation with the pair while we listened in. The two women were Akha, a hill tribe spread throughout the mountains of Laos. They were in Namtha to sell some handicrafts and then would head back when they were sold. This was our first experience speaking with the hill tribes, who spoke Lao only a little better than we did, if at all.

This was a conversation repeated many, many times during our trip. We were trying to converse, gain some knowledge about the lives and culture of Laos, while they were concerned only with getting us to buy something. After it became clear to them that we really weren’t going to buy any bracelets, and that they might do better business elsewhere, one of the women pulled out a bag of opium and made a last-ditch effort for our business. After all those commercials on TV, I was a little surprised to find my pusher to be an Asian grandmother wearing a funny hat, shin guards, no shoes and no bra.

After a night of constant rain, the road to our next destination was blocked by flooding. We played cards at a restaurant next to the bus station while in rained all day. Might have been the best day of the trip, actually.

While walking around the next day, we saw a crowd gathering down the road. We thought maybe there was a market or something, so with nothing to do, we followed suit. As it turns out, Namtha is made up of a northern and southern section. The new town (northern) was set up because the old town kept flooding. Well, our “market” was the flooding of the old town, and we traveled with the crowd of revelers to see the damage done.

Although the road itself was clear, houses on one side were all being flooded by the water flowing relentlessly from the northern hill. Families waited on their front porches for the water level to increase, then moved up to the second floor when it overtook their living rooms. Groups of men threw nets in their front yards, fishing. Pigs were tied up to fences along the road, oblivious. One older man said he’d never seen it flood this bad in his life. One other man said it floods like this every other year. At dinner that night, a woman told us that two people died.

We made up our minds that we were moving on, one way or the other, the next day. Come hell or high water, as they say.

The next day, we boarded a truck somewhat resembling a military transport vehicle. Two planks along the truck bed served as seating for more than twenty of us, crunched together, hoping that we would make it to Muang Sing, despite the weather. This truck was a good representation of the ethnic diversity of northern Laos. There were Chinese, Laos, Akha, Thai-Lao, all speaking their own languages. Then there were four Americans, two Dutch girls, and a German guy. If our truck had tumbled down into some remote, inescapable mountain valley, we would have made for an interesting spin-off of Lost. I decided that since we were rolling four strong, English would probably be the spoken language of this new lost tribe, and either way, we would eat the German guy first.

Our truck was heavy and high enough to make it through the new rivers running across the road. Motorcyclists put their bikes on bamboo rafts and floated them across. It reminded us of Oregon Trail (For those of you who didn’t grow up in the 90s, this is an absolutely legendary computer game fondly remembered and spoken of in hushed tones by my generation, representing the sum total of our schools’ efforts to teach us how to use computers), where upon meeting a river, your choices were to ford it, wait a couple days for an Indian guide to help you across, or just close your eyes and hope for the best. I always chose the latter. My goal was to make it from Boston as fast as humanly possible, my family’s food rations be damned. If you loaded up the game on the Apple 2e after I was done, you just might run across the tombstone of my five year-old daughter, MRMYERSISABUTTHEAD, who tragically died of dysentery on the trail. There’s something to be said about a person by how he plays Oregon Trail, doctor.

After fixing a busted radiator, we ran into a mudslide. Clear across the road was at least a foot of mud that had fallen down onto the road from the steep incline of the mountain. Shirtless men with shovels were expending great effort, accomplishing little, trying to make a path for the trucks waiting on both sides of the obstacle. Finally an NGO vehicle plowed through without a problem. NGOs, no matter what country you’re in, drive white Land Rovers. A brave driver in front of us decided to give it a shot in a similar truck to ours. He made it half way, tires spinning out of control, finally catching and sending him safely to the other side. The crowd cheered. Our driver was next, also successful. Then came a mini-bus. As it rolled by us, we saw the two Akha women from Namtha waving at us. I guess they had sold enough goods and were able to go home. Except for the fact that their mini-bus only made it half-way, and the engine said its final words as a black puff of smoke spat out from the exhaust.

Long story short; we made it. Next stop- Muang Sing.

In Muang Sing, we stayed at the most beautiful guest house of our trip. Located in the middle of rice paddies only 2 kilos from the Chinese border, our little hostel was surrounded by hill tribe villages. Our plan for the first day was to walk to the border, say hello to China, and get back while we still had some daylight.

Twenty minutes down the road, we saw a pool hall, a volleyball court, and a sign that read, “Customs”. I guess this is the Chinese border, we thought. By the time I got there, two of my friends were already in the volleyball game. Thanks to an F in calculus and a temporary semester of ineligibility in high school, I played volleyball instead of track my senior year. Best failing grade I ever got, and I am thankful for that opportunity every Memorial Day picnic I attend.

Since we were at least a half-foot taller than anyone else on the court, the six Chinese/Lao setters had a field day lofting up balls for us to spike over the regulation net. After one spike in particular went onto the road and over the border, I realized that for the rest of my life, I’ll be able to say that I spiked a volleyball all the way to China.

We got back that night for TV time at the guest house. Kids from all the surrounding villages came to watch Thai soap operas. Every single night of our trip (except for those in Namtha where the electricity was cut) Laos watched Thai television. For one hour, thirty or more kids, from various tribes stood around the television, fixated at this program that they undoubtedly couldn’t understand. The program was part love-story, part adventure, starring a pituitary giant and a midget. I couldn’t make that up. Then when the TV shut off, they all scattered back to their homes up the hill.

The next day we followed them. We wanted to do a couple things while we were here. 1) learn something from these hill tribes, about their way of life. 2) buy gifts for people in Thailand. We passed the gate to an Akha village, decorated with machine guns and bombs, not meant for humans to pass through, but to keep evil out of the village. We got about half-way into the village before anyone really noticed us, and then motioned for us to come up to their house. Ascending the stairs, we met a family that showed us what their house was like, and then talked with us about their community. One of the young men spoke Lao, so we had a decent conversation about their living conditions. “People in Thailand are very rich!” he told us. While we sat, an older woman made me a bracelet with beads and a string, and then tied it around my wrist. I noticed the coins on their hats were all old French coins, and I wished I had brought the Susan B Anthony silver dollars collecting dust somewhere in a box in my parents’ new house.

After we left that house, we were met by a young Akha woman who spoke Thai! She was studying in Muang Sing and wanted to eventually move to Thailand. She invited us to her house, where we sat and drank tea and signed her guest book. Her father walked up the steps, squinted at us through glassy eyes, and then entered the house. A very strange reception, explained immediately as he sat on his side smoking opium. “He can’t live without it,” she explained. “Do you want any?” she asked us. My friend Chris asked to take a picture of him if he could, to which the man replied, “Only if you pay me.”

The village next door to the Akha was a Yao village. They speak a totally different language, and wear different hats. Again, as we got about half-way into the village, an old woman in a blue headwrap and red, fluffy scarf noticed us, and motioned for us to follow her. She alerted the rest of the village to our presence, and one by one, they entered her house, setting out their wares on the floor, handing us bags and bracelets and other things for us to buy. My three friends each bought crazy hats, if only so that the woman would agree to take a picture with us. When the wallets were put away, everyone left, and so did we.

On the ride to our next town, Sieng Kok, an Akha woman sat across from us nursing a newborn baby and holding another young one. She gave another kid some money to go buy some crackers before we left and they ate them together on the ride. Halfway through the ride, she started vomiting all over herself and the back of the truck. My friend Chris asked for toilet paper, and handed her a roll. She accepted it matter-of-factly, wiped herself off, and threw the remaining roll on the floor, never saying a word. When she got off, she asked the driver the price, then gave him half that price, and told him to get going.

The relationship between Laos and the hill tribes obviously wasn’t affectionate. Is it the chicken or the egg? Chris asked. Are they like this because Laos treat them like shit or do Laos treat them like shit because they’re like this?

While I was walking towards the market of a Muang Sing, an old Akha woman approached me saying, “Ganja, ganja, ganja, ganja…” I was just in the process of thinking that Laos would be the perfect place for the Peace Corps. There were so many opportunities for development here, projects that could have real effects. Thailand is often frustrating because the most help I’ve been to anyone in the past week has been assisting the gov’t office in changing the ringtones on their cellular phones. And yet it seems the most help that foreigners have been providing Laos is offering a demand for drugs.

My hopes for the trip were less about the mountains, views, and bracelets, and more about learning something about Laos themselves. I failed in that, miserably. I might have had two really insightful conversations with a Lao. Maybe it’s bias for Isaan, maybe I was too close to the beaten track, maybe it’s just plain narcissism, but I felt like Laos didn’t give a damn whether I was there or not. I felt like a three year old on the first day he becomes an older child, rather than an only child.

In Thailand, if you say hello to a group of people in Thai, they will give you a thumbs-up and say, “You speak Thai very well.” In Isaan, if you say anything in Lao, any woman in the general vicinity will unleash a “oooooooowwwwweeeeeeeeeeeeee!” And if you say, “sep ilee ilaw gadaw gadia”, they will go absolutely apeshit. Thais are so interested in us that sometimes it’s too much. Oh, you speak Thai? That’s soooo cute, you’re such a smart little falang, aren’t you? Ooocheee goocheee goo. One PCV made us all shirts that had the answers written in Thai to the ten questions that every single Thai will ask a foreigner. My frustrations here have never been engaging with Thais, but getting past their initial intrigue and continue on into real conversation.

Laos, for the most part, didn’t really want much to do with us, past selling us bracelets. So why the divide? And I don’t want to give the impression that we were treated poorly, because that’s absolutely untrue. Just with general disinterest. Why is it that this particular region in Thailand, famous for its hospitality, considering itself to be culturally and ethnically Lao, treat us so different than Laos treated us themselves?

Perhaps it’s a residual of colonization. Laos may not be used to having falangs around them, but their culture sure is. I said in the first piece on Laos that it was very similar to Thailand, but in some regards, surprisingly enough, what it really reminded me of was Haiti. Colonization -> exploitation -> poverty -> exhaustion of natural resources -> inescapable poverty. One of Laos largest exports is its forests. Huge Chinese trucks filled with Lao lumber were headed to China, getting stuck in the mud and blocking our way throughout the trip. I couldn’t help but think if that continues, what will this landscape look like? Then I remembered I know exactly what a totally deforested environment looks like. Now that Haiti’s forests are gone, its chief export is dirt, to make cement. The largest export of Haiti is, literally, its own island. Think about that.

According to the US State Department’s website, “More than 500,000 tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from the Vietnam War causes about 120 casualties per year in Laos”. Notice it doesn’t mention who put them there, when in actuality the US dropped more bombs on Laos in the “Vietnam Conflict” than all the bombs dropped in World War II put together. And apparently 120 people per year still feel the sting of that fact, US “ordnance” causing well over 3000 deaths since the fighting stopped. So we were treading lightly, realizing that for one of us to be annihilated by a dud bomb would be irony defined: one product of the US Defense Dept killing another.

What I’m getting at here is that Laos doesn’t have a reason to treat me like they do in Thailand. I’m surprised they let me into the country actually. Does the US let representatives of organizations whose bombs kill 120 per year into the country? I hope not. Hell, Cat Stevens can't even fly these days. Ride on the Peace Train!

Forgive me if that got preachy. This blog supposed to be serious. But it is about the experience of being an American in Thailand (or Laos, as the case may be). And I’ve found that my interactions with people of both cultures don’t start at the initial Wai. A falang’s interactions in these two countries are intricately connected to the pre-conceptions of foreigners by Thais and Laos, and those pre-conceptions have histories, histories that affect everyone in that culture. It’s my speculation that Lao culture has felt the hand of Westerners somewhat differently than Thai culture.

And I collected all those pearls of wisdom in two weeks. So take my word as Gospel.

Our last night in Laos was spent in Sieng Kok. Bordering Myanmar, and a short speedboat ride away from Thailand, Sieng Kok overlooks the Mekong and is little more than a boat launch and a guesthouse. We got off our songtao, and as we entered the guesthouse, we stumbled upon a party. “Come on in,” the owner said, “eat some food and drink some beer, we’ll send over a single girl to drink with you.” I checked the map to make sure we hadn’t accidentally stumbled back across the Thai border too early. No, indeed not. Thailand would have to wait one more day.

That was the end of my twelve days in Laos. By all standards, a great trip. I learned a few things, and enjoyed the view.

Our return to Thailand wouldn’t be complete, however, without a trip to Big C. Big C is a Wall Mart-like superstore that is absolutely packed with Thais looking at new cell phones and buying washing machines. It’s impossible to walk without bumping shoulders, or in my case, bumping heads with shoulders. Falang food is everywhere, Auntie Anne’s and Mister Donut, KFC and McDonald’s, all screaming out their specials over loudspeakers, competing with each other for the limited cognizance of overloaded passerby. I go to Big C because it’s the only place I can get cat litter. Well, while one of my friends was in line for an ice cream cone, the other on his cell phone, I spotted a woman leading an older woman through the mall. The one being led wore black cloth on her shins, worn clothes, a black hat with beads and old French coins, and an expression of utter fear. Wonderland was scaring the living shit out of Alice.

And I thought about what that must be like, for the rest of the world to “develop” in front of your eyes.

And if you made it this far through the blog, congratulations, we’re obviously related. But I think my entire trip and subsequent blog can all be summed up a lot better by a few lyrics…

And what’ll you do now, my blue eyed son?
And what’ll you do now, my darlin’ young one?
I’m going back out before the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk through the depths of the deepest dark forest
Where the people are many, and they’re hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where their home in the valley meets the damp, dirty prison
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it
And I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
It’s hard, it’s hard, it’s hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall…

- Bob Dylan

To view the complete picture set from this trip, visit my Flickr page

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