Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Winding out of Laos

...Laos wakes early to chickens and shouted voices. Music was coming from somewhere, and like all trad music I'd heard since while in country, was of the "more cowbell" variety. This was Saturday -- market day. The town had swelled with villagers from the surrounding hills, which explained the voices and all the boats moored at the bottom of the steps. Being hill-tribe people, there was an array of colorful clothes and interesting headwear. A few women had their hair tied up in interesting buns, many at the front. They had gathered to buy or sell veggies, tobacco, silks, and meat carried in bags or arranged like a crime scene. One woman stood chatting and smiling to a friend, holding bovine forelegs with the shinbones protruding. The old-timers, as expected, had beautiful faces.

We waited fro Liu to buy a couple of chickens for his sons, then boarded a boat for the seven hour trip upriver. It was a chilly morning, but warmed up once the mist burned off. It was a pretty smooth ride, the mountains reflected off the glassy surface, with occasional rapids, which the boat seemed to climb. We passed fishermen, people damming small streams, a boatload of monks, bathing buffalo, women placer panning gold, and naked kids having kung fu battles on the beaches, complete with high kicks and flying sand. Norman Lewis talks of the monoscape of the jungle. It is the perfect camouflage, as people literally just popped out of the dense foliage. Other times, in straining your eyes, you could make out these figures and small huts, like viewing a Chinese landscape painting.

We stopped in a few villages along the way. The first was a Tai-Dam weaving village, with a sign out front saying, "No Slash and Burn Village." The villagers rushed to hang their wares in front of the homes for us, the first customers of the day. A few women were at their looms, all four limbs moving independently like a drummer. One woman was boiling silk worms and pulling the yellow thread out of the pot, while her baby slept in her lap. She offered us a each a worm to eat, which tasted just as bad as the ones I had had in Korea 13 years before. I found one scarf that I liked, weaved in remarkable detail by a women in her '80s, with failing eyesight.

We had lunch in a different village, eating in front of the hospital, closed for the day. As we ate, a large palm frond fell onto the electrical wire. I doubt that the hospital will have power when the open tomorrow.

The third village was a very poor Khmu village, which we'd noticed by its small hospital built high on a cliff overlooking the river. It was a steep scramble up sliding sand. A couple of men were repairing fishing nets, one with great dexterity considering that his right hand was gone. He'd made the bad decision to fashion a knife from a UXO. Based on the reactions we got, not many farang have come here. There was the usual parade of kids, as well as a very old man who was brave enough to come up and take Miki's hand. We passed a few old women bathing, completely unconcerned with covering bare pendulous breasts with their sarongs.

Later, we did a pee stop on a remote stretch of sand. As I did my thing, I had a fantasy about Liu and Suan, the boat pilot, pulling away, marooning Miki and I here at the edge of the jungle. Would we be able to survive, to get out? My answer came a few kilometers upriver. The entire right band had been cleared of jungle, for a new road leading to the nearby Vietnam border.

In late afternoon, we arrived at Muang Khua. The waterfront was a construction site, and the rest of the town not much better. The hotels were large, characterless concrete boxes, and before them garbage and food was strewn everywhere. People walked by doing the patented projectile nostril clear. Definitely a Chinese town. There was a hard edge here that I hadn't yet found in Laos, both from the Chinese and Vietnamese locals, and the tourists. Greeting two foreign men with a "Hello," one answered with a gruff "Bonjour." He was of the age to have possibly fought at Diem Bien Phu, 50km away. A daily bus leaves here at 6 a.m.

We met our driver from the first day, who said that the town "isn't beautiful, too noisy." We concurred. A friend of his had a guest bungalow in a village one hour away. "Great view," he promised.

We arrived in a village flanking the road, like a hundred others during the last 3 weeks. Our bungalow turned out to be a pile of blankets and a mosquito net in the back corner of a shop. Um, no. Had I been traveling with the driver from point A to point B, and these were the digs, offered up at, charitably, $1 a night, I'd be fine. The trouble was compounded by the driver's buying our dinner at a stall beside the road, whose meats were of an age slightly less mysterious than that of Dick Clark. Again, had this been part of the flow of travel, I'd be a good sport. But we'd pre-paid $70 a day, and found the food and accommodations sub-par. So we mutinied. We asked to go on to Oudomxai. Liu and the driver acquiesced, but there seemed to be some unspoken tension there. I hated this loss of trust, after three days, of what felt (naively perhaps) like friendship. Once the driver turned up, the vibe changed. There was a definite aggressiveness in both his manner and technique. What was unfortunate was that Liu seemed to have shifted sides, in deference to him. He was no longer in charge , it seemed. And our tour had begun to suffer -- the itinerary became less interesting, the amenities, less amenable.

We reached a sort of armistice over dinner in Oudomxai, the laughter and good feeling returning. What rankled though was my pride. I didn't want the driver to think I'd refused the "bungalow" because I was just another spoiled tourist looking for comfort. It was all a matter of me wanting services equaling payment rendered. Yet even this left me uneasy about how conservative I've become. Almost as amends, we wound up in what was perhaps the nicest accommodations of the whole trip -- a Chinese hotel, that while reasonably plush, couldn't offer protection from the sound of a loud TV echoing from down the hall...

...Oudomxai is a Chinese town, and the market reflected it, in the broccoli and bok choy, in the imported smokes. There were a few hill tribes about, but more often there were men in Mao caps. We drove south, stopping at a couple of uninspiring villages. One of them was a cold place, the people not interested in us at all, not returning our smiles or greetings. It was almost like an unspoken comment on cultural tourism being a trip to a human zoo. Miki were by now tired of these village visits, uncomfortable with this very point. Far better to spend a week or a month with them, offering work as an exchange for food, and hopefully, mutual understanding. A lot of these villagers are obviously unhappy with busloads of tourists dropping by to gawk and shoot photos. We quickly took the hint and fucked off.

In a single roadside stream, people were washing farm equipment, their cars, themselves. An old man smoked a cigarette through a waterpipe. Tall corn stood in rows on badly deforested hills. Banana trees extended their fingers to high-five the sky.

Our driver made quite a few stops on the way for his own personal needs--for rice, sugarcane, ice. I didn't mind much, but we spent perhaps a cumulative total of a couple hours waiting on him. I like him, despite myself.

The hills dropped, then we were at Pakbeng, a single dusty road leading up from the Mekong. The town itself wasn't much to look at, but the surrounding hills, and the river, added charm. Most of the hotels and cafes had waterfront decks, on which we had a pleasant way to pass the afternoon. There were only a handful of foreigners about, including one who lounged on a bed sitting on the veranda of a guesthouse next door. Farang began to arrive en masse in the late afternoon, trudging up the slope laden with bags like pack animals.

Our own guesthouse was pretty nice, a wooden affair of dark teak. It was noisy though, mainly from the karaoke coming up from the street. Judging solely from the thumping bass patterns, Laos has only 5 songs. And Lao people are outright bad at singing. One could argue that the pitch of the music is different from what we know in the West, but most of the singers (ahem) I heard were miles off the key of the song itself. As the bass thumped on, I began to curse the Japanese for inventing karaoke in the first place. One cafe offered a diversion in some Thai radio. I found it amusing mainly because the top news story was about predicted tapioca shortages in 2010. We live in interesting times...

On the turntable: "Still Swinging" (Various)

No comments: