Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Sinking Princess

The Sinking Princess is a boat, purchased for 850 dollars up on the Chinese border by three men (boys? the gray area is vast), two of whom came into my bar two nights ago. The American (from Vermont, the second Vermonter to pass through LPB this season) drank Beer Lao and by the end of the night had to be roused, loudly and forcibly, from the couch upstairs he'd snuck up to pass out on. The Frenchman drank pastis and didn't get nearly so drunk, but did disappear suddenly at the end of the night, leaving his friend to stumble down toward the Mekong and the boat alone.

But before last call came and I had to throw them out, they told me the story of the boat and made me very, very jealous. The American, I think, was the instigator. He crossed into the country from China and decided he wanted to do something different, to get off the tourist path, even the relatively lightly beaten Lao tourist path. He, I think, had the boat idea originally, and ended up advertising in a bar on the border for anyone who wanted to join in the adventure. The Frenchman and the other boat captain were the first to respond.

They then had a Lao person write "I want to buy a boat" in Lao on a piece of paper, which then passed around on the banks of the Mekong. The entire town got involved, as happens here, and in a few days they had purchased an old, long, flat bottom boat of the type you see up and down the Mekong. They tied it up on the bank and came out the next morning to find it full of water. Hence the moniker.

But they bailed it out and patched it up and set off down the goddamn Mekong river with a shitty map and an unreliable compass. Why, why have I never thought of this? (Aside from the fact that I've never travelled with a spare 800 bucks...but split between three people that's less than three hundred each...there were times I could have managed that.) They said they almost missed Luang Prabang--they just saw some buildings on the side of the river and thought they'd stop. I bought them each a drink and said I wanted to take a ride--but when I went out the next day, the motor wasn't running; the Vermonter and two Lao mechanics were squatted over it, prodding. I did get to wade in the river a bit, though, so all wasn't lost.

They didn't come in last night--I suspect they're already on their way south to Pakse and then Si Phan Don, the end of Laos. They're going to sell the boat again on border. Here's hoping they don't get sucked down over that big waterfall that leads into Cambodia.

So. Who wants to buy a boat?

Lao: Het/hate: mushroom
Khao bi-uhn: rice noodle soup
teacher (I think): ni koo.

Things I have been meaning to research and write about: illegal logging, laos's debt to vietnam, laos joining the wto. Someone scold me already and make me get to work.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


David and Richard, who were not lovers, apparently, but just travel buddies, have left, having mended their brief rift over Helmut, the handsome Peruvian with a German grandfather about whom we all speculated behind his back, who David fancied, who Richard kissed in front of my bar after too much Lao Lao. Keith from Dundee, who made the grisly transition from chef to operating room attendant, is also gone, traveling with "AA Gill is away," which I traded him for David Peace's 1974. He took with him Ian the Kiwi and the 14 little handbags he bought at the night market as party favors for his daughter's 9th birthday. And last, Army Sean (but not quite), who drank Johnny Black at my elbow all night for three night; who took me to lunch without realizing that personal questions make me cry, and to whom I owe my new understanding of what an M4 and an M16 are, really, and how long an RPG takes to arm and what gnarly but not necessarily lethal injuries one might sustain should one take said unarmed but high-velocity RPG in the chest plate.

I miss them.

Luckily, left are Jill, London/Paris/Antigua (not a bad life), who is 48 but looks ten years younger and who took home a cute 30 year old Brazilian the night before last. And of course Alex, from California--or is it Chicago--who lived for six months in a cave.

Yesterday I walked across the bamboo bridge to have lunch at the shady restaurant on the other side of the Nam Khan. There's a toll to cross--2000 kip, about 20 cents--and as I paid my toll, the tollmaster's slightly inebriated friend complimented my Lao and started chatting. Then he pressed his plastic cup of Lao Lao into my hand. "Drink, drink," he said. I drank, he smiled and drank, and I walked across the rickety bridge fortified. Today, as I sat at a low wooden table on the main street, waiting for my papaya salad to be pounded into shape, the papaya salad girl's friend sat across from me, drinking Beer Lao with ice. He handed me a half-full glass, from which I sipped gratefully (it was hot today). I handed it back to him half full. "No, no," he said, pushing it back to me. I swallowed the rest. This is drinking, Lao style. I like it; I missed it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Work update

Drinks I want to make you: Martinis (with gin; let's be serious here), mojitos (and caipirinhas and amaretto cherry sours--I like using the pestle), Negronis, any kind of whiskey.

Drinks I don't want to make you: White Russians (don't drink milk at a bar), coffee and tea (come on), anything with Malibu (grow up).

Getting a short pour: people who like to spout facts about the percentage of Americans with passports; people who like say things like "Any American who leaves the country is a good one;" people who assume I try to pass for Canadian when traveling--thuggish, almost psychotically friendly couple from the Isle of Mann, I'm looking at you.

Getting a little extra: Russians, Scots, Welshmen, Kiwis, fellow Americans, posh Londoners and their 18-year-old-boyfriends (Richard and David, I adore you. Don't ever leave.)

If you don't like Tom Waits: go home. The music isn't going to change.

Yes, I'll let you play your ipod, briefly, but I'm only going to pretend to like it.

Aussies: I love you, really. But this isn't Bondi Beach. Put your shirts on.

I'd recommend a shot of this.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Gangsters and gay bars

The bar has become the favorite of a gang of Russians in town for some kind of business. The shady type, I hope. They like to show up at ten thirty or so, order strange cocktail combinations, smoke cigars, and disappear after one drink. The ringleader is Sergei (of course), who has a belly and a beard and a low voice and jokes constantly and is, to all appearances, a jolly, fun-loving Ruskie on holiday. He insists on calling me Rachel (Rah-chelle); he lost a bet with his wife on what my correct name was, but he's sticking to his guns. I'm pretty sure his wife's name is Natasha. She's taller than him, thin and beautiful and also very friendly.

There are two schools of thought about the maybe-gangsters. One side says they're just nice, cheerful gangsters whose thug days are behind them, but who have definitely bashed a kneecap or two. The other thinks their generally friendly affect and the presence of the wives means they're just nice Russian businessmen. I'm on the fence. Last night, one of them tried to pay for his ten dollar tab with a hundred dollar bill. It took some explaning to get him to understand that I didn't have ninety dollars in change. His friend, also wanting to pay, learned that his tab was the equivalent of five bucks and smacked a ten on the bar and walked away. There was something about the sound of the slap, the idea of pushing money around, that gave his receding back some kind of glow. Had there been a crowd, I bet it would have parted for him.

I realize I'm talking about tens and hundreds here--small change, relatively. But this is Laos. It's all small change. Leaving a ten on a five dollar tab is something to gossip about. The biggest tab I've rung up at this place--which isn't one of the cheaper bars in town, mind you--was 74 dollars. But that was for two Aussies who had several drinks each and at one point bought Negronis for everyone in the place.

In other news, I've discovered that Luang Prabang has a gay bar--the Blue Ice bar. I went last night with a pretty-ish male friend. I was, predictably, snubbed in favor of his charms. It was something of a relief to be ignored again. I associate Asia with being kind of invisible, at least as an object of desire. But at the bar, of course, I'm percieved as a font of not only alcohol, but local wisdom. I'd forgotten what it's like back here. It's very confusing, being flirted with. When I can even tell it's happening. Which is rare. I mean, people just like to talk, right? Right?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rules of the road

There doesn't seem to be a hierarchy of vehicles here. In contrast to Taiwan, where size determines right of way and everyone bows to the primacy of the kamikaze blue trucks, everything on the road, wheeled or not, is treated as though it has a right to be there. In theory, this is a beautiful demonstration of equality and patience: dogs slowly amble in front of cars, motorbikes crawl politely around pushcarts propelled by ancients, everyone brakes at intersections to see what everyone else might be doing. In practice, the experience of biking up a hill while a van creeps along behind me, unwilling to do me the dishonor of trying to pass without giving me a three foot berth, is just wildly annoying and embarrassing. I have managed to hold myself to mutters only and not gesture frantically, swerving, they they should just fucking pass me already, PASS GODDAMN IT.

I mentioned this nice systemless system to Lisa last night, who generally concurred and told me that in the case of an accident on the road, the bigger vehicle is always held to be at fault. And while I understand how this is, technically, unfair, as a rule I quite like the idea of the big guys bearing more responsibility.

I realize I've been writing nothing but glowing things about this country for weeks. It's early days and the rose colored glasses are firmly in place and I do not apologize for it. Hand to heart, I write about exploitation and poverty and narrow-mindedness and frustration and manipulation soon. As soon as I, like, find it.

Some go both ways

I rode past this yesterday. I know what it points to, so I understood the message without really reading it--but after riding a few feet past it, I realized something was wrong and turned around to double check. It is a beauty, eh?

It says, of course, "The way up to Phousi stupa."

Pronounced "poosy." Half the businesses in town are named after this hill and this stupa. It's a joy to watch Westerners try to figure out how to pronounce any of them without saying a naughty word. Me, I still get a kick out of saying pussy all day.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Music and lyrics

Add caption
My neighbours are heavily into the early 90s. I never thought I'd hear Take That again. Or Take Five, or All-4-One, or a few gems from Extreme. (Xtreme?) It starts at about 8:30 and carries on all day. Every once in a while they throw in some Lao pop to shake things up.

Customer last night: "Don't you feel your youth burning away like a candle?"

1) Jesus, dude. 2) I'd feel more like that were I working an administrative job through a cold, dark winter, commuting in traffic two or so hours a day. But here? No.

Oddly, I think it was a come on. He was cute, but nobody's chances can survive putting "I'm writing a novel" and "stream of consciousness" that close together in a coversation. But hey, drink up, pal.

Slightly cloudy and ever so slightly cooler today. I'm wearing long sleeves before dark for the first time. Of course, the sleeves are pushed up past my elbows and I'm wearing flip flops, so don't get the wrong idea. The Lao folks on the street, mind you, are all in double and triple layers. It's at least 75 degrees.


beyond my wildest dreams
Today: two kids, maybe a brother and sister, riding their bikes down the middle of the street, talking animatedly, holding hands.

Last night I dashed out of the bar at 9:45 to get food. The night market and most of the cheap street food is wrapping up by then. The crepe sellers are closer and linger longer, but I really only want to have to eat sweetish crepes with egg and cheese in a pinch.

I was lucky—I caught the last somtam girl, and her buddy, who was packing up, sold me enough sticky rice to feed a family. Just for the hell of it—but no, really because I hate the thought of, perhaps, not having enough food—I bought some other weedy, spicy Lao thing in a bag to eat with the rice. The bar had gotten busy around 9:30, but L was fine when I got back and I'd been there since three, so I took my feast home where I could eat it by myself, with no one to mind the fermented stink of the pa dek in the papaya salad, or me letting my mouth hang open and air out in between bites, because of the heat.

It was a lot of heat, this time.

A lot of the days are differentiated by what I ate: baguette, somtam, soup. Yesterday I discovered a new snack: sticky rice dipped in egg, grilled, and stuck on a stick with some spicy paste spread over it. Schoolkids buy it over the short wall that separates their yard from the venders outside on the main road through the middle of the old town. Sometime last week I splurged and bought a mint lemonade ice from the posh bakery, which appeared to employ most of the ladyboys in town, but is, apparently, run by devout Christians who require their staff to pray before each shift and have banned the Lao sarong, mandating pants instead. I guess I won't go back there, except maybe to sniff around for scandal.

There are also minor daily errands. I've been to the post office, to the stationary shop, to the small market and the big market, to guesthouses around town to hand out fliers. I've hemmed a shirt. Yesterday I opened an account at the Lao Development Bank with the million kip I've accumulated. (I took a picture of my deposit slip with the six figures. Somehow, the crazy quantities of money here are still funny.) I opened the account with someone else's phone number and an address (Bah Khili) that's just the name of the block I live on; no one even looked at my passport. And this is what I love about the developing world, or at least this region of it—everything is personal. My visa was organized because somebody knew somebody in the visa office—this aspect of it, I know, is problematic, but in regular daily life it's awfully pleasant. Take your food, sit down, eat it, pay when you're done, not before. People remember me and bring me my usual. Short of cash—at the post office, mind you, not a pub: come back tomorrow. Bo pen gnang. Today I'll go back to the bank to get my account number—yesterday, lunch interrupted the process.

Lao of the day:

mehn-neh: tomorrow. This is the closest I can spell it in English, but the vowel sounds aren't made in English. They're like the French "le" I think. I'd need an umlaut, maybe. Purse your lips and say "er." That gets close.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


I jogged past a bar and saw a sign: "Football on Big Screen". I got very excited--then I read on. "Arsenal vs. Newcastle."


The Lao flag and the hammer and sickle are all over the guesthouses along the Mekong today--it must be a holiday or something. I love the hammer and sickle.

Fist sighting of Lao kids playing a game that seems to have similar rules to marbles, but with flip flops, in the street. Cute.

Forgotten Lao: bo pen gnang--never mind, no big deal, no problem. Same as mai pen lai in Thai.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Money cant

Today, as I was unlocking my bike, a motorbike with a small Lao woman driving and a big white guy riding behind pulled up and stopped in front of me. As the driver unbuckled her helmet, the passenger got off and took some money out of his pocket and tried to hand it to her. She ran away into one of the handicraft shops, giggling and shrieking “No, no, no.”

Part of the appeal of this country is that money really doesn't seem to trump everything. There are a few people who try to scam you, of course, but it's not nearly as omnipresent as it is in other parts of the region or the world. It's sometimes inconvenient, of course, but I like the fact that if the boatman hasn't planned on crossing the river today, he's not going to do it for one dollar or five or ten. In Thailand, he'd take you, but ask for extra for his trouble, of course. In Cambodia, he'd pocket your couple of bucks, take you across, and then as for the same again to get his boat back over. Just, you know, to see if he could get it. He'd go away again without a fuss if you said no, and it's hard to criticize Cambodia for that kind of thing, seeing how brutally they've been taught that you'd better get what you can in any given moment because everything can be taken away at any time.

But this was going to be about Laos. When I was traveling through the north of this country six years ago, Gabor and I wanted to get to a small town on a day when no bus was passing through. There happened to be a few other foreigners in the village we were in who wanted to move on as well, and we agreed on a price for a truck to take all of us on the six or eight hour journey. I remember some of our party getting frustrated as we picked up other Lao passengers on the way, who were obviously paying the driver a small fee as well—we had paid for the truck and we wanted the truck for ourselves, or some of us did. But the truck driver really wasn't trying to be shady—it's just that the idea of paying for and keeping all this big roomy truck for only a few people would have been pretty foreign here. This is a culture that shares and crams in and shares some more: women in trucks will enthusiastically pat a three-inch gap next to them and then grab you by the shoulders and press down until you're wedged in. I've had my hand pushed into communal plates of sticky rice. Traveling here, I got used to taking trips with strangers' heads resting on my knee or shoulder as we rocked together in the back of some truck, trying to dodge the drops of rotten vegetable juice seeping through the roof from the produce piled on top.

OK, typing this, I can't wait to do it all again. Anybody in?

My Lao has stalled a bit—I need to go out and recruit someone to teach me for an hour or so a few times a week. What I can say I say pretty well, which leads the people I talk to to grin and immediately start talking and asking me questions and laughing, at which point I have to flap my hands like an idiot and try to remember the word for “I don't understand” (bo kow jai) and “a little bit” (noi nung).

New words:

sin (short, falling tone): meat
sin (high tone): Lao dress or sarong.

Anee men gnang: what's that. (Anee means this or that).
Paeng si die: so expensive I die, or expensive until I die. Paeng means expensive; it's another one that's the same in Thai. This gets a lot of laughs.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sweeping ghosts

I woke up facing the wall, just before dawn, to a sound in the room. It was a sort of swishing or scuffling, as though someone was shuffling his feet, slowly, on the dark hard wood floors of my bedroom. The sound continued steadily, a clawed, gnarled, drooling ghost moving slowly toward the bed, perhaps dragging his entrails, like Phii Krasue in Thailand. I remembered that you're supposed to turn around and confront ghosts here, to ask them what they want, so after a few minutes of teeth chattering, I did. There was only the empty, brightening room.

Someone outside had been sweeping, of course. I had known this, in the same way I know I don't believe in ghosts. In North America. But over here, I'm not so sure.

Viva la difference

Laos is the land of public grooming. I really think people here actually stop themselves from, say, extracting their blackheads in the privacy of their own bathrooms and pack up and take the show on the road on purpose. Everywhere you turn there's solo, amateur blemish detonation, tandem nose picking, turn-by-turn plucking of various errant hairs. I saw a pedicure--but the nasty bits, not the artistic application of color--happening in the middle of the night market as I went to get my evening baguette.

So if I come home and casually ask you to, say, dig out some weird thing in my ear as we brunch, remember that I'm not insane. I've just been in the Lao sun too long.

Oh, and a ps: a young Norwegian couple came into the bar last night. A) Why aren't we all living in Norway? B) They both looked like me. It was weird. I guess we Vikings all look alike.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I'm trying to think of the adjective for this place. "Tranquil" rings tinny and artificial; "mellow" is closer but doesn't quite get there and sounds too drug-induced anyway. The image that sticks in my head is of being gently pressed upon from above by soft cotton fluff. "Muted," perhaps, is what I'm after.

And it's not just me--this town has an effect on everyone. People get stuck here. People spend days drifting around town, suddenly no longer in such a hurry to cross temples and treks off their lists. Johnny the American/Albanian has been here for twelve days and has no plans to leave. He's come to my bar three or four days in a row now. He says he may spend his whole trip here; that this town is "giving him what he needs."

As I was riding out to the bar to hook up to the internet and write this, it occured to me that some people might say it's all the Buddhism here. This is a town full of temples and monks all in the service of a religion that seeks dispassion, disengagement, detachment. Maybe some of it bleeds out across the town. Maybe this has to do with the slightly stupefying effect of being here. Maybe enlightenment is a place.

I certainly find all my desires tamped down. I see the same papaya salad man every day. That is the papaya salad I want; I don't crave variety; I am content rather than bored. I have, maybe, one drink behind the bar on most nights. Getting drunk seems sort of pointless and potentially unpleasant. The "work" I do during the day is slow and quiet and solitary, and that's also fine. I write, I ride my bike around in the sun, I look for new food to eat. I make plans to do the things there are to do in town, but when the day ends with them undone, I don't feel regret. I feel very little, to be honest. I have next to nothing--I have a backpack and a toothbrush and some clothes. I don't have my own room; I don't have my own bed. I can't think of what I might want right now. Or maybe, when you want for everything, no individual desire can really sting. Grabbing a fistful of hair and pulling doesn't really hurt, but plucking out one--ouch. Awkward metaphor, perhaps, but I'm just too chilled out right now to bother fixing it.

If I dig I can get to dissatisfaction, of course. I sometimes miss feeling more involved in the world--but living on a street a few blocks from some power center didn't really give me any more power than I have out here. Proximity isn't influence. Not in my case, anyway. And it's hard to maintain that burning need to change the world when, looking around me, there ain't nothing I'd change.

And there's the Mekong. Maybe Bodhi is the Mekong. There's something compelling about that river; it pulls like a spell; it's trance-like. I ride alongside it and stare. And it's just a wide, flat, brown river, but maybe that's it, that it is so absolutely itself, so much bigger than metaphors, so much simpler than symbols. It's just water, a lot of it, moving constantly and evenly; it doesn't change but the light on it does. It is full of things we can't see, but I'm content with the surface.

Boy. This has wandered into dangerously metaphysical realms, so I'll cut myself off. New tourism slogan: Luang Prabang. Get inside your own head.

(And not up my own ass, sniggerers. A, I'm looking at you.)

The electricity has just gone off. Perfect timing, eh? And, ah, who cares. It'll come back on at some point. In the meantime, I've got everything and nothing to do.